Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Content with Nothing

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2015

https://literalminded.wordpress.com/category/semantics/ambiguity/quantifiersoa-ambiguity/

Today’s newspaper had a story from AP about one Dylan Miller, a college student in Pennsylvania who has been living, Thoreau-like, in a hut in the woods since last summer, as part of a research project. As I read in the article:

The title of his project–Content with Nothing–carries a double meaning.

Of course it does. It’s the old ambiguity between the quantificational meaning and the state-of-affairs meaning. Why don’t we let Miller explain it for us? He starts with the quantificational meaning (emphasis mine):

We can’t be content with anything, really. Nothing can make us content; we’re always looking for something else,” Miller said.

In other words, there exists no x such that we are content with x. Now how about the state-of-affiars meaning? Miller explains this one, too:

“And then the solution, content with nothing, means we are content with having nothing. We don’t look externally for satisfaction or desire luxury. So the whole project is how to get to that final state of contentment.”

"The title has a quantificational meaning, and a state-of-affairs meaning!"

I call this the state-of-affairs meaning because in it, nothing means the state in which we have nothing, or nothing exists. Miller expressed it more concisely by using a gerund phrase: having nothing.

Miller seems pretty taken with the double meaning in his project title. Maybe he hasn’t been sensitized to quantifier/SOA ambiguities; he’d’ve only been five or six years old when the “show about nothing” aired its last episode. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t stop by my 2011 LSA poster presentation on the subject, either.

2 Responses to “Content with Nothing”

  1. Stan Carey said

    The first two interpretations that occurred to me were the state-of-affairs meaning and one where Content is a noun, i.e., ’empty content’.

  2. Reminds me of the time I created a pseudo-mathematical definition of “nothing” (in conjunction with a short story I wrote on the subject).

    S(☹)⇔(∀x∈☺)(¬S(x))

    That is to say, a sentence is true of nothing (☹) if and only if, for every x that is a member of the set of all things (☺), the sentence is not true of x.

    It’s complete nonsense, and only fit for the purpose of adding a little humour to a mathematical conversation. For a start, if you plug in S(x) = ∃x, you get out the result that nothing *doesn’t* exist, so why are we talking about it? As I wrote at the time, “Once you’ve established that something doesn’t exist, you don’t say, ‘OK, so it doesn’t exist, but what OTHER properties does it have?’ Mathematical dragons aren’t allowed to be big, scaly, AND nonexistent.”

    Then again, if you plug in S(x) = (∃x : 1+1=3), you’ll find that indeed no x exists with the magical power to make one plus one equal three, and therefore clearly “nothing” DOES have that power, i.e. ∃☹ : 1+1=3. But this simplifies to simply ∃☹, contradicting the earlier conclusion.

    Moreover, if you plug in S(x) = (x=☹) you get ☹=☹, whereas if you plug in S(x) = (x=x) you get ☹≠☹, just as in English, “nothing equals nothing” is true but “nothing equals itself” is false.

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