Semantics of ‘so gay’

Martin asked:

I lost my best friend of 18+ years (we’d known each other since kindergarten) because I befriended a person he hated. Fast forward to today, and I’ve made a ton of new friends with this group of people who love and accept me into their circle. I’ve become especially close with this one couple and their daughter (I think of her as my niece, even if its not a biological/ family relationship).

My problem is that this couple commonly use the word ‘gay’ to refer to something lame (i.e. ‘that’s so gay’). As a person who believes strongly that everyone is entitled to equal rights, this bothers me. Not just because it’s hurtful to gay people, but also because I fear that their daughter might pick up on this and start thinking this way about gay people. Or if she one day determines she’s gay herself, this could do a lot of mental damage to her if she feels she might not be accepted by her parents.

The thing is, do I have the right to bring this topic up to them? As much as I love their daughter, I’m not her parent, and thus I often think what right do I have to interfere in this way? Plus, I don’t want to lose the friendship of this couple either by bringing this issue up in the wrong way and thus seeming like I’m attacking them somehow. But then again, I sometimes wonder if I should even be friends with people who think this way, even though I am very close with them.

What should I do?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Firstly, I need to warn you that as it says on our home page  ‘We are not agony aunts, and we can’t promise that you will like the advice that we give.’ (At the time of writing, our ‘Problem Removal’ service is taking an indefinite break.)

I see this as a question in the philosophy of language, which covers the semantics of ‘thick’ concepts (descriptive notions whose application entails moral praise or censure) as well as problems of the ambiguous meanings of ‘ambiguity’ and also the sociology and politics of language use.

I asked my daughter, a Law student and a confessed ‘social justice warrior’ about this and she said, ”That’s so gay’ is so early 2000.’ Young people (or perhaps those who are more politically aware) are waking up to the fact that a comment that has such a rich range of meanings — not just ‘lame’ but odd, badly judged, fucked up, unfair (as in, ‘It was so gay that we got extra homework’) — has an inherent problem.

It’s no use protesting that this is just a case of one word with two meanings (‘I met Joe at the bank’, ‘The batsman went for a duck’). What matters is how the use of this word is perceived.

A few years ago there was a minor furore in the US over the use of ‘black ice’ to denote a dangerous weather condition. Some persons of colour took the term ‘black’ as having a negative connotation, although the intention was to describe ice that is difficult to notice on the road (black not white and shiny). In this case, I believe, reason prevailed. The etymology, the reason for choosing the word ‘black’ rather than ‘invisible’ (which is simply not true, you can see black ice if you look closely) was clear enough.

With ‘so gay’ the case is different. Personally, I am sorry that after the conversation with my daughter I can no longer talk about something being ‘so gay’ without a twinge of conscience. That doesn’t mean that I will never, ever say it. Sometimes, when you are lost for words about a situation that you find yourself in, there’s only one phrase that comes to mind. It’s just so gay.

Why is that? Why is it that certain words are like an addiction? Another addictive word is ‘cool’. Despite everything that has been said against the word, people still insist on describing something as ‘cool’. Suppose you could never say that something was cool, ever again. The beauty of the word ‘cool’ or the phrase ‘so gay’ is its gargantuan vagueness, while at the same time you have a feeling that in this particular situation you are meaning something quite precise, and what’s more your audience grasps this evanescent meaning — which varies with the context.

What should you do? Nothing. At the present time — attitudes can change — this is not a clear cut or even a borderline case of prejudice against gay people. That’s the consensus, so far as I am able to determine it. Your adopted niece is not being brainwashed. If she is gay, she is unlikely to conclude on that evidence alone that her parents are anti-gay. Either way, she may well decide, as my daughter has done, that all things considered it is better to make the effort to find another phrase to describe things that are just ‘so gay’.


The meaning of ‘the’

Manny asked:

I have a very basic question about Frege’s object/ concept distinction. Please don’t make fun of me as I’m new to early analytic philosophy. This question has been bugging me for a while, so I’d appreciate a thorough answer.

In sentences like ‘the cat is grey’ or ‘the cat is in the park,’ do the words ‘the cat’ designate an object? If you were to formalize these sentences, I would think it would go as something like: there is some x such that x is a cat and x is grey/in a park. There wouldn’t be a uniqueness clause, I would think.

If the words that designate an object have to pick out something unique, does that mean the words ‘the cat’ cannot designate an object (since they are not specified enough)? If they don’t designate an object, then what is their logical status?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Thanks, Manny, for this very interesting question. (I know that on the ‘Ask a Question’ page you called yourself ‘Kant student’, but we thought Kant = Immanuel = Manny. OK?)

The real topic is Bertrand Russell’s classic article, ‘On Denoting’ (1905), which is essential reading for anyone looking to explore the roots of analytic philosophy. But more about that in a minute.

Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) is a philosopher worth taking the effort to study for a Kant student. Kant’s notion of a concept as ‘bringing intuitions under a rule’ corresponds to Frege’s idea that a concept expression is a unique kind of function. When you apply the mathematical function ‘+2’ to the natural number 5, you get 7. The number 5 is the argument of the function +2 (I’m not bothering with precise use of quotation marks because it just gets silly) while 7 is the value of the function for that argument.

In a similar way, Frege thought, when you apply the function T/F to the proposition, ‘Paris is the capital of France’ you get the value T. When you apply it to ‘Paris is the capital of Germany’ you get the value F. Propositional functions have just two values T or F. Let’s say it is true that Felix is in the park. The concept ‘…is in the park’ is true of Felix but, say,  false of Fido. For Felix, the value of the corresponding proposition is T, while for Fido the value is F. In Kantian terms, to grasp the concept, ‘…is in the park’, is to be able to apply this ‘rule’ to different objects and decide whether the rule applies or fails to apply in a given case.

Frege would not formalize your example, ‘the cat is in the park’ as ‘there is some x…’ because this states that there is ‘a’ cat in the park, which is a very different claim. Frege’s groundbreaking discovery of first-order predicate calculus (in ‘Begriffsschrifft’ 1879) parses expressions such as ‘a cat’ as not being referring expressions at all, despite appearances, but as functioning as ‘second-order’ concepts, that is to say, concepts that are true or false of other ‘first-order’ concepts. If Felix is in the park, then the second order concept, ‘some x’ is true of the first-order concept, ‘…is a cat and is in the park’.

Syntactically, the definite description ‘the F’ appears to function as a referring expression. The Pastor is in the garden. Pastor James is in the garden. James is in the garden. All these say the same thing (they are all true or all false depending on the facts) although, as Frege argues in ‘On Sense and Reference’ (1892) we can detect a difference in sense, but not reference, in the three referring expressions I have just used. (We don’t need to go into that here.)

But what about referring expressions that lack a reference? In mathematics,  you cannot talk of ‘the x’ unless you have already proved the existence of x. Any referring expression in mathematics must be guaranteed a reference. For example, if you use an expression for a natural number, then you know that the number in question exists, provided you are following the rules for writing down numbers, e.g. in Arabic notation, 1,2,3… .

Frege saw the existence of definite descriptions lacking a referent in natural language as merely showing that natural language is ‘defective’. In many ways, it is not a precise instrument — words can be vague, ambiguous, elliptical — but it works well enough for practical purposes. He wasn’t bothered by that, as his main interest was the language of mathematics. For Russell, by contrast, this was a glaring problem and an obstacle to any serious attempt to understand the nature of thought itself.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize Russell’s article ‘On Denoting’ — I don’t want to spoil the pleasure. The key claim is that, following the example of Frege who saw that ‘a cat’ is not a referring expression even though syntactically it appears to be one, neither is ‘the cat’ a referring expression. When you state, ‘The cat belonging to my sister is in the park’ (better example), you are making two claims, that my sister owns just one cat, and that the cat in question is in the park. So it turns out that ‘the cat…’ is treated similarly to ‘a cat…’ as both involving second-order concepts. (Russell doesn’t give an altogether fair account of Frege in his article, but the language of ‘propositional functions’ in the article is wholly derived from Frege.)

Remarkably, analytic philosophers are still debating Russell’s theory of definite descriptions. You wouldn’t believe the amount of literature that has grown around this one topic. What would Frege have said? I don’t think he would have got the point. Why all the fuss? In that difference in attitude, lies the gap that separates Frege’s limited view of philosophy and its uses, from the rise of analytic ambition.


‘If God made it, it must be good’ puzzle

Kevin asked:

I read the following. “If God is good and God made everything, then everything God made is good.”

It has been a long time since my philosophy class in college. I am not wanting to debate the statements, I am just trying to determine if the logic being used is appropriate. It looks like the sentence is saying if A=B and A=C, then B=C. Is that appropriate logic?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The logic of identity or equivalence would be valid in this case if one takes ‘God’ to refer to the Universe, and ‘good’ to refer to Goodness (as such). If God is Goodness and God is the Universe then the Universe is Goodness. QED.

Speaking as an atheist — not having a particularly strong stake in this debate — the statement is heresy (I forget which one) and a few hundred years ago you would be burned at the stake for it. In any case, it’s obvious that the heretical interpretation is not the one intended.

Let’s start from the beginning. I am holding a potato. God made this potato. Therefore this potato is good. However, looking at the potato, feeling it, smelling it, it is clear that this potato is bad. When I cut it open, the inside is black and slimy. This potato is good for nothing except throwing in the garbage bin or waste disposal.

Does that contradict the statement, ‘Everything God made is good’? Only if you are a simpleton. It is good that potatoes go bad, because that means they are able to decompose. If potatoes were not capable of decomposition then they could not be cooked and eaten. They’d be like plastic. Is that what you want, a God who makes plastic potatoes?

The same can be said of a human being. This man is bad. Would it be better if men and women were immune to badness? Then they would have characters that were immune to development, progress or change. They would be like robots. And that would not be so good.

— If you are a theologian, games like this are second nature. You are never going to convince a ‘true believer’ that anything in creation is not as it should be. Equally, no-one, except a simpleton or a true believer, looking at the facts with a cool eye, could find inspiration for belief in the continuous, needless, slaughter of innocents splashing across our TV screens on a daily basis.


What’s so bad about suffering?

Carla asked:

Is there any normative ethical claim that says that one should reduce suffering of others? Is there a strong claim, that suffering and pain can be considered bad and must therefore be avoided?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

If someone is suffering, and I have the power to reduce that suffering, and no worse consequences would follow if I reduced that person’s suffering, and the person in question doesn’t deserve to suffer as punishment for some heinous crime — ought I to attempt to reduce the suffering? Is that a moral law or axiom?

Intuition suggests that it might be. It is hard to justify allowing avoidable undeserved suffering. On the other hand, doesn’t that assume that ‘suffering’ is always bad? That’s the assumption I would question. Let’s say you are studying hard for the exam, and the effort is really killing you. For your own good, I want you to suffer. You have been far too easy on yourself in the past, and this is your big test, your opportunity to step up to the mark. I wouldn’t want to take that away from you!

The example I have given against the normative view that one ought always to strive to reduce the suffering of others is consistent with saying that, other things being equal, suffering and pain are intrinsically undesirable things that we have a possibly defeasible reason to avoid. But is even that true?

It seems obvious. But like good philosophical questions, the more you think about it the more you wonder. Why are suffering and pain intrinsically bad? What is ‘painful’ about pain? Couldn’t you learn to enjoy pain, love it? Would it still be pain, or would it become a pleasurable sensation?

It’s a fallacy to argue that if you enjoy pain, then the ‘pain’, for you, becomes pleasurable. Not at all. If you’re a masochist, then you want the pain to be painful (for whatever psychological reasons, say, your needing to ‘act out’ some punishment that you imagine you deserve).

Similarly with other forms of suffering. Maybe the only time you really feel alive — really connected to the world around you — is when you are suffering. The more you suffer, the truer your vision of reality becomes. That’s why fakirs and mystics proverbially go out into the desert to starve and dehydrate themselves to the point of death.


Challenging the law of excluded middle

David asked:

‘p or not p’

used with a disjunctive syllogism.

Is this begging the question?

And is that statement ‘p or not p’ a true dichotomy? 

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Jones, sales assistant in an East London grocery store, enlisted for King and Country just in time for the Battle of the Somme in 1916. But he never went ‘over the top’. The day before a sniper’s bullet put an end to his young life.

We will never know whether or not Jones was brave. However, using the law of excluded middle it seems we can make the following deduction:

1. Either Jones was brave or he was not.

2. If Jones was brave, then there was some fact about Jones’ physical or mental state that constituted his disposition to act bravely if and when the occasion arose.

3. If Jones was not brave, then there was some fact about Jones’ physical or mental state that constituted his disposition to fail to act bravely if and when the occasion arose.

4. Either way (the disjunctive syllogism), there was some fact about Jones’ physical or mental state that constituted his bravery or lack thereof.

The argument is a fallacy.

There might, or might not, exist in the yet untested Jones, a physical or mental state that his bravery or the lack thereof consists in. We simply do not know. You can’t use pure logic to prove an existence claim.

The correct response is to point out that in this case, both the statement ‘Jones was brave’ and the statement ‘Jones was not brave’ share a common assumption. All the disjunctive syllogism (‘or-elimination’ in propositional logic) shows is that there is a shared assumption.

However, it would not be correct to draw the conclusion that the law of excluded middle should be rejected. What it shows that, ‘Jones was not brave’ is not the correct way of stating the proper, or full negation of ‘Jones was brave’.

What we should say, instead, is that, ‘Either Jones possessed the disposition to act unbravely, or there does not exist any such disposition, or Jones does not exist, or there is no such thing as bravery (just as there is no such thing as being a ‘witch’), or… (anything else you can think of).’

What is interesting about the Jones example is that the celebrated Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett in his seminal article, ‘Truth’ (reprinted in ‘Truth and Other Enigmas’ 1978), uses it as leverage against realism about meaning and truth. An anti-realist rejects the law of excluded middle.

I think he was wrong about this (as I argued in my doctoral thesis The Metaphysics of Meaning) but that’s a discussion for another occasion.


Perplexing questions

Iris asked:

1. Is there a view from somewhere?

2. How many angels can dance at the tip of the needle?

3. If I have a pen right now prove to me it does not exist or it does exist.

4. If two boxers pray at night before their fight, whom will God hear?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Very good, Iris.

1. Thomas Nagel’s book The View From Nowhere (1989) makes the case that there is such a thing as a ‘view from nowhere’. He assumes, without argument, that there is a ‘view from somewhere’. No human being occupies the view from nowhere, but we can conceive, in the abstract, what that would be like. So it would be turning the tables to raise the question whether, in fact, there IS a view from somewhere. You and I assume that there is. I have a perspective or view on the world, so do you. Those views are ‘real’ so far as you and I are concerned. Could we be wrong? how? Maybe you and I don’t really ‘exist’ as separate subjects of experience. All we are, is manifestations of IT, the singular consciousness and ultimate reality of the universe. — That would take some proving.

2. If you look at the tip of a needle under a microscope, it looks quite large. So it all seemingly depends on how small angels are. They could be tiny. Or does it? The point made in the original question (posed in the Middle Ages) is that, according to Thomistic metaphysics, unlike human beings each angel possesses a unique Aristotelian form. By contrast, you and I share the same Aristotelian form, the form of ‘human’. Objects that share the same form cannot exist in the same place at the same time. Objects that have different forms (e.g. ‘statue’ and ‘lump of bronze’) can. So unlike humans, a potentially infinite number of angels can exist in the same physical place. — If you believe in angels.

3. If your statement, ‘I have a pen right now’ is true then it follows, as a matter of logic, that the ‘pen I have right now’ exists. If it is true, as a matter of logic, that your pen exists, then it is false, as a matter of logic, that your pen does not exist. Of course, you could be lying, but that possibility isn’t relevant to the question you raised.

4. If both boxers are good Jews, or Christians, or Muslims (or, insert your favourite religion) then God hears both their prayers and decides for the best. It might be ‘for the best’ that you lose a fight, because if you had won, you would have put off your retirement from boxing, which would have led to your early death from injury. But then, of course, when you pray (If you are a good… whatever) you don’t pray to win, you pray that the outcome should be ‘for the best’. You don’t ask God for favours at the expense of someone else — do you?


The good Brahmin

Lovely asked:

If the old woman lives affluently do you think the Brahmin will not want the life of the old woman?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Voltaire’s story of the Good Brahmin raises a deeper, and to me more interesting question than John Stuart Mill’s ‘Why is it better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied?’ (from Utilitarianism 1861).

The Brahmin has been seeking all his life for the joy that the old lady gets from her religion — a joy for whose loss no material comforts can compensate. He has sought, as philosophers do, the way of understanding. Yet as philosophers know well, the search for understanding brings dissatisfaction and pain.

So we are not comparing human happiness or pleasure with that of a non-human animal. These are two paradigmatically human lives. (See Gideon Smith-Jones’ answer to Canton Not all pleasures are the same.)

On my interpretation, the Brahmin has set his heart on ‘finding the answer’, and now, too late, he realizes his all-too-human limitations. (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry would have something to say about that.) And yet he would not trade places with the old woman.


You have to know why a person would choose to pursue a life in philosophy. This is something I have been explaining to my Pathways students for over two decades. They have not chosen the ‘life of a philosopher,’ but merely to study the subject for pleasure or the other rewards that study brings. Yet they understand.

The way of philosophy does not promise enlightenment. That wasn’t part of the deal. There is nothing in this or any other world that is worth trading for the understanding a philosopher seeks. That’s what you believe. To survive disappointments, battle scarred, and still press on is your badge of honour.

‘My pain is mine: I will not give it up.’

Something must also be said about Voltaire’s jaundiced view of philosophy — the same Voltaire who satirized the philosopher Leibniz in his novel Candide. Voltaire was a brilliant writer but a great philosopher he was not. I would hazard a guess (only a guess) that the pain he describes is his own secret pain. Not good enough to reach the heights of philosophy, he settled for ‘brilliant writing’ instead.

He would have been better off with a yacht and a Lamborghini and pad in St Tropez.

Whom would you prefer to be: Leibniz or Voltaire? or take the money?!

It’s a question I ask myself on occasion.