Tuesday, April 19, 2011

This post is as good as itself

A post on the Guardian sports blog contains two new types of tautology.

In work on tautologies, in philosophy/semantics/pragmatics, it's normal to give examples like 'War is war', 'Boys will be boys', 'If it rains, it rains', and 'Either he'll come or he won't'. It's also normal to point out that tautologies can have these forms:

Equative: e is e; an e is an e
Conditional: If P then P
Disjunctive: Either P or not P

It's not so easy to think of tautologies that have forms not on this short list (of course with a bit of propositional logic you can come up with as many tautological forms as you like, but what we're after here are sentences that someone might actually produce).

The new examples are after the jump.

Here are the two novel tautologies:

This game was as good as itself.

Sachin, and only Sachin, is Sachin.

The tautologies here have these forms:

e is as a as itself
Only n is n

(Where e: term that refers to an entity; a: adjective; n: proper name)

We have to make an assumption about the semantics of proper names to see the second type as a tautology, but it's a very plausible assumption: that, in natural language, proper names refer uniquely. There are many people called Sachin (for some reason the name has been very popular since around 1990) but still it's true that only Sachin is Sachin and it's hard to see how it could ever be false.

Tautologies, like any other utterance, (outside of linguistic bughunting like this) are uttered with the intention of communicating something, of course. But what?

Tautologies present a puzzle for pragmatic theory. Since tautologies are necessarily true it is hard to see how uttering one can be informative, relevant or cooperative. Yet people do utter tautologies and are understood. (From my Key Terms book once again.)

Tautologies can convey various different things. 'War is war' seems to imply that certain aspects of warfare are inevitable, and 'boys will be boys' works similarly. There's often a different implicature: the thing under discussion is good enough for the task at hand, as in the following dialogue:

Archie: Can I borrow your pen?
Brenda: Here you are. It’s only a biro, though.
Archie: A pen is a pen. (ibid.)

Is there any underlying unity?

I put something that I've heard Deirdre Wilson say into my entry on tautology:
One thing that all interpretations of tautological utterances might have in common is that they serve as reminders of facts already known: that war is terrible; that pens are writing instruments, etc.

How about the new examples?

It looks as though the observation holds up pretty well.

'Only Sachin is Sachin' is meant as a reminder to the reader (who is assumed to know, and agree) that Tendulkar has attributes that no other cricketer possesses. Here's the whole paragraph: "Sachin, and only Sachin, is Sachin: talk about big, big man-love, I come over all unnecessary just thinking about the possibility that he may, one day, retire... The thing is, he can do this stuff at the drop of the hat, whenver the mood is on him."

"This game was as good as itself' is a bit harder to understand, but is also meant as a reminder: this game has certain properties-- and therefore don't get confused by, or carried away with, comparisons to other games. The conntext makes that clear:
Comparisons are, of course, odious … . There have been plenty of other wonderful games, their place in history and our hearts assured. This game was as good as itself, and that was as good as the millions watching round the world thought it was - i.e. pretty damned bloody good.

Of course, there's no way I'm leaving this subject without linking to xkcd's 'Tautology Club'.

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