July 30, 2006

A Conditional

Someone spontaneously uttered this:

(1) [I]f you are the person I was talking to at Bohemian Beer Garden who was telling me about a semi-regular meetup at Gingerman, I have forgotten who you were and the meetup details you provided me with

and asked me for my opinion on its biscuit conditionality. My response was:

That's an interesting case. If you were addressing a single person and said, "If you were the one who told me about a semi-regular meetup at the Gingerman, I've forgotten the details about the meetup," it would be a straight-up biscuit conditional. As it is, it combines that bit of biscuit conditionality with some peculiar features of a speech act directed to the multitudes; Andy Egan uses the example of (approx.) a motivational speaker saying to an auditorium full of people, "You have the power to take control of your life, even if the rest of these schmucks don't." And "I've forgotten who you were" is an interesting locution, since it clearly doesn't mean "I've forgotten who you, the person I'm speaking to, are" but "I've forgotten who was telling me." Combine all this, and I'm not sure whether it is a biscuit conditional or something weirder.

In the end I don't think it's a biscuit at all. More, and some thoughts on "I've forgotten who you were," below the jump.

The sentence is pretty much the same as:

(2) To the person who told me about the meetup: I've forgotten who you were and the details

in which "To the person...." specifies the addressee of the speech act. The original conditional (1) is used to perform a speech act addressed to the multitude of readers, or (two views Andy considers) a bunch of speech acts each directed to each individual reader, or a speech act whose content is relative to the person reading the sentence. The new (2) expresses a speech act addressed only to that person (even though the speaker doesn't know who that is).

Back to (1): Looking it over I think it's not a biscuit conditional. Compare this, said to an individual person:

(3) If you told me about a meetup, I've forgotten what you told me.

In this case the truth of the consequent depends on the truth of the antecedent; if you didn't tell me about the meetup, I haven't necessarily forgotten what (if anything) you told me. Supposing that (1) expresses a multitude of speech acts, one addressed to each reader, it has the same form as (3). If one of the clauses in the consequent omitted 'you', like:

(4) [I]f you are the person who was telling me about a meetup, I have forgotten the meetup details

it would be a biscuit conditionals, because I have forgotten the meetup details regardless of who I am speaking to.

About "I have forgotten who you were": I think that has to be one of Geoff Nunberg's descriptive indexicals (pdf, HTML cache). If 'you' were directly referential, then this would translate to "I have forgotten who [addressee] was," which is the wrong reading; I may remember who every potential reader is. That is, there may be no reader such that, if confronted with them, I'd say "Who are you again?" (This may not be what is meant by the singular proposition that would be expressed by "I have forgotten who [term directly referring to a person] is," but it's the best I can make sense of that proposition without Nunberg's mechanism.)

What this does mean is "I've forgotten who it was that told me about the meetup." "I've forgotten who you were" is asserted only conditionally on "You are the person who told me about the meetup." In this case, as per Nunberg's theory, that individual contributes a property to the proposition: the property (made salient by the antecedent) of being the person who told me about the meetup. Hence "I've forgotten who you were" becomes "I've forgotten who [individual who will contribute relevant property] was" becomes "I've forgotten who the person who told me about the meetup was."

A different reading is possible with some stage setting:

I distinctly remember the appearance of the mand who told me about the meetup. And I remember his name (though we're not allowed to mention names on this Top Secret CIA blog). But I've forgotten his identity before joining the Organization. So if you're the one who told me about the meetup, I've forgotten who you were.

Here the previous sentence makes salient the property that 'you' contributes, not the antecedent of the conditional.

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 30, 2006 09:17 AM

Doesn't seem like a biscuit conditional any more than, "If you are the rightful King of England, you can pull this sword from this stone."

Posted by: Richard at July 31, 2006 09:16 AM