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9.3: Inconsistency with Presuppositions

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    You may have seen cars bearing this threatening bumper sticker: "If you don't like the way I drive, then stay off the sidewalk." The statement taken literally presupposes that the driver drives on the sidewalk.


    Statement A presupposes statement B if a speaker wouldn’t state A unless he or she were taking the truth of B for granted.

    The presuppositions of a statement are background assumptions. The presuppositions are other, unsaid, relevant statements that would normally be taken for granted if you believed or asserted the statement. A isn’t going to be even true or false without B being true. For example, referring to U.S. arms shipments to Iran being made in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages, comedian Mark Russell, impersonating the U.S. president, said, "We sold no weapons to Iran, and we won't do it anymore." The joke here turns on inconsistency. A speaker probably wouldn't say, "We won't do it anymore" unless the speaker was presupposing that we did it at least once. But the first part of this joke explicitly says we didn't do it, even once.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Gandhi led India to independence from Britain in 1947, shortly after World War II. British soldiers killed, injured, or jailed many Indians in an attempt to suppress this revolution. When asked by a reporter what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi said, "I think it would be a good idea." Gandhi's joke turns on a presupposition. Identify the presupposition.

    a. The British are still there in spirit and were never expelled.
    b. The Western world is not civilized.
    c. Western civilization is a good idea.
    d. He had a good idea.
    e. It would be a good idea for the British to be expelled.


    Answer (b). He assumed that the Western world is not civilized and was remarking that it would be a good idea for it to become civilized. Because his assumption is not the questioner's assumption, the comment is humorous

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The United States and Iran were the two parties involved in a 1980s scandal about trading U.S. weapons in return for the U.S. hostages who had been seized by Muslim fundamentalists. Impersonating the president, a comedian referred to the trade and said, “There was no third party involved, and we want to thank Israel for all their help." What is the presupposition that is being contradicted?


    If you thank Israel for their help, you presuppose that Israel did help and thus that there was a third party involved after all.

    Well, we’ve been talking a lot about jokes. Now it's time to get serious. Let's examine astrology—the ancient study of how the stars and planets affect earthly events. My reason for not believing in astrology is that I'm a Scorpio.

    That completes our examination of astrology. It also demonstrates something about how jokes turn on self-contradiction.

    You may enjoy trying to detect the inconsistency that makes you doubt Harpy's excuse in the following story.

    Harpy lived with his grandmother next to the freeway in Cleveland, Ohio. He and his grandmother, Mrs. Harker, were on welfare because his father had disappeared and his mother drank so much every day that she was in no condition to raise her children. Harpy didn't like going to middle school, but he did like model airplane glue. Fortunately, he wasn't old enough to buy it himself. In Ohio you have to be eighteen or have a note from your parents. One morning he asked his welfare worker to buy him some glue. A friend had promised to give him a kit for a small airplane, he said. He wanted to start with fifteen tubes.

    Although he never got the glue from her, Harpy did enjoy talking to the welfare worker whenever she came for a visit. A few months after the glue incident, between Christmas and New Year's, she arrived for one of her scheduled morning visits. She was surprised to find Harpy's grandmother alone and crying about the Christmas they had just had. Mrs. Harker was crying because her grandson had given her such wonderful presents for Christmas. She wasn't crying for joy. She was crying for another reason.

    The next time the welfare worker had a chance, she asked Harpy about those presents. He responded very seriously, “I talked to God in my dream just before Christmas. God said my grandmother loved me very much, and I hadn't done nothin' for her. She worked real hard all her life, and she deserved somethin' real good. We didn't have no money, so God said to me, 'Harpy, you go to Sears' I went to Sears."

    Harpy's claim that God told him to shoplift is inconsistent with most people's beliefs about what God would really sav.1

    1 Unfortunately, this is a true story in the author’s experience, although all the names of the people and the city have been changed.

    This page titled 9.3: Inconsistency with Presuppositions is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Bradley H. Dowden.

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