Is EP a tautology?

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eschersIn Moliere’s The would-be invalid (1950), the protagonist explains the sleep-inducing effects of opium by invoking its dormitive virtue, and, upon hearing the explanation, the doctoral oral examining committee is wholly satisfied. Here, we have a classic case of tautology. From the Greek tautologos, for ‘redundant’, tautology refers to the representation of anything as the cause, condition, or consequence of itself:

“…When black, swan-like birds were discovered in Australia, there was doubt as to whether they could be ‘swans’-for swans were supposed to be white. But it was allowed that though they were black they were swans-so ‘black’ swan’ was not contradictory. Conversely, it is not tautologous to call a swan white—though it would be if the quality of white-ness was a part of the definition of a swan.” (Gregory (ed), 1987. p. 769).

Whether or not a proposition is deemed to be a tautology, then, depends on the definition of concepts. Rachman (1980) provides us with an operational definition of emotional processing as:

a process whereby emotional disturbances are absorbed, and decline to the extent that other experiences and behaviour can proceed without disruption” (p. 51).

For a closer inspection of the nature of tautology, we need to first understand the difference between analytic and synthetic propositions:

For Kant, propositions, or judgements, can be separated, basically, into two kinds: analytic and synthetic.

In all judgements in which the relation of a subject to a predicate is thought…this relation is possible in two different ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A, as something which is (covertly) contained in this concept A; or B lies outside the concept A, although it does indeed stand in connexion with it. In the one case I call the judgement analytic, and the other synthetic”. (in Korner, 1955. p.18).

An example of an analytic judgement would be, “a rainy day is a wet day”. Here the predicate ‘wet day’ is actually contained in the subject ‘rainy day’. Therefore, the proposition is an analytic one. The terms are merely elucidated, and nothing further is learned. Furthermore, to deny such a proposition would be contradictory. Kant says all such analytic judgements are a priori. That is, the truth of them can be known without reference to sensory experience.

“A rainy day is a cold day” however, is a synthetic judgement because the predicate ‘cold day’ is not contained within the subject, ‘rainy day’. So, synthetic judgements, “add to the concept of the subject a predicate which has not been in any wise thought in it, and which no analysis could possibly extract from it.” (in Ayer, 1971. p.71). Judgements that are non-a priori, are called a posteriori  judgements and must necessarily be synthetic. For Kant, a third class of judgements exists, that of synthetic a priori. That is, judgements whose denials are not contradictory and whose truths are knowable without reference to experience. Kant gives the mathematical example of 7+5=12 as a synthetic a priori judgement.

So, the question becomes, ‘ is emotional processing, as defined above, an analytic a priori judgement, and therefore a tautology?’ Or, more precisely, ‘is the predicate of the proposition contained in the subject?’ ‘[A] process whereby emotional disturbances are absorbed, and decline to the extent that other experiences and behaviour can proceed without disruption’ does not appear to be contained in the subject (emotional processing). The predicate appears to be adding something more to the subject than could be arrived at merely by analysing the subject alone.

Conversely, a criticism of tautology could be argued for, if this definition of emotional processing was limited to, “[A] process whereby emotional disturbances are absorbed”. Clearly, in this instance nothing more is gained from the predicate that could not have been deduced from an analysis of the subject in the proposition. However, the operational definition provided by Rachman, is more akin to a possible ‘factual truth’, that may or may not be observed, than the ‘logical truth’ of tautology, which is true in all cases.

The concept of emotional processing, as defined here, may not be tautologous, per se, but does need to be placed under rigorous experimental scrutiny. As McNally (2001) makes clear, self-report measures are important in laying the foundation for experiments designed to test out mechanistic processes, but, used in isolation can lack the necessary scientific rigour. Referring to the catastrophic misinterpretation hypothesis in panic disorder, McNally (2001) points out that actually, “[p]utative panic “triggers” – bodily sensations interpreted catastrophically – may merely reflect the unfolding of an autonomous biological process. (P.516). Clearly, the dependent variables that index cognitive-emotional mechanisms, should be quantitative and publicly observable (e.g. reaction times).