Field of Science

Illegal Philosophy

One of the most famous thought problems from the philosophy of language in the latter half of the 20th century turns out to have legal ramifications. To illustrate that what is meant is not always the same thing as what is said, H. Paul Grice created a hypothetical letter of recommendation for a would-be professor of philosophy. There are many variants of this letter around these days (it's a popular example). Here is one:

To whom it may concern:

Jones dresses well and writes grammatical English.

Professor So-and-so

That is what is said. What is meant is clearly that Jones is no good at philosophy. Explaining in a rigorous fashion how we come to that conclusion has occupied a number of researchers for half a century and no doubt will continue to do so for some time. This is despite the fact that such letters appear to be illegal in California (the state in which Grice worked).

In a footnote to a recent book chapter, the linguist Laurence Horn cites a court case (Randi M. v. Livingston Union School District, 1995 Cal. App. LEXIS 1230 (Dec. 15, 1995)), in which it was found that "a statement that contains only favorable matters and omits all reference to unfavorable matters is as much a false representation as if all the facts stated were untrue."

The moral of this story may be that philosophy is great, but check with a lawyer before trying to apply it to the real world. 

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