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23 November 2010

What the meaning of "is" is

From RBNN's review of the book
Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs

On page 110, he notes "When President Clinton told the special prosecutor, 'That depends on what your definition of 'is' is' he was redefining a term - in the slickest, most lawyerly way, unfortunately."

There are a whole slew of problems with this statement.

First, the author misquotes Clinton. Clinton said "meaning" not "definition" and "upon" not "on". The reason this is important is that it shows the author, like in all the cases above, is not independently checking facts, and is not having anyone else do it for him. He just sort of assumes that what most people believe, is the case, or he does not care. But if someone is going to accuse a former president of the United States of deceiving or trying to deceive the court, he ought to fact check the quote.

Second, contrary to what most people think, the word "is" is ambiguous. Suppose for example that John and Mary have an intimate relationship, but it has ended two years before. Suppose someone asks John "Is there an intimate relationship between you and Mary?" The answer depends on what the definition of the word "is" is.

Third, Clinton was not trying to evade a statement he made. Clinton was asked about his own lawyer's statements in a prior proceeding. Clinton was asked if he agreed with his lawyer's statement. Now, Clinton is not deceiving anyone, because he clearly states that under one definition of "is" he agrees with his lawyer, and another he does not.

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