Saturday, August 12, 2006

Paper: The Answering Machine Sophisma: Kaplan, Necessarily False Utterances, and Perlocutionary Acts

The Answering Machine Sophisma

The occurrence of indexicals in a sentence gives rise to some questions. As the meaning of such sentences varies with every use, one may have a difficult time determining what the truth-value of an indexical-laden sentence ought to be. Fortunately, David Kaplan has provided a framework describing certain general rules governing their use. For example, the occurrence of the indexical “I” in what Kaplan calls the “context” of an utterance always refers to the speaker of the utterance. Similarly, the occurrence of the indexical “here” in the context of an utterance always refers to the place of the utterance. Finally the occurrence of the indexical “now” in the context of an utterance always refers to the time of the utterance. These “general rules,” considered in contexts of utterances, are, in Kaplan’s terminology, the characters of the words. However, there seems to exist a problem in the case of the answering machine message that says, “I am not here now.” For, while it seems as though it should always be impossible that the utterer of an utterance not be at the place of the utterance at the time of the utterance, and that any occurrence of the utterance of the sentence “I am not here now” ought to be false, this case is one in which it appears to be true that the speaker is not present at the place and time (context) of the utterance. This seeming problem has been called the Answering Machine Paradox. However, the occurrence of “I am not here now,” when “uttered” by an answering machine, should not present any problem to Kaplan’s theory of reference. It will be shown that this problem is a sophisma that may easily be resolved without making any changes to Kaplan’s LD. However, like all good sophismata, the “Answering Machine Paradox” does point out an ambiguity in our language. In order to resolve this ambiguity and make better sense of the situation at hand, we will make use of Austin’s theory of Perlocutionary Acts. It will first be necessary to point out a few facts surrounding the case in which one might encounter this seemingly problematic utterance.

It is often the case that we may call our friend, yet our friend does not answer his phone. Some sort of answering machine may step in and communicate to us (possibly in the voice of the owner of the phone) that the person is not going to answer. The occurrence of the message may mean one of at least three things: (1) That the owner of the phone is not currently located near enough to the phone to hear it ring (2) That the owner of the phone is near the phone, but cannot hear it ringing[1] (3) That the owner of the phone is near the phone and hears it ringing, but does not wish to answer.[2] Regardless of the specific circumstances contributing to the phone not being answered, a second point to consider is that the message itself does not tell the caller that the person he has intended to talk to is not “here.” That the person is not “here” or is not answering the phone for whatever reason, as outlined above, is communicated to the caller regardless of what exactly the recorded message says. The caller can understand this without the answering machine even existing. Before the answering machine was invented (and even after it was invented but before it was as commonplace as it is today—and even today[3]), it was generally known that if the phone rang for long enough without being answered, the recipient of the call was either not “here” or was not going to answer for some other reason. After a certain amount of rings one would hang up and perhaps call back later. The only difference between now and then is that now one may leave a message after a certain amount of rings. The answering machine even waits for a certain amount of rings to pass before it kicks in and repeats its message. This is, in effect, simulating the same process that previously occurred. However, rather than the caller simply hanging up after a certain amount of rings, the answering machine now effectively hangs up but gives one the option of leaving a message. This is all that an answering machine does. It allows one to leave a message. It utters nothing. The repetition of some previous utterance does not constitute a new utterance of that same phrase. It would be ludicrous to maintain such a position. If one thought that every time he heard something, a speaker had made an utterance, he would lead a confused life. After all, when one listens to an album, or a book on tape, or watches television,[4] one knows that there is not some actual speaker present that is making the utterance. While what is heard may phonetically “say” something coherent, whatever is “said” is known not to have been said, but merely played back or broadcast. Even if this coherent “speech” informs us of something that may be either true or false, it is not the case that any person has uttered anything at the time and in the place of the listener’s hearing the recording. It should not surprise anyone that there exists recording technology.

It is important that we acknowledge that this occurrence of “I am not here now” is merely the repetition of a recorded message and not a new utterance itself. For this reason, we do not respond to the message, and if we do, for some reason, it does not respond to us. For example, when we call somebody and hear an answering machine repeat the recorded message “I am not here now,” we do not reply, “Oh. Well when will you be home?” Rather, we either wait until the “beep” and then leave a message, or just hang up if the call is either private or not important enough to warrant our leaving a message.

Additionally, as was stated above, what we are informed of by the repetition of the answering machine message is available to us without respect to the specific thing “said” in the message. Even if what the message “says” is some incoherent sounds, we will know that the person is not going to be answering this particular phone call. Furthermore, even if the recorded message is a necessarily false statement, we will still know that the person we have called is not going to answer the phone. For example, we call our friend. After a certain amount of time, an answering machine takes over and the phone stops ringing. We then hear the message, “A triangle is a four-sided shape.” It does not matter to us that this is false. We will wait for the recording of our friend saying false things about triangles to end and then either leave a message or hang up. Therefore, we may note that regardless of what the message says, all that we learn from hearing it is that the intended recipient of the call will not be answering and we may leave a message if we wish to. That is, what is communicated by the playback of the recorded message is the truth-value that the phone call will not be answered.[5]

Furthermore, since the inception of the answering machine, there have been those who thought themselves clever and attempted to trick people by way of their answering machine. These people often have messages such as, “Hello… I can’t hear you…. Speak up… Hello? Hello?” However, even though one may be misled into thinking that the intended recipient of the call has answered and for some reason cannot hear what we are saying to them, after a certain amount of time, the recorded message will end and there will be a time to leave a message. Additionally, the message will never say anything other than the original prank, unless it is changed to another. All of this is evidence that in hearing something such as was given above, we are not hearing an utterance but a recording of some utterance. To ask about the truth-value of the recording is tantamount to asking about the truth-value of a car horn.

However, at some point someone did speak into their answering machine whatever we are now hearing it repeat. Moreover, at the time of the original utterance of whatever was recorded, the person was in fact “here.” Therefore, the real inquiry is not into what is happening when at a later time we hear an answering machine message repeat (decode[6]) the recorded utterance, “I am not here now,” but into what is happening when the utterer (encoder) originally says (encodes), “I am not here now.” The case of the answering machine that “says,” “I am not here now” is supposed to be taken as a counter-example to Kaplan’s theory of indexicals, as outlined in his essay, “Demonstratives” and hinted at above. While Kaplan maintains that an utterance of “I am here now” is “deeply and…universally true,” it seems that an utterance of “I am not here now” ought to be “deeply and universally” false (Kaplan, 509). The former is “universally true” because there is no possible context of its utterance at which it would not be true. The latter is taken to be universally false since there does not seem to be any context of its utterance at which it would not be false. However, the skeptic would like to say that there are circumstances of the “utterance” of “I am not here now” at which it is true, namely those circumstances when we hear an answering machine message that says, “I am not here now.”

According to our investigation, it does not seem that the answering machine example in any way counters Kaplan’s claims. In this sense, Kaplan is not refuted by the case of the answering machine. What we have here is not a paradox but a sophisma. For, the occurrence of the repetition of the message is truth-valueless since it is not an utterance and the original utterance that was recorded is indeed false. All that this case provides us with, however, is a case in which while some utterance is necessarily false (“I am not here now”), it is still of some use. For, when some person makes an utterance for an answering machine recording, such as, “I am not here now,” they are saying something false, but doing so with a purpose. The utterer (encoder) has a reason for saying something false. It is not the case that the person is lying or confused. They are not trying to convince anyone that they are not where they are. If someone were to walk into the room while the encoder was recording an answering machine message (i.e. were the encoding time and encoding location identical with the decoding time and decoding location, respectively), they would not say, “Liar! Fool! Of course you are here right now. I will not be deceived!” They would be able to conjecture that the person was deliberately using his words for some purpose.

Predelli is right to point out the speaker’s intention in recording the message. He says: “And when I record ‘I am not here now’ in my answering machine, I intend that the uttered sentence be evaluated with respect to the time of your call…” (Predelli, 114). Predelli argues that in the case of the encoding of an answering message, it is necessary to evaluate the utterance according to a context other than its context of utterance. Rather, the utterance must be evaluated at the time of its being repeated on the occasion of a person’s phone call going unanswered. Does this sufficiently account for the situation at hand? It seems that this explanation is insufficient. For, while it is possible (and indeed correct) to say that the utterer intends his message to be heard at a time and in a location other than those of his original utterance, as it stands, the original utterance is still necessarily false. In Predelli’s view of the events, what becomes of the original utterance? Predelli seems to argue that the original utterance in a sense does not occur, but that what is said is actually said anew every time that one’s answering machine picks up. However, there is something prima facie wrong about this argument. For, there is no denying the fact that the encoder does in fact actually say something. That is the crux of the skeptic’s argument against Kaplan’s theory of indexicals. Therefore, it is important that instead of ignoring the original utterance and explaining it away by appealing to his so-called deferential intentions, we consider the original utterance as made at the time and location of its utterance.

Komarine Romdenh-Romluc attempts to account for the problems contained in Predelli’s account of the answering machine paradox in her essay, “Now the French are invading England!” She amends Predelli’s argument by stipulating that the intended audience be competent insofar as answering machines are concerned. A competent decoder will be familiar enough with the nature of answering machines to understand that a message has been recorded with the intention of being heard at a later time by a caller whose phone call has gone unanswered. While this is a salient point, it is more relevant to the comprehension of the utterance than to the truth-value of the utterance itself. Romdenh-Romluc also fails to note the significance of the original utterance of the indexical-laden expression, “I am not here now.” It is only through a consideration of the utterance itself that we will be able to both understand and incorporate this seemingly problematic case within our theory of indexicals.
Let us attempt a new solution to the problem of the false indexical-laden utterance. Given the results of this investigation, we may note that the original utterance can be taken to be performing some purpose, or, use. There is a sense in which the initial utterance, “I am not here now,” may be better understood through a consideration of J. L. Austin’s perlocutionary act distinction. In How To Do Things With Words, Austin distinguishes between three types of speech-acts, or, performative utterances: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. When one makes a perlocutionary act, one does so in order to
…produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them….
(Austin, 101)

In our present case, it is important to note that the intention is to produce an effect on neither the speaker nor the audience. For, the speaker is not intending to inform himself that he is “not here.” Additionally, he is not intending for any person that may hear him actually saying that he is “not here” to have some effect produced in them. Rather, he is intending that the “other persons” that hear the recording of himself saying “I am not here now” have some effect produced in themselves, namely, the effect of knowing that the person that they called has not answered the call, and that they may now leave that person a message. Furthermore, as to the above claim that the statement, “I am not here,” is necessarily false, Austin asserts that all performative utterances are truth-valueless. He says:

None of the utterances cited is either true or false: I assert this as obvious and do not argue it. It needs argument no more than that ‘damn’ is not true or false: it may be that the utterance ‘serves to inform you’—but that is quite different. (Austin, 6)

The application of this distinction to the answering machine case seems intuitive, insofar as it was stated above that if someone were to hear the utterance, they would neither agree nor disagree, but recognize the speaker to be doing something. In these senses, it seems warranted to fit this class of purposeful statements that are seemingly universally false according to Kaplan into Austin’s theory of perlocutionary performative acts.

Let us now consider our slightly modified version of Kaplan’s language of demonstratives (LD). How ought we fit Austin’s Perlocutionary Act distinction into Kaplan’s LD? If we add a performative functor (Perf [‘f’]) to LD, we may account for such expressions as the original utterance of “I am not here now.” That is, if we consider the expression, “I am not here now,” in the event that the agent of the utterance is performatively recording (encoding) an answering machine message, it will make sense to modify the sentence with the performative functor, such that Perf [‘I am not here now’], is understood as an intentional performance that is truth-valueless. That is, every occurrence of Perf [‘f’] is truth-valueless, but performatively functional, regardless of both the character of ‘f’ and the context of utterance ‘c’ (which is to say regardless of the content), and the circumstances at which Perf [‘f’] is uttered.
We may now address the examples given above in terms of our new functor. First, we phone our friend and then hear his answering machine repeat his originally recorded utterance, “A triangle is a four-sided shape.” However, his original utterance may now be interpreted according to our new terminology as Perf [‘A triangle is a four-sided shape’], such that the utterance will be truth-valueless and performing the function of being an answering machine message. The decoder will understand that he may now leave a message. Second, we phone our friend and hear his answering machine repeat his originally recorded utterance, “Hello… I can’t hear you…. Speak up… Hello? Hello?” This original utterance may now be interpreted as Perf [‘Hello… I can’t hear you…. Speak up… Hello? Hello?’], which, similarly, is truth-valueless and performing the function of being an answering machine message. The decoder will understand that the person he has intended to call is not present at the decoding time in the encoding location. He will then either leave a message or hang up.

In this sense, it seems that this type of statement may be fit into our theory of meaning. Taken outside of any sense of performance, the statement, “I am not here now,” is necessarily false—just as Kaplan maintains. However, there are possible cases of its utterance that give it a performative component that renders it neither true nor false. It is important to consider these a-typical uses of expressions in formulating theories of meaning. While expanding upon Kaplan’s theory of indexicals through a consideration of Austin, we have not shown any internal problems with Kaplan’s theory, but merely built upon it in order to allow for an additional component of speech to come forth and be accounted for.

Austin, J. L. 1962. How To Do Things With Words. Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1962.
Kaplan, D. 1977. Demonstratives. In Themes From Kaplan, ed. J. Almog, J. Perry and H.
Wettstein. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Predelli, S. 1998. I Am Not Here Now. Analysis 58.2: 107-115.
Romdenh-Romluc, Komarine. 2002. Now the French are invading
England! Analysis 62.1: 34-41.

[1] Say, the owner is in a meeting and has switched the phone to its silent mode. Even though he is in fact ‘here now’ when his recorded message says that he is not, the occurrence of the message is not contradictory. Or, if we wish to consider “I am not here now” without resorting to cellular phones, we may give another example of this case, e.g., the owner is sitting near his telephone, but cannot hear it ringing because he is wearing headphones and listening to loud music.
[2] Say, the owner is awaiting another call and does not want to tie up the line, or he has a Caller ID system set up and does not wish to speak to the person calling.
[3] It frequently happens that one understands that the phone call is not going to be answered before the answering machine gives its message. One can generally tell at a certain point that the phone call will not be answered, and will hang up before the message is given, if it is not necessary that a message be left.
[4] Even if it is live television or live radio, one can tell if what is being heard is being spoken by a present person or being transmitted by someone from somewhere else.
[5] I am indebted to Josef Stern for comments regarding this point.
[6] Stefano Predelli borrows Charles Fillmore’s terminology in his essay, “I am not here now,” distinguishing between the encoder, encoding time encoding location decoder, decoding time and decoding location. He says: “Let me refer to the agent who records a message or writes a note as the encoder, and to the time and location of recording/writing as, respectively, the encoding time and the encoding location; I refer to the person who listens to the message or reads the note as the decoder, and to the time and location of playback/reading as, respectively, the decoding time and the decoding location” (Predelli, 109).


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