More on interpretation


From a piece by Jonathan Wolff on academic humour (hat tip: the marvellous Leiter Reports):

The logician in question, the late George Boolos, used to give a lecture in which he went through a number of popular phrases that, when analysed in terms of standard logic, mean something quite different from how we normally understand them.

The example everyone remembers is the popular song lyric “everybody loves my baby, but my baby don’t love nobody but me”. From this, it logically follows that “I am my baby”.

I guess the idea is you formalise this as:

x. loves(x, My Baby)
x. loves(My Baby, x) → x = Me

In this formalisation, loves(My Baby, My Baby) follows from the first premise. Then from the second premise, we get My Baby = Me.

Hopefully Most Reasonable People restrict the domain over which the first x quantifies…

ETA: Actually I should have known there’d be individual differences in interpretation. See the comments.


3 thoughts on “More on interpretation”

  1. Thanks for picking this up! But if I have understood you, your diagnosis seems wrong to me. Why shouldn’t my baby love herself? And indeed, her mother. I think there is an equivocation in the argument in its natural understanding – in the first premise love is understood in its widest sense; in the second in the sense of romantic love. Therefore in the ordinary understanding the argument is not valid after all.

  2. I see what you mean. Perhaps my interpretation involves a polluted notion of love! Is your interpretation something like this then?

    ∀x. loves_wider(x, My Baby)
    ∀x. loves_romantic(My Baby, x) → x = Me
    ∀x,y. loves_romantic(x,y) → loves_wider(x,y)

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