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July 25, 2005



If it's any consolation, Mark Sainsbury seems to have been thinking a lot about answerphone messages recently too. He uses them as counterexamples to the claims that 'I' is a pure indexical (Reference without Referents p58) and that there are no intelligible uses of 'I' that fail to have a referent. (166fn)

So at least you're in good company.

rob helpy-chalk

It’s not the case that I can come to the phone right now.

What's the difference between this and the entirely colloquial "I can't come to the phone right now." I don't see how moving the negation changes the meaning.

Also, isn't the real problem the ambiguity of "now" rather than any problem with "I". If you said "I can't come to the phone at the time you are calling" you would have a completely accurate statement, no?

Actually, my friends colin and carin had the best answering message: "We are either unable, or just unwilling, to come to the phone right now, so please leave a message."


You could record the following message: "This is Shieva's answering machine. Please leave a message."

The declarative sentence will express something true both when you say it the first time and whenever it is played back. And the other sentence is an imperative, so that it will never be false, either when you first say it or when it is played back.

You might have doubts about the sensibility of issuing a command to a machine when you record the message. But it could be argued that you won't really be doing that, because you will really be issuing a command to whoever hears the recording.

The beauty of this plan is that even if the above line of argument is wrong, and you would in fact be issuing a command to a machine, and even if that is a silly thing to do, it remains true that neither you nor your machine will be saying anything false, either when you make the recording or when the recording is played back.


Aidan - thanks for the note! It makes me feel slightly less guilty for being so silly about this.

Rob -
You asked how these two statements differ:
(1) It’s not the case that I can come to the phone right now.
(2) I can't come to the phone right now.
Maybe the second is taken to just be a way of saying the first, and they only differ in that the first has its logical form on the surface? Then I prefer the logically perspicuous one just because the world's a better place when our statements reflect their logical form without costing much in terms of understandability.
But assuming, as I had, that (1) and (2) differ in their logical form, then my reason for preferring (1) to (2) was mistaken: for some reason, I'd been thinking it would be better to avoid requiring that I have a property in order for the statement to be true. But this only helps a presentist who can't quantify over no-longer-present objects. And I'm an eternalist. Thanks for drawing my attention to my improper treatment of that statement!!
So I can get away with recording "I can't come to the phone right now", and am left happy, with the exception of a slight worry about this disjunction: either (i) 'can't' is understood in the sense I wanted and the message isn't informative, or (ii) 'can't' is understood in some stronger sense, in which case my message isn't communicating what I wanted. But I suspect (i) isn't so bad, and just wonder about whether I should record a clause that makes (ii) improbable.

Ned - that seems good! And because I don't know about this stuff (i.e., voicemail and such), when I record one for my mobile, am I to say "This is Shieva's voicemail"? Will the 'this' refer properly? (I guess my difficulty is that I don't know what voicemail is. I know of effects it has . . .)

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