Monday, July 01, 2013

Three logicians walk into a bar ...

I guess this is a cross between an analytical philosophy joke, an ancient philosopher's puzzle, and a brain-teaser from the Sunday funnies (via Justin Wolfers, Matt Yglesias, and Brad DeLong).  Anyway, it's ingenious.  Yes, it works.  Figure it out.

I recall that when I was a kid in elementary school, teachers would often ask the class questions like, "Does everyone want X?" or "Does anyone want X?"  My reaction, which I never actually said aloud, was:  "How should I know?  I only know what I want or don't want.  Even if I want something, I can't possibly know whether everyone else does. And even if I don't want it, someone else might."

Of course, the teachers were just speaking imprecisely, as adults often do, and we all sort-of-understood that.  But under special circumstances, it's hypothetically possible to answer such questions in literal and logically precise terms. This shows how.

—Jeff Weintraub

Follow-up:  Mike Lewis, responding by e-mail, makes a good point:
Question could be asked so as to suggest the answer. See Jedi mind trick.
For example, classroom is asked if everyone wants to take a nap. Nice way of saying it's nap time.

To which I responded:  Precisely.  Like a lot of expressions used all the time in everyday life (and not only with children), the questions aren't meant to be taken literally.

But when I was a kid, I found it difficult to ignore the fact that, taken literally, the questions didn't make logical sense.  Strange things are running through kids' minds all the time, aren't they?

=> And as a Wittgensteinian might ask, isn't there a family resemblance between a Jedi mind trick and an Austinian "performative utterance"?  Or could we simply describe these formulations, more legalistically, as leading questions?