Thursday, June 25, 2009

Justice Thomas Grammar Question

Clarence Thomas dissenting from the Supreme Court's ruling in the Arizona teen strip-search case writes:

"Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments [....] Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school."

Forget for a moment about the dubious merits of CT's dissent. Am I right in thinking that the "would not have been" in the first sentence and the "will she be" in the second implies a contradiction?



9 comments:

PA said...

Not sure, let's see. Presumably the first claim is the consequent of the counterfactual,

If She had concealed pills in her undergarments she would not have been the first to do so.

Since it's a counterfactual, the antecedent,

She concealed pills in her undergarments

is false. Hence, we strictly have a contradiction only if

She will not be the last person to conceal pills in her undergarments,

entails

She concealed pills in her undergarments.

My sense is that we don't have a strict entailment here, but some kind of pragmatic implication. But even if it's not strictly contradictory, it's pretty close.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit disturbed by the ambiguity of the verb "secrete"

PA said...

A follow up:

Presumably there are possible circumstances in which

1. Fred is the last person to conceal pills in his undergarments

2. Redding did not conceal drugs in her undergarments

and

3. Redding is numerically distinct from Fred.

And these are circumstances which make

Redding is not (or will not be) the last person to conceal pills in her undergarments

true and

Redding concealed pills in her undergarments

false (apologies for tense imprecisions). So at least we don't have a strict semantic entailment.

Spiros said...

PA,

That's roughly the line of thought I was having.

My sense is that "She will not be the last person to conceal pills in her undergarments" straightforwardly entails "She concealed pills in her undergarments." (Though we do not in ordinary communication take the former to imply the latter.)

I'm reminded of the press conference in which Dana Perino asserted:
(1) Everything done at Gitmo is legal,

and

(2) Waterboarding was done at Gitmo,

but resisted a reporter's statement, "So, the administration is claiming that waterboarding is legal."

Spiros said...

PA,

Nice on the follow up. I think the "will (not) be" is the tricky part, and the question of strict entailment turns on how we understand how tenses work.

Any super-serious tense logicians in the house?

English Jerk said...

Even the strictly linguistic issues here are a bit tricky. The basic problem is that English (unlike, say, French) doesn’t have a future tense; in English we express the future time with a periphrastic construction using will (“tense” being a morpho-syntactic property and “time” being a semantic property). The problem is that it’s very difficult to pry the use of will to express the future time from its modal uses. For example, consider the following contrast (examples from CGEL):

(1) Australia meets Sweden in the Davis Cup final in December

(2) Australia will meet Sweden in the Davis Cup final in December

Example (1) uses the present tense to express the future time, and it indicates perfect certainty; whereas example (2) uses will to express the future time but also seems more like a confident prediction than a certainty.

You can also use will to indicate the consequent in a conditional construction, as in If he’s still on campus, he’ll be in his office, and in that case it (arguably) suggests perfect certainty.

The Thomas example complicates matters further by the use of will with have, where will again usually indicates a fairly strong, but not absolutely certain, factual claim:

(3) They made the decision last week

(4) They will have made the decision last week

Example (3) suggests unqualified certainty, whereas (4) suggests strong confidence.

Still, They will have made the decision last week, but they might have run out of time seems internally contradictory, so will might still be strong enough for contradiction in the Thomas example even if it doesn’t reflect perfect certainty. He probably should have said Nor would she have been the last …

PA said...

One more try:

Let's suppose that sentences are true not at worlds but at world-time pairs, and that a sentence P entails a sentence Q just in case there is no world-time pair which makes P true and Q false.

Now in order for

Redding concealed pills in her undergarments

to be true at t, there needs to be some time, t', such that (i) t' occurs before or is identical to t and (ii) Redding conceals pills in her undergarments at t'.

And in order for

Redding will not be the last person to conceal pills in her undergarments

to be true at t, there needs to be some time t* and some person F such that (i) t* occurs after t, (ii) F is numerically distinct from Redding, (iii) F conceals pills in his/her undergarments at t*, and (iv) and at no time that occurs after t* does anyone conceal pills in his/her undergarments.

Now since there are presumably possible circumstances in which

1. As of 12 noon on June 25 Redding has never concealed pills in her undergarments.

2. At 12 noon, June 26 Fred conceals pills in his undergarments

3. After 12 noon, June 26, no one ever conceals drugs in their undergarments.

4. Redding is numerically distinct from Fred.

In these circumstances

Redding will not be the last person to conceal pills in her undergarments

is true at 12 noon on June 25 and

Redding concealed pills in her undergarments

is false at 12 noon on June 25. So, again, it seems we don't have a strict semantic entailment.

Hold it. hat was a lot of work to defend Clarence Thomas. Why don't we just forget the whole thing?

Anonymous said...

I don't see a contradiction here because I don't see why this has to read as implication. This is a list of negatives: neither A nor B.

A is "Redding would have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments". B is "Redding will be the last person to conceal pills in her undergarments".

I agree that B implies that Redding concealed pills in her undergarments. I disagree that A implies Redding didn't conceal pills in her undergarments: this is taking the term "counter-factual" too literally (or perhaps imposing too much of a philosophical reading on English). It can easily be read as a sort of stipulation, as in "Ignore whether Redding actually concealed pills in her undergarments. If we stipulate that she did, she was not the first person to have done so." Maybe this is just ignorance, but this is how I have always read counter-factuals -- I see no reason to require that the proposed situation conflict with the actual situation. I do agree that such phrases do tend to carry an implicature of the falsehood of the antecedent, but that can be defeated by the rest of the sentence.

Anonymous said...

"Secrete" bothered me too. Surely "concealed" would have been a better choice.