Monday, March 12, 2007

What's the mater with "is?"

In follow up to my own point, I would like to consider an example of how political language is incredibly interesting and enlightening. Recall when Bill Clinton famously told us all “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” It looked like a shameless equivocation at the time, and it was, but think about this for a moment: What is the meaning of “is?” Is- verb- meaning “to be,” as “is in existence,” or “is the case.” Hmmm. In existence. Metaphysics. Is the case that. Epistemology. When you put it like that, the question sounds like the foundation of western philosophy. It depends on the meaning of “is?” I should say it does. Everything depends on the meaning of “is.” There have been giant books written, read, reviewed, studied, translated, transcribed, transmorphed all having to do exactly with the meaning of “is.” Do I make more sense if I change the term to “existence.” You might even say there is a field devoted to the question called “existentialism.” Seldom has there been a philosopher or thinker that has not been in some great part worried about the meaning of “is” and the ramification therein of holding such a definition. You might say the entire academy intones in one expansive, timeless, and univocal breath: “it depends on the meaning of ‘is!’”

But none of this rings forth in Bill Clinton’s words. In his mouth, it’s just a clever lawyer’s trick. Do you catch my drift? One of our most fundamental philosophic questions doesn’t pass the laugh test when couched in political language. Things like that get me thinking. By the way, it’s raining in Brooklyn.

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