The tentative, provisional, and presumptive

A common error in thinking is to believe that a request, an invitation, or an offer is structured according to a Yes or a  No. Either I accept or I reject. Either I assent or else dissent. However, in many cases a binary operator may not be accurate or appropriate. Thus, one needs to consider, specify, supply the appropriate qualifiers.

In an unsettled age during which more things are contingent and more complexity is readily acknowledged, one does well to get in stride with the tentative (perhaps–under certain circumstances), the provisional (this so far–but to be revised in light of…), and the presumptive (yes, with the following notable exclusions or exemptions…). Unqualified Yes’s are beautiful yet rare.

These utterances, for instance, are suitable for a wide range of cases:

Not yet but in time.

Not now but perhaps later on.

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The magical coat room

You hand the man your ticket but either the ticket, which looks pretty ratty, coincides with some other performance, or else its matching partner to this performance is nowhere to be found. Either way, your coat is gone and the coat check man has no recollection of having seen the coat you describe. Try as you might, he shakes his head. You resign yourself to its absence.

Still, you’re perturbed by this recent turn of events. You reckon you could leave without a coat, but you realize that it’s very cold outside, one of the coldest days on record. For an instant, you imagine yourself living the rest of your life in the coat room–this place where others come and go, drop off and return for their wearables. You then imagine tricking yourself into believing that your coat never existed. Or perhaps you steal another’s and are better off (or worse off) in the bargain. Or, no, you’ll dash off into the winter night and, since you’re hardier than the common lot, beat the cold at its own game.

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Finding your lost coat, finding a better life

Here’s a thought experiment for you: suppose you gave your coat to the man working at coat check and the man gave you a ticket. Upon returning from the performance, you go to hand the worker your ticket, only to realize that it is nowhere to be found. The man asks you to describe the coat. It is long and black, you say. He looks around at all the long and black coats hanging up. What kind of fabric? You tell him. What designer? You tell him. Size? You tell him. Still no such luck. You begin pointing him in the general direction where you believe he may have hung it. He looks.

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Specify and inquire, you hear

You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know what’s setting things off. Time was that things made sense but that was long ago. Vaguely long ago. Now, there’s something you’d like to figure out or find out about yourself, the world, life–something–but you don’t know what it is or how. How to do so. You don’t know where to begin, how to begin, what it means to begin; you don’t know what you’re after, and you’re not sure how to recognize what you’re after as this thing here. Is it this thing in front of you, or is it that other thing far-off in the distance? Or not either right here or far-off? Or not some thing or any-thing at all? Lots of questions, one right after the other. Keep asking them, yes.

No answers.

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Looking for the man you’ve never met… On specifying

Let’s suppose that you’re a detective and that you’re looking for a man you’ve never met before. Let’s suppose further that your initial specification–‘a man I’ve never met before’–is correct: namely, that you are looking for a man (not a woman, an animal, a child, a god, an angel, or a spirit) and that you’ve never met him before.

You’re on a hunt for your quarry, and–let’s say–that you have no idea how to get the hunt underway. Put the question of search aside. Even so, it might occur to you that you will need to specify further in order to make your specification more fine-grained. After all, it will be either too easy to find this man (since, as it stands, it is any man you’ve never met before) or too difficult (the man in particular who’ve never met before). Well, perhaps you’ve been reading up about casuistry and from Jonsen and Toulmin’s The Abuse of Casuistry have gleaned that it would be an excellent idea to add clauses because it dawns on you that these would allow you to zero in on, e.g., who, where, why, how, by what means, to whom, etc. Thus: ‘The man with the scar across his lip who was last seen in the Aston Hotel on the night of the 23rd’ might help you to test whether a possible suspect could be the culprit.

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