Epistemic Modals in Eagles’ Lyrics

Lyrics from “Victim of Love”, chorus only (verses below the fold for the curious), relevant parts in bold:

Victim of love, you’re just a victim of love
I could be wrong , but I’m not (echo: but I’m not)
Victim of love, now you’re a victim of love
What kind of love have you got?
What kind of love have you got?
What kind of love have you got?

So: what to make of this, for those who think “p, but I could be wrong” is somehow incoherent in the Moorean way. One thought is that the second part (the “p” part) rejects the first part (“I could be wrong”). Maybe, but seems wrong. It is a repeated chorus, so seems naturally understood to repeat a frame of mind, not a position abandoned along the way. So, though not an obvious misinterpretation, a bit strained. And nothing jarring here about the juxtaposition: I’ve heard this song since teen years, long before infected with philosophical vocabulary and never was flummoxed. Bet you weren’t either. Yes?

What kind of love have you got?
You should be home, but you’re not
A room full of noise and dangerous boys
Still makes you thirsty and hot
I heard about you and that man
There’s just one thing I don’t understand
You say he’s a liar and he put out
Your fire
How come you still got his gun in your hand?
Victim of love , I see a broken heart
You got your stories to tell
Victim of love, it’s such an easy part
And you know how to play it so well

Some people never come clean
I think you know what I mean
You’re walkin’ the wire, pain and desire
Looking for love in between

Tell me your secrets, I’ll tell you mine
This ain’t no time to be cool
And tell all your girlfriends,
You “been around the world” friends
That talk is for losers and fools

Victim of love, I see a broken heart
I could be wrong, but I’m not
Victim of love, we’re not so far apart
Show me, what kind of love have you got?


Epistemic Modals in Eagles’ Lyrics — 11 Comments

  1. I find a difference between,

    1. #I could be wrong, but I’m not
    2. It’s raining, though I might/could be wrong

    The first actually sounds incoherent to me (hence the crosshatch) though the second seems OK. A possible reason is that in (2) the second clause somehow communicates that I have some less than full credence in the proposition in the first clause.

    The reason (1) is incoherent may be that it communicates less than full credence in some proposition and then asserts certainty. I don’t know how to best handle stuff like this (is the expression of credence part of what is asserted or is some modification of the speech act?), but however we do it, this would give an explanation of the difference between (1) and (2) and (3) (see below).

    As we know from Moore’s paradox, you can’t use might(not(p)) to produce the same effect,

    3. #It’s raining, though it might not be

    Also, order seems to put further restrictions on this construction:

    4. I might be wrong, but #(I think) it’s raining

    I haven’t thought enough about any of this, but it’s super interesting. I wonder how far we could push a “force-modifier” account along the lines of what I proposed above..

  2. That isn’t an epistemic modal. I think it’s expressing some other form of possibility. Like I’m capable of being wrong, but (in this case) I’m not (wrong).

    My favorite epistemic lyric is from Blondie:

    “I know, but I don’t know.”

    Debbie Harry <3 contextualism.

  3. Hi Justin,

    Could you say a bit more about why you think that the second clause of(1) “asserts certainty”? On its face, it just asserts that Don Henley is not in fact wrong, not that it is certain for Don that he’s not wrong.


  4. Following on Peter’s comment (and a bit off track), I always liked The Velvet Underground’s “I guess but I just don’t know.” (FWIW, some websites say the ‘but’ is an ‘and’.) It’s not clear that guessing involves believing what one guesses, so I’m not claiming you can get a whole lot of philosophical import out of the lyric.

    Jon’s Eagles lyric could perhaps be thought of as an epistemic claim about the listener’s situation (that for all the listener can be sure of the singer could be wrong).

  5. Peter, so let’s say it is an expression of epistemic humility, and I take it you agree that there’s nothing troubling or paradoxical in the line (of the Moorean sort). Still, the expression of humility would be puzzling if conjoined to the claim that there’s no chance of being wrong, i.e., this is paradoxical:

    I could be wrong, but it’s certain I’m not (or: there’s no chance I am).

    I suspect the paradoxicality here is because expressions of epistemic humility imply that a chance (an epistemic one of some sort) of error is always present, even in the case at hand. I think the literature on epistemic modals has too quickly assumed that this is somehow tied to knowledge. I think an epistemic modal is just a modal that has something to do with epistemic chances of error, and in that sense, Henley’s lyric counts as one. I wouldn’t want to infer from the existence of epistemic chances of error that knowledge is absent, but others might want to argue for that.

  6. Just for fun — three of my favorite epistemic rock lyrics:

    (1) From, King Crimson’s “Epitaph”:

    Knowledge is a deadly friend,
    When no one sets the rules.

    (2) From David Bowie’s “Law [Earthing On Fire]”:

    I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty.

    (3) From Yes’s “Starship Trooper”:

    What I don’t know, I have never shared.

  7. “‘Confusion’ will be my epitaph” — King Crimson

    Jon, if the modals are explicitly given (could/certain), then it is hard for them to be different *kinds* of modals. So that if ‘certain’ is epistemic, then you expect ‘could’ to be epistemic too (you expect the modal base to remain constant within the sentence, unless given reason to think otherwise).

    Suppose that in the Eagles lyrics ‘could be wrong’ means physically capable of being wrong (as when I don’t focus — this isn’t really epistemic humility, because I may think that when I try hard I’m always right). Then if you follow with ‘certain I’m not’ you expect the modal to be of the same flavor (hence you are saying you could be but you couldn’t be). And that doesn’t make sense. So to make it work you have to explicitly flag the shift in flavor of modal from this capability modal to an epistemic modal. Like this:

    I could be wrong, but it is epistemically certain that I’m not.

    That isn’t bad for me, but I feel I am stressing the COULD, which makes me not trust my judgments.

  8. Hi Peter (aka KC),
    Good, very helpful. But isn’t it strained to think that Henley is pointing out that he’s physically capable of being wrong? That violates the most obvious of Gricean maxims, since it is so non-informative. I mean, we’re all ADHD to that extent! So he must mean something informative, and reminding us of our fallibility is at least relevant and informative, since we have a temptation to pretense here. OK, at least I do! And if it is epistemic humility, it implies something epistemic, no? Such as a chance for error, a possibility of error, a legitimate uncertainty…

  9. It becomes even harder to think of the modality as something to do with physical capability of error after reading through the entire lyric. That said, it doesn’t appear that epistemic humility is driving the narrator, either; it is hard to square hectoring with humility.

    Could it instead be this that is being expressed:

    [You might think that] I could be wrong, but I’m not, no, I’m not.

  10. Re: Jeremy. I guess I just had in mind whatever epistemic state you put yourself forward as being in if you assert P (maybe knowledge..?)—you’re right that it’s not an assertion of that state either (yet it is somehow communicated, I think!). If it’s knowledge, then in asserting that P you put yourself forward as knowing P, but then the followup says something like: for all I know, P is false, which is not outright inconsistent but pragmatically infelicitous. This is the same sort of explanation DeRose gives for the feeling of inconsistency in Moore’s paradox.

    In short, you’re right, maybe certainty isn’t the right epistemic state, but whatever epistemic state you represent yourself as being in with regards to what you assert, we want that to clash somehow (likely pragmatically) with what’s asserted in the second clause.

  11. This lyirc is actually a subtle expression of arrogance. While ordinarily bound by his own epistemic limitations (he’s only human and is indeed capable of acquiring false beliefs), the “victim” in question has behaved in a manner which has all but guaranteed her status as a victim of love, and consequently imparted to Henley an unshakeable assurance about her status as such.

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