Skip to main content

Indexical Words and Possible Worlds

SomaliaLinguists sometimes use the term "indexical" for a type of word or sign.

If I understand the point, a word is "indexical" if it presupposes some aspect of the situation in which it is employed.

"Here" is indexical. So, for that matter, is "there." Each presupposes that the speaker is located at a particular place, and that the listener has some idea what that place is.  You ask a friend over the phone, "Do you know where my folder is?" Your friend replies, "Yes, you left it over here." In that case, the speech situation includes the fact that both he and I know that I was at his place the previous night, and I presume (he knows that I will presume) that he is speaking to me now from that home. So, because I understand the indexical use of the term, I know where my folder is.

Likewise "now" is indexical. If I record the phrase "I am having trouble breathing now" and someone plays back that recording the next day, the statement may or may not be true the next day. I might be dead. Or my respiratory distress might be safely in my past, and I might be breathing fine. That doesn't matter. the word "now" is indexical, and it only informs the listener to the extent the listener has some idea when the recording was made.

All of that is critical background for the wonderful metaphysical and contemporary-science question, "Is the word 'actual' indexical?"

From one point of view, "actual" resembles "now" and "here." It is a statement about where/when I (the speaker) am. Perhaps 10 years ago I was nearly in an accident that could have taken my arm off. One possible world is that world in which that accident did happen, and I by this time would be getting quite proficient at the use of my prosthetic arm. But that isn't the "actual" world. I have two arms here. I have two arms now. I have two arms in actuality.

The question, "why is this world the actual one," is (on this line of thought) incoherent. The word "this" in such a context and the word "actual" are both indexical, and are synonyms. So the question resembles, "why is this century the present century?"

Here's a link for those who might want to examine this thought further.


Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Hume's Cutlery

David Hume is renowned for two pieces of cutlery, the guillotine and the fork.

Hume's guillotine is the sharp cut he makes between "is" statements and "ought" statements, to make the point that the former never ground the latter.

His "fork" is the division between what later came to be called "analytic" and "synthetic" statements, with the ominous observation that any books containing statements that cannot be assigned to one or the other prong should be burnt.

Actually, I should acknowledge that there is some dispute as to how well or poorly the dichotomy Hume outlines really maps onto the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Some writers maintain that Hume meant something quite different and has been hijacked. Personally, I've never seen the alleged difference however hard they've worked to point it out to me.

The guillotine makes for a more dramatic graphic than a mere fork, hence the bit of clip art above.

I'm curious whe…