Married Bachelors: How Compositionality Doesn’t Work

Jerry Fodor (1998, Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong) does a thorough job of summarizing convincingly (to me, anyway) the arguments against the theory that concepts are constituted by definitions; so you really don’t need me to tell you that KEEP doesn’t really mean CAUSE A STATE THAT ENDURES OVER TIME or that BACHELOR doesn’t really mean UNMARRIED MAN, right?  Not convinced?  Here’s what I found over the course of a morning’s empirical research:

Put ‘elephant bachelor’ into Google and you get things like:

Bulls generally live in small bachelor groups consisting of an old bull

Males live alone or in bachelor herds.

The males will sometimes come together in bachelor herds, but these are

The adult males (bulls) stay in bachelor herds or live alone.

When they are mature, male elephants leave the herd to join bachelor herds. 

Put in ‘deer bachelor’ and you get: 

During bowhunting season (late August early September) we see mule deer in bachelor groups, as many as 15 in a bunch, feeding on bloomed canola fields

Mule deer bachelor bucks are beginning to show up in preparation for the rut.

But during October, when they’re interested mostly in proving their manhood, rattling can be deadly on bachelor bucks. 

Put in ‘“bachelor wolves”’: 

surrounded in the snow by a starving and confused pack of bachelor wolves.

You can come up with a lot of names for these youngsters: rogue males, bachelor wolves, outcasts. Some call them the Lost Boys. 

Similarly, ‘bachelor’ combined with ‘walrus’, ‘whale’, ‘dolphin’, ‘penguin’, ‘swan’ (for the birds, it helps to add the term ‘nest’ to winnow the returns).

‘ethology bachelor’ yields: 

Bachelor herds refer to gatherings of (usually) juvenile male animals who are still sexually immature, or of ‘harem’-forming animals who have been thrown out of their parent families but not yet formed a new family group. Examples include seals, lions, and horses. Bachelor herds are thought to provide useful protection for social animals against more established herd competition or aggressive dominant males. Males in bachelor herds are sometimes closely related to each other. 

So bachelors don’t need to be men.  One might try to fix this by saying a BACHELOR is an UNMARRIED MALE or even an UNMARRIED ADULT MALE (to rule out babies) instead of an UNMARRIED MAN, but I struggle with the idea of UNMARRIED whales, penguins, and elephants.  Would that also cover animals that have mates, but are living together without the benefit of clergy?  Don’t worry about this too much because even MALE won’t do the trick. 

‘“bachelor females”’ returns: 

dormitory facilities, and the 7 35 or so bachelor females residing in defense housing on Civilian Hill were transferred to the renovated dormitories.

 I feel sorry for you. And yes, this was a half-fucked attempt to gain the affection of all the bachelor females in the world. 

‘“bachelor women”’ returns: 

Today, double standards still prevail in many societies: bachelor men are envied, bachelor women are pitied.

Maggie is a composite of a number of independent, “bachelor” women who influenced my formative years.

Did you know, for example, that half–exactly 50 percent–of the 1000 bachelor women surveyed say they actively are engaged at this very moment in their

independent bachelor women that is now taking place is a permanent increase. It is probably being reinforced by a considerable number of  [H. G. Wells 1916, What is Coming? A Forecast of Things after the War. Chapter 8.] 

Of particular note is the last example, specifically the fact that it dates back to 1916, before most, if not all, discussions of BACHELOR meaning UNMARRIED MAN. 

The phrase ‘“married bachelor”’ returns lots of philosophical (and theological!) treatises on whether it is meaningless, incoherent, nonsensical, or just plain impossible (for humans or for God); but, it also returns occurrences of the phrase in the wild, where it exists and is, thus, clearly possible: 

Nevertheless, a true married bachelor, we think, would have viewed his fate philosophically. “Well, anyway,” he’d say with a touch of pride,

Ever wonder what a married bachelor does on Friday Night (that is Wednesday in Saudi)? HE GOES TO BED EARLY (and dreams about his wife).

Most Chinese men in Canada before the war were denied a conjugal family life and were forced to live in a predominantly married-bachelor society.

It was one of the golden principles in services that there should be a decent interaction with fair sex on all social occasions and going “stags” (married bachelor) was looked down upon as something socially derelict or “not done”.

Peterson’s days as a married bachelor. SAN QUENTIN – According to recent reports from San Quentin, Scott Peterson is adjusting nicely to prison life.

Walter Matthau is the “dirty married bachelor“, dentist Julian who lies to his girlfriend, Toni (Goldie Hawn)by pretending that he is married.

…that her love for camping was so dominant; he thought he’d better join her and they would start their own camp or else he would be a married bachelor.

Some bad choices: sisters dissin’ sisters; no-money no-honey approach; loving the married bachelor ; or using your finance to maintain his romance.

It was just four of us – three singles and a married bachelor. As I. tasted the deep fried and cooked egg plants, dhal curry and deep fried papadams,

India is the uncomplaining sweetheart whom this married bachelor flirts with and leaves behind. Every time. And she knows it all and yet smiles

There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor. Of such was Captain Nichols. I met his wife. She was a woman of twenty-eight,    [Somerset Maugham 1919, The Moon and Sixpence. Chapter 46.]

Two of these are of particular note:  The final example dates back to 1919; and the penultimate example uses the phrase metaphorically (or more metaphorically, if you prefer).

As a child, I’m sure I would have found all of these examples quite puzzling and would have asked, “If ‘bachelor’ means ‘unmarried man,’ then how can there be a ‘married bachelor?’”

The issue here is compositionality.  How do we understand the meaning of phrases like ‘the brown cow’ or ‘the married bachelor’?  It can’t be the way Fodor (1998, p. 99) explains it.  Here’s what Fodor says, except I have substituted throughout ‘married’ for ‘brown’ and ‘bachelor’ for ‘cow’.  You will note that what makes reasonable sense for ‘the brown cow’ is incoherent for ‘the married bachelor’. 

Compositionality argues that ‘the married bachelor’ picks out, a certain bachelor; viz. the married one.  It’s because ‘married’ means married that it’s the married bachelor that ‘the married bachelor’ picks out.  If English didn’t let you use ‘married’ context-independently to mean married and ‘bachelor’ context-independently to mean bachelor, it couldn’t let you use ‘the married bachelor’ to specify a married bachelor without naming it.

It’s clear that something that distinguishes the uses documented above from the more usual UNMARRIED MAN (more or less) uses.  I was tempted to say that the more usual uses are literal as opposed to figurative (metaphorical?).  Yes, but as has been pointed out, while it may be literally correct to say that the Pope is a bachelor, it feels like an incorrect usage.

Well, it just goes on and on.  At this point, of course, apoplectic sputtering occurs to the effect that these are metaphorical uses and should be swept under the rug where all inconvenient counterexamples are kept and need never be dealt with.  But speaking of KEEP, as Fodor (pp. 49-56) points out, Jackendoff’s program (though not in so many words) to accommodate things like this by proliferating definitions of KEEP.  Fodor characterizes this as just so much more messy than thinking that KEEP just means keep.  I agree.

For more about married bachelors, see also

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