A couple gems from Colbert

Stephen Colbert recently interviewed Julian Assange from Wikileaks, famous lately for the leaked footage of that gruesome 2007 US military attack on Iraqi civilians. In the course of the interview, Colbert said a couple things that people around here might find interesting. Too bad I can’t convey the humor with which he delivers the lines.

Does being sad that Q entail knowing that Q? Colbert to Assange: “Governments are elected based upon what people know about the politicians, or what they know about what their government does. If we don’t know what the government is doing, we can’t be sad about it. Why are you trying to make me sad? You’re trying to bum us out about the world. All these terrible things happen behind closed doors, and you decided I need to know about it.”

Is knowing better than not knowing? Colbert sardonically to Assange: “It’s like you’re saying it’s better to know than not to know.”


A couple gems from Colbert — 16 Comments

  1. I had an exchange recently about the sad/happy and knows connection. Unger (I think) says that you can’t be happy/sad without knowing.

    (1) He was sad that his puppy was hit by the car but he didn’t know that his puppy was hit by the car.

    That sounds bad. But, there are examples that might go the other way (I owe this to Matt McGrath or a combination of Matt and my poor memory). Thinking Gore won the election, we threw a great party. Hungover the next morning and depressed by the news of Bush’s win, we explain the mess and our cleaning up of it to a roommate as follows:

    (2) Last night we were really happy that Gore won, but then we found out this morning that he lost.

    That sounds more okay than I’d like it to. Interestingly, this still sounds weird:

    (3) Last night, we were really happy that Gore won but we didn’t know that he won.

    Evidence that “knows” isn’t factive? Hope not. I know if there was real evidence against the factivity of “knows” I’d be sad.

  2. With respect to (3), is the “but” doing the work there? Is this better?

    (3*) Last night, we were really happy that Gore won, however, we didn’t know that he won.

  3. My point is that (2) is just a poorly written sentence for the occasion. It doesn’t express the facts that make it true as well as it could. Consider the following even worse one:

    That Gore won, happy it made us, we knew not though whether.

    Yoda might be forgiven, but, given the facts, any of us could do better.

    (2) is better. But, given the facts, we could just write:

    When we thought Gore had won we were happy. Sadly, we didn’t know that he had he in fact lost.

    A deliberately vague formula isn’t a philosophical occasion.

  4. Hi Clayton,

    I think there is echoic use of “happy that” in the first clause of your (2) and (3). Robyn Carston’s formulation, in echoic use “a representation is being used not to represent an object or state of affairs in the world but to represent a representation” — in this case what is represented is how things seemed to us last night. [“Metalinguistic negation and echoic use” Journal of Pragmatics 25 (1996) 309-330] I think Carston may also have the answer to your question about why (3) sounds worse than (2). (2) is good because following the “but” one expects a clarification voiced from our current standpoint, and the factive expression about what we’ve found out this morning does that really unproblematically. The second clause of (3) gives us a double problem: we can’t read it echoically (because it seemed to us then as though we *did* know), and if we read it straight, we have the problem that factive presupposition is preserved under ordinary sentential negation. That is, as long as we don’t stress “know”, saying: “we didn’t know that X had won” will tend to convey a commitment to the proposition that X had won (which from our current point of view should be false). I can get Barry’s (3*) to sound good to me only if I put focal stress on “knows” and make it metalinguistic negation there (to suppress the factive presupposition).

  5. John, sorry — I should have started by making it clear that I do think that “to be happy that P” does indeed entail “to know that P” (which doesn’t exclude the possibility that we can use “happy that” in various non-literal ways — and it’s these non-literal uses that have sometimes been mistaken as evidence that these expressions are non-factive, or do not entail knowledge).

  6. If “happy that” or “sad that” require knowledge on the part of the subject, then they should sound bad in typical Gettier cases, even when the purported factivity condition is met.

    So, we can imagine Steve is in a room with a broken clock, and happens to look up at one of the two times that the clock’s report matches the actual time. Steve is overjoyed upon seeing the clock read 3:00.

    The sentence “Steve is happy that it is 3:00 o’clock.” still sounds odd to me, so I’m inclined to think that this supports the view that “happy that” is knowledge-requiring.

  7. Hi Jennifer and Thomas,

    Can we agree that last night (when I falsely believed that Gore won), my happiness had an object? I was happy about something or that something was the case. I didn’t just have free-floating happiness.

    If so, then I’m not sure why we should think that last night I was happy that it seemed that Gore won nor that last night I was happy that I thought that Gore won. I know what it is to be happy that something seems to be the case; I can be happy that it seems that Gore won even when I know that Gore lost, if I’m the sort who cares single-mindedly about my own mental states. (Of course, it seeming to me that Gore won might cause me to be happy that Gore won, but my happiness is not directed at it so seeming. I could care less whether it seems to me that Gore won or whether I think that Gore won.) I might even be sad that it seems to me that Gore won while being happy that Gore won (if, say, someone is threatening me with death if it seems to me that Gore won).

    If my happiness last night had an object, but was not directed at a seeming or a belief or a thought about Gore, I don’t see why it won’t end up being the case that I was happy that Gore won (just as belief can have that same object). In fact, I might be happy that Gore won precisely because I don’t know that, as in fact is the case, he lost.

  8. Hi Jeremy,
    I don’t think I follow your suggestion…whatever the object of last night’s happiness, it couldn’t have been the Gore victory (because it didn’t happen, so there’s no such object). Are you going Meinongian here?

    I think I’d want to put the “seemed” in a different place — last night it seemed to me that I was happy that Gore won. If you had asked me last night, I would have asserted: “I’m so happy that Gore won.” But I would have been mistaken about my own mental state there. It wasn’t literally true that I was happy that Gore won, although I might even now use that locution echoically, as if speaking from the perspective of my naive past self. The echoic use is not too distant from the flat-out ironic use of factive locutions in statements such as

    (4) I just *knew* that restaurant was going to be an excellent place to take the visiting speaker.

    …the morning after, when one is seized with regret. The factivity of “knows” is crucial to the ironic opposition of literal and conveyed meaning. Inserting “strongly believed” for “knew” leaves you with a true but much less sassy sentence. (Which is also why Clayton’s original (2) offers more dramatic pleasure than a flatfooted sentence beginning “Last night we were happy about Gore’s apparent success…” – the factive locution pushes you back into the amusingly naive perspective we had last night.)

  9. Thanks Jennifer. The object of the happiness is the same thing as the object of the belief when I falsely believed that it was true that Gore won. It seems just as plausible that the object of the belief is a proposition as that the object of the happiness was a proposition. But whatever it is, it seems to me like it has to be constant in the good case and in the bad case.

    It doesn’t seem plausible that the mental state is different in the good case as in the bad case. This isn’t the way it is with memory. When I falsely “remember” that I had Cheerios for breakfast, I have no problem calling it merely a pseudo-memory that I had Cheerios for breakfast. But when I’m happy that some falsehood is true, it seems very odd to say that I was merely pseudo-happy that I had Cheerios for breakfast. Unlike with memory, the mental state remains constant. And I don’t like saying that object of the mental state changes (which is what I took your original proposal to be saying: in the bad case, the object of the mental state is only a mental representation). And that’s because the idea that in the bad case the object of the mental state is the seeming-win doesn’t allow the possibility that, in the bad case, I was unhappy that Gore seemed to win (something I would have reported even at the time) but happy that Gore won.

  10. I like Jennifer’s take on this better than my initial suggestion. (2) is not so much a poorly a written sentence as a well-told joke. The joke, however, depends on what is ultimately a formal/philosophical error. Wittgenstein was right to say that the depth of philosophy is the depth of a grammatical joke.

  11. Thanks, Thomas.

    Hi Jeremy,
    I like your observation that the seeming-victory is not the object of one’s happiness. But I’m still inclined to resist your line: I’m still drawn to the notion that being happy that something is the case is a “success” locution, like “remembering that”, and where we have recognized failure it becomes inappropriate to use it. The morning after, when I ask you (having observed you at a distance last night) why you were celebrating, I’m not sure you could really say

    (5) I was happy that Gore had won.

    as opposed to

    (6) I was happy because I thought that Gore had won.

    Dropping down to the causal (non-success) locution in (6) does not mean that my thought of the victory was the *object* of last night’s happiness. Last night it felt that my happiness had an object (=Gore’s victory), now that this morning I realize there was no such thing, my happiness lacked a real object altogether.

    I should be clear that I agree that the past feeling of happiness is something I can still regard as real (just as the past experience of recollection can still be regarded as real even when I reclassify something as a pseudo-memory) — but I can no longer take it to be latching onto something in the world. And I think that being happy that something is the case is not to be identified with simply having some feelings of happiness, any more than remembering that something is the case is to be identified with having some feelings of familiarity in recollection.

    Rats, I hope we are not descending into a brute clash of intuitions here. I hate that.

  12. Hi Jennifer,

    I won’t deny that I feel the force of the intuition that “happy that” is a success term. And I think you’re probably right that the way to go is to say that there was nothing, last night, that was the object of my happiness. (That’s why, in my comment at 10, I opened by trying to establish as a starting point that this was not the case.) But this strikes me as a bit counterintuitive: my intuition is that my happiness last night had an object: I was happy that p, for some p.

    But my intuition that “happy that” is a success term is somewhat less strong than my intuition that “remember that” is a success term (though more strong than my intuition that “believe that” is a success term). I don’t think that there is a principled argument that “happy that” has to latch onto the fact that Gore won, though, for me to be happy that Gore won — no more than the belief that Gore won requires that I latch onto the fact that Gore won.

    So it might not be a clash of intuitions, since I think I share yours. I just might give more weight to the intuition that my happiness last night had an object, and less force to the requirement that there be a fact for it to latch onto.

  13. Something occured to me (I’m probably just leaving this note for myself). Jennifer says:

    “If you had asked me last night, I would have asserted: “I’m so happy that Gore won.” But I would have been mistaken about my own mental state there.”

    But is that really the mistake. She’s not wrong about her mental state, she’s wrong only about the facts (i.e., that Gore won). But suppose she went causal:

    “I am happy because Gore won.”

    That sentence would be false for a different reason. And the reason is that it forgets a crucial causal mediator. Captured by annother of Jennifer’s formulations:

    “I am happy because I think that Gore won.”

    Nobody would say that at the time.

    Q: Why I are you so happy?
    A: Gore won!!!!!

    (Which would presume that the questioner hadn’t heard.)

    Now suppose Gore did win, so that my mental state of belief is justified and true.

    Gore wins. The TV tells me so. I think Gore has won. I am happy.


    Gore loses. The TV tells me he won. I think Gore has won. I am happy.

    (The solution, of course, is not to let your emotional life be run by TV. But it’s actually your cognitive life that’s at stake here. Don’t believe what the TV says.)

    Here’s the question, I suppose. Are we ever happy THAT something happened? Or are we always only happy BECAUSE WE THINK something happened?

    Does “happy that” simple summarize a particular kind of causal chain? And this then raises the question of whether “believe that p” summarizes “had a thought because p”.

    Like I say, probably just a note to myself. Thx.

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