I am sitting by a pond with a child. The child says, "Look, there are three ducks." I say, "No, there are two ducks, one female, the other male, and a decoy."
The point is that a decoy duck is not a duck, but a piece of wood shaped and painted to appear (to a duck) like a duck so as to entice ducks into range of the hunters' shotguns. Since a decoy duck is not a duck, 'decoy' in 'decoy duck' does not function in the way 'male' and 'female' function in 'male duck' and 'female duck,' respectively. A male duck is a duck and a female duck is a duck. But a decoy duck is not a duck.
'Decoy' is an alienans adjective unlike 'male' and 'female' which are specifying adjectives. 'Decoy' shifts or alienates the sense of 'duck' rather than adding a specification to it. The same goes for 'roasted' in 'We are having roasted duck for dinner.' A roasted duck is not a duck but the cooked carcass of a duck. Getting hungry?
It is interesting to note the ambiguity of 'male chauvinist.' It could refer to a chauvinist who is male, or it could refer to someone who is not a chauvinist but who resembles a chauvinist in respect of his
excessive love and attachment, not to his country, but to his sex. The ambiguity hinges on whether or not 'male' is functioning as a specifying or as an alienans adjective. The same ambiguity infects 'female chauvinist.'
The really interesting examples are the philosophical ones. It goes without saying that my interest in these linguistic niceties stems from what philosophical light they can shed and what philosophical mistakes they can save us from.
Take 'relative truth.' How is 'relative' functioning here? Is'relative' a specifying adjective? That would imply that there are two kinds of truth, relative and absolute. But surely that is nonsense. Truth is truth. If you have truth at all you have something absolute. Indeed, 'absolute' is a redundant qualifier and is brought in only to undo the semantic mischief wrought by those benighted souls who insist on speaking of relative truth. Relative truth is not truth, but something else, something that gets confused with truth, namely, the property of being believed.
Let's pause for an objection. Franklin Mason, in a comment from the old blog, writes:
You assume here that the 'relative' of 'relative truth' behaves as does 'artificial' [in 'artificial leather.'] Perhaps there are other ways in which to understand it. Here's one model:
Assume the Aristotelian cosmology. The cosmos, then, is finite in size. A thing is absolutely big (or big simpliciter, or just plain big) just if it is the cosmos. A thing is relatively big just if there exists a second thing than which it is significantly bigger. So relative bigness is not a kind of artificial or ersatz bigness. It is quite genuinely a form of bigness, viz. that form that is relative. Absolute bigness is not relative. It is rather, or at least seems to be, intrinsic and nonrelational. Why can't the 'absolute' and 'relative' of 'absolute truth' and 'relative truth' behave in this way?
On the Aristotelian cosmology, to say that x is relatively big is to say that (i) there is some y such that x is bigger than y, and (ii) x is smaller than the cosmos, the paradigmatically Big Thing. Now I have no problem saying that something relatively big is big. So 'relatively' in 'relatively big' is not functioning as an alienans adjective. My point was simply that 'relatively' in 'relatively true' is alienans. To decide whether an adjective is alienans one must look to the context in which it is functioning.
There may also be a confusion between the relative and the relational. 'Bigger,' 'stinkier,' 'taller,' etc. are comparative adjectives. Nothing can be stinkier, period; a thing is stinkier only if there is that than which it is more stinky, until we come, perhaps, to that which is stinky in excelsis, the paradigmatically Stinky Thing or Stuff. What about 'truer'? I deny that one proposition can be truer
than another. Truth is like pregnancy: either you is or you ain't. It is also like being married. In a bar one might be tempted to say that one is married only a little; but of course that is nonsense en route to infidelity.
So we ought to carefully distinguish the thesis, more precisely, the thesis-schema that truth is relative from the thesis or thesis-schema that truth admits of degrees. It may be that the above objection conflates these two.
Also, when I say that an adjective is alienans, I am not saying that the referent of the term qualified by the adjective is artificial. Take 'male chauvinist.' As standardly used nowadays, this refers to a
male who places an excessively high valuation on his sex vis-a-vis the opposite sex. So a male chauvinist is not a chauvinist, and 'male' functions as as an alienans adjective: it does not specify, but shifts, the sense of 'chauvinist.' Yet there is no implication that a male chauvinist is artificial as opposed to natural.
In short, I am not sure just what the above objection comes to.
Now let's go out on a limb. If one cannot go out on a limb in the blogosphere, where can one go out on a limb? Consider 'derivative intentionality.' Is there anything to the suggestion that 'derivative'
in 'derivative intentionality' is an alienans adjective?
There is nothing intrinsic to a map that makes it of or about the corresponding terrain. A map is just a piece of paper with marks on it. In and of itself it is meaningless. Whatever intentionality it
gets it gets from us who assign meaning to the marks. (Thus to contour lines close together on a topographical map we assign the meaning: steep terrain.) Of course, a map, to be a bearer of derived
intentionality must have certain physical properties that suit it for this role. (One cannot search for the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine with a map made out of ice. It gets a tad WARM in them thar hills.) Still, there is nothing intrinsic to the map that give it its intentionality.
What I want to say is that derived intentionality is not a kind of intentionality. Strictly speaking, derived intentionality is not intentionality at all. To speak of the derived intentionality of a map
is just a loose way of saying that a map is an instrument of our intrinsic intentionality.
Now for Dennett, all intentionality is derived intentionality: there is no intrinsic intentionality. What this comes to, I am afraid, is eliminativism: there is no intentionality. For derived intentionality is not intentionality. It is like saying that all truth is relative. If all truth is relative, then there is no truth.
Another way to see this is as follows. Derived intentionality pesupposes intrinsic intentionality. So if there is no intrinsic intentionality, then there is no derived intentionality either, which is to say: there is no intentionality, period. I think Searle would agree with me on this.
What about 'natural' in 'natural selection'?