Is “imminent” transitive?

by Daniel on October 15, 2003

Interesting knockabout stuff from two people who’ve decided to take it up a notch in terms of Great Weblog Comments Battles and duke it out in public on Daniel Drezner’s site with $100 at stake. The battle is over the subject “Did Bush Say That Iraq Was An Imminent Threat Or Not?”.

As far as I can tell, the case for the defence is that Bush specifically said that Iraq wasn’t an imminent threat, but that it was about to become an imminent threat and he didn’t propose to wait until it became imminent.

In other words, Bush does appear to be committed to the claim “Event I’ is imminent”, where I’ is defined as “the event of event I becoming imminent” and I is defined as “Iraq being a threat”. Which means to me that this particular line of argument turns on the question of whether “imminent” is a transitive predicate, or in other words, if something will imminently become imminent, does that mean that it’s imminent now?

My guess is that “imminent” is a short-transitive predicate; it’s transitive so long as the chain of “imminents” isn’t too long. Short-transitivity is a somewhat controversial logical property, however, albeit one which would be fantastically useful for economists in making axiomatic theories of revealed preference if it could be put on a rigorous footing. I’ll leave the matter to our resident expert on the subject, Mr Weatherson.



dsquared 10.15.03 at 8:17 am

Erratum: “Mr Weatherson” presumably calls himself “Dr Weatherson” or “Professor Weatherson” in his correspondence, since he is both. But I’m a plain-speaking man of the people, with a pathological fear of academic titles used in civilian life, so there you go.


freddie 10.15.03 at 11:21 am

Lots of fancy word play here but “imminent” for me means about to take place. And soon. In that sense Bush did say that Iraq was soon to become a major threat. N. Korea, as an example, is member of Axis of Evil but was not declared an imminent threat because we could, it was implied, chat with them to reduce threat level. Not so with Iraq because they had booted out the inspectors, thus making them threatening as to their intentions. Was American thus truly threatened? No. Was Saddam aiding terrorists?Well, if not Osama’s gang, we know through his own admissions that he paid 25 thousand per family for sucide bombers (against Israel), and that we listed Hamas as terror group.


JoJo 10.15.03 at 11:36 am

“axiomatic theories of revealed preference”

You people talk that way?


Jeremy Osner` 10.15.03 at 2:38 pm

Sebastian Holsclaw and Jonathan Schwarz are debating this very question over at Daniel Drezner’s blog. This link: will take you to the beginning of the debate.


dsquared 10.15.03 at 2:57 pm

As indeed will the link at the beginning of the post, so now CT readers have a choice of links.


Jonathan Goldberg 10.15.03 at 3:17 pm

Per the dsquared erratum:
I’m of the old school, and hold that the title “Doctor” should be reserved for theologians.
Some would put economists into that category, but not I.


a different chris 10.15.03 at 3:32 pm

You gotta wonder about some of our worthy conservative blogosphere mates. This is an argument that they shouldn’t even have started, let alone got so passionate about.

Because in a political sense, they just can’t win. I’m sure Rove would just as soon not have the SOTU dredged up, because while they’re finely parsing it the rest of us are looking at the quotes and thinking how hysterical commies-at-the-door the whole tone of the thing was.

And putting aside things Condi or Big Time Dick said, just because they didn’t come from Lord Dauphin himself, are exactly the type of technicalities that really disgust people- especially conservatives- when they are exposed in our judicial system.

Didn’t they learn anything from the whole “definition of what ‘is’ is” mess??? Nobody cared what the answer was, because they were so taken aback by the sleazy air of the defense itself.

So regardless of the “victor” the loser will be Bush. His is an administration that depends upon the short memory of the voting public. Dredging up stuff of even 6 months ago will do them no good.


Brian Weatherson 10.15.03 at 3:51 pm

As a rule I’m happy to go by any title more polite (or at least no less impolite) than ‘that bastard’, so Mr is more than enough.

It’s hard to see how a concept of ‘almost transitivity’ could be worked out coherently. Here’s the best I can do off the top of my head.

Let’s say we’re working in a logic where the truth value of any proposition need not be 1 (i.e. true) or 0 (i.e. false) but can be some value in between. There’s plenty of logics like this, and while I don’t like them at all, they have lots of adherents. So any sentence S has a truth value v(S), which is higher the truer S is. The falsity value f(S) can be defined as 1-v(S). Within such a framework we can define a concept of almost transitivity:

R is almost transitive iff for all a,b,c f(aRc) is less than or equal to f(aRb) + f(bRc). This is weaker than transitivity, and it’s plausible that ‘imminent’ is almost transitive.

I’d be rather embarrassed if defending my position required appeal to wacky logical concepts like these. But it seems pretty clear that embarrassment is no problem for the defenders of the Bush/Blair line, so in a friendly spirit I offer them this proposal.


Jeremy Osner` 10.15.03 at 3:52 pm

D’oh! Sorry DD, forgot the beginning of the post before I got to the end.


Xhenxhefil 10.15.03 at 4:17 pm

OK, on behalf of the left I admit that Bush did not intend us to believe the danger was imminent. As theological hairsplitters know, “imminent” means “about to take place”, while “immanent” means “already present everywhere”. Clearly the message was that the threat was “immanent”, or already existent. The war has not removed this threat, though, but it has instilled fear everywhere the threat supposedly exists.


Zizka 10.15.03 at 4:54 pm

Fuzzy logic, right? Daniel has been spending too much time with the philosophers.

In the context of the actual political argument, what’s primarily significant is the whole swarm of administration statements about Saddam’s threat during the runup to the war vote in September 02. (And secondarily, the statements during the period between the war vote and the actual war).

Not just the statements in which the word “imminent” was actually used. In at least one place Bush specifically disavowed that word. But elsewhere we were repeatedly given the impression that a WMD attack on the US itself might be possible at any time. The scaremongering may not have included many clear and definite statements, but that was the gist of it, and it was disseminated very aggressively.

To me, when the defenders of the original scare campaign rely on its vagueness and confusion to defend it — and that is what they’re doing — it really compounds the original dishonesty.

In the same way, people will claim that juxtaposing photos of Saddam and Sen. Cleland, for example, was not definitely saying that there was a relationship between the two. And no, it wasn’t, but it’s not less reprehensible. If anything, it’s more so.


Barry 10.15.03 at 5:12 pm

“Not so with Iraq because they had booted out the inspectors, thus making them threatening as to their intentions.”

Freddie, when did Saddam do this?

IIRC, the inspectors were withdrawn before Desert Fox, and were re-admitted when in 2002 (or ’03).


Jonathan Ichikawa 10.15.03 at 7:07 pm

This looks like a straight-forward anti-Sorites kind of argument to me… “imminent” is very similar to “really close”, which is not strictly transitive unless it allows Providence to be “really close” to Taiwan.

But like you say, this a short chain… so while the principle you say Bush is committed to (that “imminent” is not transitive) looks true, the whole story is somewhat more dubious.


acline 10.15.03 at 11:07 pm

While I appreciate a good linguistic parsing, from my discipline the answer to what Bush claimed about WMDs, threats, links to terrorists ,etc., i.e. his persuasive intent, seems quite clear. From an entry on Rhetorica last week in regard to his UN address prior to the war:

“Literalists will argue that Bush never said in so many words yadda yadda yadda. This willfully misunderstands rhetoric. Bush didn’t have to say it in so many words. The pathos and enthymemes of the speech did the persuading. Aristotle, 2,300 years ago, demonstrated how to get an audience to complete an argument by adding in the stuff that isn’t specifically said.”


mitch 10.15.03 at 11:21 pm

Now if only all that intellectual firepower was involved in debating a proposition like, The US government has secretly believed for ten years that Iraq is an Al Qaeda sponsor, and has acted accordingly throughout that time. (Exhibit A for the affirmative side being comment 5 here.)


Zizka 10.16.03 at 12:13 am

Enthymemes is the word of the day. It showed up somewhere else (Calpundit or Yglesias). It’s a pity the concept isn’t more widely diffused.


acline 10.16.03 at 3:22 am

Zizka…The Rhetorica Network is dedicated to disseminating basic knowledge of rhetoric. Check out the Critical Meter and the Rhetoric Primer.


Moore Tania Williamson 12.09.03 at 10:54 pm

Unusual ideas can make enemies.

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