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Wednesday, March 04, 2009


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"1. My expository skills could be better than they are.

Not only does (1) have a definite meaning, it has exactly one definite meaning: no question of ambiguity arises. "

A speaker of British English might take (1) to mean '[If I practise my writing more then] in a years time my expository skills might be better than they are now.' It's an expression of hope for the future. As such, is this a modal construction? It seems to express something about how this world will turn out, not about some alternative world.


"A speaker of British English might take (1) to mean '[If I practise my writing more then] in a years time my expository skills might be better than they are now.'"

Why would anyone take (1) to mean an expression of hope for the future? If a speaker would have wanted to say something about his hopes then he could have said instead of (1):

2) I hope that my expository skills will be better (perhaps after some practice).

A speaker could assert (1)on his death bed, lamenting all his life the fact that his expository skills were not up to the standards he wished them to be. Surely, asserting (1) under these conditions cannot be indicating hope that they will be better.

A speaker who asserts (1) clearly intends to say two things both of which have nothing to do with hope. First, the speaker of (1) presupposes that his expository skills currently are not up to a certain desired level; and, second, that his expository skills could have been closer to a desired level.

Neither of these includes an expression of hope.

Of course, I can envision a context in which (1) is asserted, it means roughly what I said it means, and it is accompanied with hope. For instance, someone is taking seven hours of intensive writing classes a day. A friend asks: "Why are you killing yourself taking all of these writing classes?". The speaker then responds: "My expository skills could be better than they are. I really want to improve them. So I am taking all of these classes *hoping* that taking them will improve my expository skills significantly."

What do we have here in this exchange? The speaker thinks that while his expository skills are not what they should be, they could be and that he has the ability to improve them by taking the classes and he hopes they will be.



Thanks for the comments. I confidently asserted that (1) has exactly one meaning, a modal meaning: in the actual world @, now, my expository skills are at some level L; but there is a possible world W accessible to @ in which I now have skills at level L*> L.
David is suggesting that (1) could be construed as expressing a temporal proposition. But note that he shifted from 'could' to 'might.' Without this shift, it looks as if he is referring us to a future possibility, the possibility that in the future my writing skills be better than what they actually are now. If so, then (1) remains modal but is ambiguous as between a present modal and a future modal meaning.

So although what Peter says in response to David is formidable, David may be right that (1) is open to multiple interpretations.

But all of this is beside the main point, which is that there are unrealized possibilities. That is what I want to convince David of. David has shown by his 'modal map' in an earlier thread that he understands perfectly the way the modal concepts interrelate. He understands the logic of these concepts. What I think he doubts is that there is anything in the world that corresponds to, or falls under, these concepts.

So David, is that your difficulty? You understand the non-epistemic concept 'unrealized possibility' but you doubt, or perhaps even deny, that there are any unrealized possibilities.

Thanks, Bill, for that generous interpretation of my comment. That your (1) had another interpretation was indeed my (beside the) point. I switched to 'might' because I wanted to express a present epistemic uncertainty about the future rather than a future state of possibility.

I'm unsure about unrealised possibilities as yet, though, as you guessed, tending towards the sceptical. What I've been concerned to do in recent comments is make a case that certain concepts, eg, 'validity of argument form' (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/02/validity-as-a-modal-concept-and-a-modal-argument-for-the-nonexistence-of-god.html?cid=6a010535ce1cf6970c01116886bf13970c#comment-6a010535ce1cf6970c01116886bf13970c) and 'consistency with the laws of physics' (http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/02/volition-and-modality-peter-lupu.html?cid=6a010535ce1cf6970c011168ae90f4970c#comment-6a010535ce1cf6970c011168ae90f4970c) are understandable without resort to modality. If you or Peter can find a concept that I can't 'demodalise' I'll be persuaded.

PS. Could we have HTML formatting in the comments box back, please?


I think I need to switch back to Typepad Identification to restore HTML formatting, but I will have to do that anyway since spammers have been trying to break in. The downside is that it makes it more difficult for legitimate commenters to enter the Comments Area.

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