The Grice Club


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Saturday, February 11, 2017

"If you can't put it in symbols, it's not worth saying" -- Grice to Strawson


In a post entitled, "Grice and Carnap on the value of formalism," at "Carnap Corner", R. B. Jones writes:

"Speranza's post connecting Dick and (of course) Grice to Carnap contains a quote from Grice which is reminiscent of something which Carnap says in his "Intellectual Autobiography". Grice said, apparently, : "If you cannot put it in symbols it's not worth saying." Rather uncompromising! Long before him Carnap (a more radical enthusiast for symbolic logic) more modestly (when writing about how he felt early in his PhD research) wrote: "When I considered a concept or proposition occurring in a philosophical or scientific discussion, I thought that I understood it clearly only if I felt that I could express it, if I wanted to, in symbolic  language." That was published 1963, but talks about his views just after the first world war.

Great quote!

Of course we may analyse it further:

I would actually rephrase it!

It is, like Grice's utterance, a conditional. And I will use the present tense, to make it, er, present:


i. I understand a proposition only if I can express it in symbols.


What was the context of Grice's utterance? God knows.

Ryle, the editor of Mind, was impressed with reports of Strawson's lectures on logic, and asked him to publish a logical essay. On Referring attacked Russell on 'the'. Russell claimed that any sentence referring to non-existent or contradictory entities (such as unicorns, round squares, or the king of France) can be logically analysed into an assertion that a particular thing exists and has certain properties - the sentence turns out to be simply false.

But Strawson argued that sentences are not in themselves true or false, simply meaningful; it is the statements that they are used to make that are true or false. "The King of Frase, simnce is wise" could have been used to make a true or a false statement during the years of the French monarchy, but after France became a republic, the sentence "The King of France is wise" used in a fairy story, historical legend, or joke, did not give rise to a question of truth or falsity. 

Strawson said Russell had failed to distinguish between a sentence and a statement, and had confused referring or mentioning with meaning. 

Merely by implying that someone existed, Russell had presupposed his existence. He had distorted the nature of how "we actually use and understand" language in an attempt to squash its complexity into uniform usage. 

Strawson had struck a blow for ordinary language logic. Formal logic he considered "an indispensable tool indeed for clarifying much of our thought, but not, as some are tempted to suppose, the unique and sufficient key to the functioning of language and thought in general". When his erstwhile tutor Paul Grice declared, "If you can't put it in symbols, it's not worth saying," Strawson retorted: "If you can put it in symbols, it's not worth saying."

It may relate to Witters.

If you can't put it in symbols, it's not worth saying. Witters thought that 'in symbols' means "logical form". The logical form incorporates the _sense_ of what you put in symbols. You "SAY" the logical form; you "IMPLICATE" what is NOT contained in the logical form. Example II ("CONVERSATIONAL implicature") "Some students left early" (in fact _all_ did). Again, there's no way "Some, if not all" can be but in symbols when everybody understands that "some" _says_ "if not all". Note that Grice is talking about what is "not worth saying". Note that he is dismissing Witters's notion of "worth showing" -- and rightly so.

JL wrote

"What you can't put it in symbols, it's not worth saying" -- or _showing_.

------------------------------- Graffito contra Witters.

'When his erstwhile tutor Paul Grice declared, "If you can't put it in symbols, it's not worth saying," Strawson retorted: "If you can put it in symbols, it's not worth saying."'
One may test Grice's (and indeed Carnap's) motto by trying to putting 

ii. Horses run swiftly, so, horses run.

iii. Every boy loves some girl.

into 'symbols.' 
Surely these simple, although perhaps
rarely used, English expressions, (ii) and (iii) are not difficult to understand.
But putting them into logical notation, e.g., the logic of "Principia Mathematica" (or Quine's "Methods of Logic", or the 'symbolic language' Carnap is having in mind when writing his PhD) is no easy

 Indeed, 'Every boy...' is, shall we say, ambiguous as it stands, between 

iv. Every boy loves some particular girl (Sally).


v. Every boy loves some girl (or other).

This alleged ambiguity is easily cleared up in plain speech.

But it
wasn't until Frege that 'Every boy...' could be disambiguated
using formal notation. 

 So one may wonder if Grice's and Carnap's adage might help us understand how they would have gone about it. 

And if you wonder how Grice or Carnap ever managed to say, 'I love you,' to their respective wives,
using 'symbols.' of course, recall that they could always say it 'with flowers'! 

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