October 23, 2004

Bushian tautologies? I don't think so

In his Campaign Journal article "Reality check" in the Politics Issue of The New Yorker (October 18) Philip Gourevitch twice suggests that George W. Bush's public pronouncements are characterized by tautologies. The literary term "tautology" means a redundant expression like I myself personally, but that doesn't seem to be the applicable sense in the context of what Gourevitch is saying. He appears to be invoking the logical notion of tautology. But mistakenly, as far as I can see. The reference to tautology doesn't seem justified by either of the examples given. The first is introduced thus (p.98):

Logic has never been his strong suit; in justifying his policies and actions, he prefers stonewalling (admit no error, and ignore or deny bad news) and tautology (I do what's right because it's right, and it's right because I do it).

But that latter remark is no tautology.

In logic, a tautology is a statement that depends on no state of affairs for its inescapable truth: a statement like "When you've gotta go, you've gotta go." A tautology simply can't be false.

But a claim that you do what is right because it's right is a claim about the reasons for your actions, and it could be false (if all cases of you doing what was right were actually due to inept and blundering attempts at evil).

And a claim that something is right because you do it could also be false (if there is anything that you do that is definitely not right, or if there is anything that is right for some reason other than the fact of your doing it). The conjunction of these two contingent claims is no more tautologous than either conjunct is.

A couple of pages later, Gourevitch refers to an episode in one of the debates where Bush "invoked, once again, the tautological imperative". Why "imperative"? An allusion to Kant's "categorical imperative", Jonathan Lundell suggests to me: I suppose the suggestion is that where Kant takes an action to be right if and only if implementing it universally would be a coherent thing to do in a viable society, Bush takes it to be right if and only if he implements it. But the allegedly tautologous quote from Bush is:

I assure them we're in Iraq because I deeply believe it is necessary and right and critical to the outcome of the war on terror.

"So we are in Iraq because he believes," says Gourevitch. But this isn't anything like a tautology either. It may very well be a true claim: Because Bush believes it is right and critical etc., he ordered American troops to invade Iraq, and they are there today. But if true, it is true only as an accident of history. It's not a tautology in any sense I can discern.

Journalists need a little education not only in linguistics but also in logic if they are going to comment on the logical or semantic aspects of what our leaders say.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 23, 2004 11:42 PM