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Monday, February 05, 2007

'The President has been Assassinated 5 Times'

Some think worm theory is suspect because we rarely quantify over worms in ordinary language. However, consider the following sentences (from Carlson 1977):

(1) The president makes good decisions when he is from Ohio
(2) The president has eaten at the Statler Hilton on saturday nights every week for the past 25 years.
(3) The president inhabited the White House continuously for 136 years until Truman moved into Blair house.
(4) The president has been assassinated by a disgruntled job-seeker five times since the turn of the century.

(3) seems to assert that a four-dimensional spacetime worm to which the predicate 'president' applies lived in the White House for 136 years until one of its temporal parts moved into Blair house, and (4) seems to assert that a four-dimensional spacetime worm to which the predicate 'president' applies has been killed five times. Carlson himself treats bare plurals and definite descriptions used generically as terms referring to kinds. But (1) of course does not assert of a kind that it makes good decisions when it is from Ohio. To avoid this implication Carlson distinguishes between kind-level and characterizing predicates. Kind-level predicates are predicates such as 'is extinct' which apply to the kind itself (as in 'the dinosaur is extinct'). Characterizing predicates are predicates such as 'makes good decisions when he is from Ohio' which apply only to instances of the kind. It is not the kind that makes good decisions when it is from Ohio but the individuals that fall under it. Carlson treats kinds as basic but if kinds were mereological sums, as some philosophers think, his suggestion would be consistent with the thesis that ordinary language quantifies over worms.

Reference: Carlson, G. 1977. Reference to Kinds in English, Ph.D. thesis, UMass.

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