What Made Alice Swoon?

'Alice swooned' on blackboardQuotation is an intriguing and rather dubious device. It allows you to say something without asserting it, to change the sense of the words you’re using, or just be vague about what exactly you’re saying (as Mr. Trump is notoriously fond of doing in his tweets).

Take any expression you like, put quotes around it, and its meaning has changed. But how exactly? What does it refer to? What is it that we do when we quote?

According to Gottlob Frege, the sign (phrase, expression, …) is transformed into a sign of itself. That goes some way towards answering the question, but what lies beyond has produced an endlessly entangled discussion among philosophers of language.

Shapes and Samples

In a much-cited essay of 1979, Donald Davidson presents his ‘Demonstrative Theory’ of quotation. His idea, briefly, is this. What is between quotes is a sample (of a ‘shape’). Quotation marks point towards (‘demonstrate’) the sample, showing that it is a sample, rather than the ‘shape’ itself.

He illustrates his idea with this curious example:

Quotation marks could be warped so as to remove the quoted material from a sentence in which they play no semantic role. Thus instead of:

‘Alice swooned’ is a sentence

we could write:

Alice swooned. The expression of which this is a token is a sentence.

Imagine the token of ‘this’ supplemented with fingers pointing to the token of ‘Alice swooned’.
(D. Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 2001, p. 91)

A rather obvious objection is that by this rewrite Davidson effectively says (1) that Alice swooned, and (2) that he says it in a sentence. By removing the quotes from the quoted material Davidson restores its assertoric force. Which is obviously not what he intends.

The rather clumsy pointing gesture (which should compensate for the lack of precision of the demonstrative this) suggests to me this image: Davidson writes Alice swooned on the blackboard, points at it, and then states This is a sentence. In this scenario it might be easier to accept his contention that Alice swooned is not asserted – though why is an interesting question. Maybe just because writing on blackboards is a conventional way of producing samples. The blackboard functions as quotation marks.

Besides the oddity of the argument, it is the oddity of the example that has always struck me. Of course, who’s Alice and why she swooned are totally irrelevant questions. But usually philosophers’ examples are either more bland, or taken from some relevant source. And when a particular phrase keeps resurfacing in the literature, its very particularity causes some irritation.

An internet search produces several instances of the sentence Alice swooned – but all postdate Davidson’s essay. Swooning is to my prejudicial mind something girls do. The girls swooned at the picture of their favorite actor, is Wiktionary’s example. Prejudice confirmed. Again prejudicially, I associate swooning girls with pulp fiction; which is confirmed by the two instances I found (there are more in the domain of fan fiction). So, …

… What Made Alice Swoon?

Fried chicken for breakfast. The historical novel Alice Flagg: The Ghost of the Hermitage (by Nancy Rhyne, 1990) is, according to the publisher, “The tragic tale of the ill-fated love between a fifteen-year-old planter’s daughter and a common lumberman …”.

“Good. Horses being saddled,” Cinda said […]. “After that, breakfast be on the table. Phoebe be frying chicken now.”
“Oooh,” Alice swooned. “Fried chicken for breakfast?”
“All that you care to eat,” Cinda answered. (p. 56)

(Note: Alice swoons “Oooh”, making it a transitive saying-verb.)

A rosewood bed, according to Catching Alice: A Novel (by Clare Naylor, 1998). Catchingly summarized on the 2012 cover: She could run from love, but not in those heels…

“This,” Tash announced with a drumroll in her voice, “is your bed”. Tash set down Alice’s battered suitcase by the door and Alice flopped down on the magnificent creation. She had never seen such a beautiful bed.
“Oh my God. This is absolutely amazing.” Alice was awestruck. It was a vast rosewood creation, and behind the crisp white pillows, down a sheet of glass, trickled rivulets of water lit up by cathedral candles that glinted from behind.
Alice swooned.
“Every man in Los Angeles wants to have sex in this bed,” Tash matter-of-factly informed Alice, who was now bouncing on this nocturnal love temple.

These novelists evidently did not quote Davidson. Nor does Davidson seem to have quoted anybody when he used that sentence Alice swooned, quotemarked, as the subject of a sentence stating that it (Alice swooned) is a sentence.

What I find fascinating about this little excursion: how often phrases and sentences, sometimes quite specific, may recur in different contexts without actually being quotations. Using language, we borrow from a vast common domain. And in that very broad sense, almost anything we say is quotation.