February 11, 2004


A couple of more thoughts about electability (first thoughts here):

(1) If you interpret "X is electable" as "X can win the election," that still leaves open the question of whether you mean something like ability or possibility. If I say "I can hit the pins when I bowl," I mean that I have the ability to--not that I will always succeed if I try, but roughly, that if I try and am careful and don't screw up in any drastic way, I will succeed. If I say "I can bowl a strike" or maybe "I could bowl a strike," I mean that it's not impossible, not that I have the ability to do it. "Anyone can grow up to be president" seems to me to be a pretty clear case in which the indicative "can" means possibility rather than ability.

To say "X is able to win the election" sets a darn high standard for electability--it's that X will win the election, if X runs a decent campaign. To say "It is possible for X to win the election" sets a low standard--it's what I'd mean if I said "X is not unelectable," or "not entirely unelectable." When I say "X is electable" I think I mean something in between.

(2) When I said that electability tout court was contextually determined, I don't think I gave a shred of evidence for it. In fact, at the moment I don't think I believe it--I'd say someone is electable if they have, say, a 45% chance of winning. Or maybe that electability is vague, with the penumbra from around 60% to around 40%. Or something.

(3) "Electable" is a modal term, I think, but I'm not sure it has a normative rather than an epistemic use. If Lyndon LaRouche had an 80% chance of winning the next election, could we say "But he's not electable!" meaning that it's just completely wrong to elect him? I don't think so. That makes me think that maybe Ralph Wedgwood's point here should be run in reverse. It's not that "ought," "can," "supposed to," and "may" are modal terms, which all have normative as well as epistemic meanings; it's that they're normative terms, which all have epistemic meanings.

"Supposed to" has a bit of bite here--grammatically it's not an auxiliary, like "ought," "can," and "may," but it exhibits the same duality as "ought" (as well as a funny interaction with negation). So this shows that the divide isn't simply between grammatical auxiliaries with two senses and other modal terms with only one.

(I expect Ralph is much more prepared than I am in this area, so take what I say with a grain of salt!) (Also, he said most modal terms.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 11, 2004 06:48 PM