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Thou Shalt Chase Thy Rabbits Logically and with Stoicism: Laurence Horn at UCSC

Laurence Horn

Laurence Horn

Very few people have the honor of having a topic in the philosophy of language named after them, and even fewer dabble in research on teaching canines the meanings of words. UCSC was recently the host of one such scholar, Laurence Horn, when he came to give a colloquium jointly hosted by the UCSC Humanities Division’s Department of Linguistics and the Santa Cruz Linguistics and Philosophy Group (SCLP).

Professor Horn is perhaps most famously known for the eponymously named “Horn Scales” which are ways of discussing the relative strength of words such as “some,” “many,” “most,” and “all.” However, he is also colloquially known as “Mr. Negation,” as his book “A Natural History of Negation” (1989, CSLI) is the authoritative work in the history, logic, and philosophy of negation. Furthermore, in recent years Professor Horn has begun teaching a course at Yale University titled “Language, Sex, and Gender,” wherein he brings the tools of modern analytic linguistics to bear on claims about differences in the speech of men and women in different contextual environments.

His talk, entitled “On the Contrary: Pragmatic Strengthening and the Disjunctive Syllogism” took place on Friday, November 18th at UCSC. In it, Professor Horn outlined various ways in which negative inferences are made in language use from limited evidence. For instance, children presented with both a doll and a megaphone, then instructed to pick up the megaphone will do so correctly. However, these children presumably have not acquired the word “megaphone” yet — how are they able to perform this task? The children reason from the contrary: they know “doll,” and see an object which is not a doll. Therefore, it must be a megaphone. Professor Horn showed that this reasoning pervades choices in natural language, from the kinds of words languages have to the tawdryness of expressions such as “is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

One of the foundations of Professor Horn’s research has always been its interdisciplinary nature — his book on negation cites Chomksy, Buddha, and Freud, just to name a few — and his talk was no different in that regard. In addition to outlining the ways in which contrariety pervades natural language, Horn also showed that it is influential in the reasoning of higher mammals, as well. First noticed by the Greek Stoic Chrysippus of Soli, Horn documented, canines can reason by exclusion when learning hunting strategies or labels for items: given a choice between two trails on a hare hunt, a lack of smell along one trail is enough to send the dog tearing down the other without so much as a cursory sniff. Part of Professor Horn’s work dovetails with modern experimental reproductions of this finding, thus bringing modern experimental psychology to bear on reasoning first codified by the ancient Greeks.

This was Horn’s third visit to UCSC, where Professor of Linguistics and SCLP organizer at UCSC Donka Farkas as well as Professor of Linguistics and Dean of Humanities William Ladusaw are among Professor Horn’s longtime colleagues. However, this is the first time he has come to speak in the SCLP Distinguished Visitor Series. This research cluster, funded by the Institute for Humanities Research, has hosted a Distinguished Visitor Speaker Series at UCSC since 2004. Distinguished Faculty in philosophy of language and linguistics come to speak as part of this series triennially, and throughout the school term the cluster provides an environment for the research of its member faculty and graduate students in both disciplines.

The work of SCLP has traditionally combined aspects of both formal linguistics and the philosophy of language to bring together researchers from both fields in an intellectually stimulating environment. The topics discussed at these meetings have ranged from the philosophical content of proper names to the neural basis of consciousness. The consensus this group holds is that it is only via an interdisciplinary approach to meaning that either philosophers or linguists can make the most progress. Thus, in the coming years SCLP hopes to not only bring more philosophers to UCSC, but also to bring the philosophy of language to a wider audience in the UC community.

The Santa Cruz Linguistics and Philosophy group is a research cluster of the UC, Santa Cruz Institute for Humanities Research, funded by the UC Humanities Network. Matthew A. Tucker is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Linguistics at UCSC and a UC Network Correspondent on linguistics events.

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