[Buddha-l] Re: Can an Air Force cadet have Buddha nature?

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Thu May 19 10:16:01 MDT 2005

On Thu, 2005-05-19 at 11:01 -0400, Richard Nance wrote:

> I'm not sure what Randall meant, but there's surely a difference to be
> drawn between what a speaker intends in saying p and what p means.

Yes, and this is why one of the most valuable phrases in the English
language is "What did you mean exactly when you said....?" (The question
loses some of its value, of course, if the poser of the question then
refuses to believe the answer. But that is an issue for a psychiatrist
to sort out, not a linguist.)

> This is brought out most forcefully in the case of ambiguous
> expressions. On hearing "Bill was dry and went to the bank," I may not
> know what its speaker intended to say.

My colleague Brendan Gillon has written some excellent articles on the
semantic ambiguity of individual terms and on amphiboly (an ambiguity
that arises from the possibility that a phrase can be parsed in more
than one way) in both English and Sanskrit. Once one's attention is
drawn to these phenomena, ambiguity seems to be lurking under every
rock. It's almost as insidious as terrorism. One of Gillon's favorite
assignments in the course he teaches on semantics is to ask his students
how many different interpretations they can come up with of the sentence
"Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo."

On reading "Bill was dry and went to the bank," my first reading was
that Bill is a reformed alcoholic who went to the land adjacent to a

> Did she mean that Bill was financially tapped out and therefore went
> to make a withdrawal from a financial institution? Did she mean that
> Bill had finished towelling off, and then just happened to go make a
> withdrawal from a financial institution?

Don't be silly. Everyone knows that Bill is broke and lacks the means to
pay his bills. He has no funds to withdraw, and his credit is so bad
that no one would give him a loan. Don't forget, he's a reformed
alcoholic who replaced his addiction to alcohol with an addiction to
gambling. (We ARE thinking of the same Bill, aren't we?)

> Did she mean that Bill was thirsty, and went down to the riverbank to
> have a drink?

Not likely. Bill is an American, and there's not a river in this country
that has water safe to drink, and it gets worse every day, thanks to the
president's Clean Air Initiative.

> In such a case, I may not know what the *speaker* meant by her words.

If you'd just use your noodle, you'd see that the interpretation I
reported above is the only sensible one. Or, if you don't happen to have
a plate of noodles on hand, you could substitute macaroni.

> (By the way, very little has been written on the way that the above
> ideas might impact the notion that we infer vivak.saas from utterances
> -- but the impact is considerable. If you want me to send you a
> lengthy (and as yet unpublished) treatment I've written on the
> subject, let me know; I'd love to have your comments on the piece (an
> earlier version of which constituted the first chapter of my doctoral
> dissertation)).

(Yes, I would love to see what you've written on the topic. It is one of
my favorite topics in the whole universe, and I have every reason to
believe that your treatment of it would be interesting and edifying.)

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

More information about the buddha-l mailing list