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Does Macbeth See a Dagger? An Empirical Argument for the Existence-Neutrality of Seeing

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Abstract

In a recent paper, Justin D’Ambrosio (2020) has offered an empirical argument in support of a negative solution to the puzzle of Macbeth’s dagger—namely, the question of whether, in the famous scene from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth sees a dagger in front of him. D’Ambrosio’s strategy consists in showing that “seeing” is not an existence-neutral verb; that is, that the way it is used in ordinary language is not neutral with respect to whether its complement exists. In this paper, we offer an empirical argument in favor of an existence-neutral reading of “seeing”. In particular, we argue that existence-neutral readings are readily available to language users. We thus call into question D’Ambrosio’s argument for the claim that Macbeth does not see a dagger. According to our positive solution, Macbeth sees a dagger, even though there is not a dagger in front of him.

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Notes

  1. See, e.g., Austin (1962) and Dretske (1969).

  2. D’Ambrosio also looks at whether “seeing” exhibits features (2) and (3) discussed above. As he notes, however, (1) is central to motivate his solution to the puzzle of Macbeth’s dagger. Since our focus is on this solution, we will restrict our discussion to (1), or existence-neutrality.

  3. See, e.g., Moore (1905), Ayer (1940), Anscombe (1965), Brogaard (2014, 2015), Bourget (2017).

  4. Since there was a difference in ascriptions of truth (but not seeing) between conditions— participants who received the long version were more willing to agree that there is a dagger in front of Macbeth (Mlong = 3.31, SDlong = 2.35; Mshort = 2.16, SDshort = 1.51; t(58) = 2.27, p = .027, d = 0.59)—we also provide separate analyses for each condition.

    Long (n = 29). One-sample t-tests against the middle of the scale (4) showed that participants’ responses did not differ from the midline for the truth question (M = 3.31, SD = 2.35, t(28) = 1.58, p = .125, d = 0.29) while agreeing that Macbeth sees a dagger (M = 6.24, SD = 1.30, t(28) = 9.29, p < .001, d = 1.72). Focusing only on participants who completely disagreed that there is a dagger in front of Macbeth (choosing 1 on the scale, n = 9), they strongly agree that Macbeth sees a dagger (M = 6.89, SD = 0.33, t(8) = 26.0, p < .001, d = 8.67).

    Short (n = 31). One-sample t-tests against the middle of the scale (4) showed that participants disagreed that there is a dagger in front of Macbeth (M = 2.16, SD = 1.55, t(30) = 6.79, p < .001, d = 1.22) while agreeing that Macbeth sees a dagger (M = 5.74, SD = 1.55, t(30) = 6.26, p < .001, d = 1.12). Focusing only on participants who completely disagreed that there is a dagger in front of Macbeth (choosing 1 on the scale, n = 9), they still strongly agree that Macbeth sees a dagger (M = 6.65, SD = 0.86, t(16) = 12.7, p < .001, d = 3.07).

  5. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  6. We are grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this issue and for suggesting that we do this additional study.

  7. We are grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this objection.

  8. As in Study 9, a composite score for seeing was calculated by averaging both items (after inverting the negative one; Cronbach’s alpha was .88). A composite score for believing was calculated by averaging the four scores (Cronbach’s alpha was .92) for thinking and believing (after inverting the scales with the negative formulations).

  9. Focusing only on participants who completely disagreed that John is being attacked by a tiger (choosing 1 on the scale, n = 151, 66% of the whole sample), we see the same pattern of results. There are only two relatively minor divergences from the results that were observed in the full sample. First, while in the full sample participants in the imagination condition neither agreed nor disagreed that John believes that he is being attacked by a tiger (p = .27), after exclusions they slightly disagreed with this claim (p = .013). Second, while in the full sample participants in the hallucinating condition were slightly more willing to ascribe belief than in the dreaming condition (p = .023), this difference ceases to be statistically significant after exclusions (p = .24).

  10. As in Studies 9 and 11, a composite score for seeing was calculated by averaging both items (after inverting the negative one; Cronbach’s alpha was .78). A composite score for believing was calculated by averaging the four scores (Cronbach’s alpha was .94) for thinking and believing (after inverting the scales with negative formulations).

  11. Focusing only on participants who completely disagreed that Steve is being attacked by a tiger (choosing 1 on the scale, n = 165, 69% of the whole sample), we see the same pattern of results. There is only one new difference that was not observed in the full sample. Namely, while in the full sample in the imagination condition there was only a statistically non-significant trend to disagree that Steve sees that he is being attacked by a tiger (p = .071), after exclusions participants disagreed with this claim (p = .004).

  12. As a referee notes, this might be due to the fact that, like perceiving, dreaming and hallucinating are independent of our will, whereas imagining is not (see, e.g., Sartre, 1940; Wittgenstein, 1980; McGinn, 2004; Kind, 2020). This is, indeed, one way in which one might make sense of the phenomenological differences here, although it is unclear whether dreaming is indeed independent of the will in the same way that perceiving is (see, e.g., Ichikawa, 2009; Whiteley, 2021). Moreover, as Kind (2020) notes, the view that the phenomenology of imagining differs from the phenomenology of perceiving in terms of its relationship to the will is also not without problems. Thus, while this is a promising way of making sense of the results obtained here, our argument does not require committing to any specific account of the phenomenology of those states, so we shall remain neutral on this issue in the context of this paper.

  13. One might respond here by saying that since D’Ambrosio’s goal is to test for entailments, it is natural to expect that the questions are phrased modally. As we note below, though, the worry here is not that modal phrasings are problematic when testing for entailment, but rather that this might not be what is at stake in the question of whether Macbeth sees a dagger. As we read D’Ambrosio (2020), he provides two different arguments in his paper. The first is that ascriptions of “seeing” are not existence-neutral. The second is that the existence-neutrality of seeing supports a negative answer to the puzzle of Macbeth’s dagger. This is why we distinguish between a negative and a positive argument developed in the context of our own paper (see Sect. 1). These target, respectively, D’Ambrosio’s first and second arguments. Thus, our claim here is that distinguishing between (1a) and (1b) is important in the context of D’Ambrosio’s second argument, but we find no issue with modal phrasings as far as the first argument is concerned. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing us to clarify this point.

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Acknowledgements

Vilius Dranseika was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement 805498). We would like to thank two anonymous referees for their helpful comments on the paper.

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Correspondence to André Sant’Anna.

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Sant’Anna, A., Dranseika, V. Does Macbeth See a Dagger? An Empirical Argument for the Existence-Neutrality of Seeing. Erkenn 89, 641–664 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-022-00549-3

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