Jay Hancock, writing on his Baltimore Sun blog, says that Hillary’s apology for her remarks about RFK’s assassination was merely a ‘conditional apology:

I love these conditional apologies from people who have made public gaffes and insults. A genuine apology — an expression of regret and an implicit request for forgiveness — should be unconditional. It should be an acknowledgment that a wrong has been committed — no ifs ands or buts. But here’s Hillary, who defended the fact that she’s still in the race by saying, “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.” She responded to the uproar by saying:

“And I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation and in particular the Kennedy family was in any way offensive.”

Note the “if.” One way to interpret this is that she’s saying: Hey, I’m fine with what I said. But if you have a problem with it, OK, my bad. I don’t really regret the remark. I regret that you’re offended.

It WAS offensive, Mrs. Clinton. Just apologize without the fine print.

Is it correct that Clinton’s apology was conditional? This is a very tough one to call because the sentence that Hancock finds problematic is actually ungrammatical and that makes it unclear what kind of conditional she is using. Let me explain.

Call a sentence of the form “if… then… ” a conditional (sentence). In many (most?) cases, conditional sentences do actually express some form of conditionality. E.g. “if you flip that switch, the light will come on”. The light’s coming on is represented as conditional on your flipping that switch. The light won’t come on unless you flip that switch. But as philosophers well know, there is a variety of conditional sentences that does not express conditionality at all. These are sometimes called “biscuit” conditionals after a classic example of J.L. Austin’s: “there are biscuits on the sideboard if you want them”. Obviously, the biscuits’ being on the sideboard is not represented as being conditional on your wanting them. They will be there whether you want them or not. (A famous example from pop culture. In the film of From Here to Eternity, there is the following dialog between the characters played by Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster: DK – “If you’re looking for the captain, he isn’t here.” BL – “And if I’m not looking for the captain?” DK – “He still isn’t here”. See the treatment of these conditionals by William Lycan and Michael Geis in the appendix of Lycan’s book Real Conditionals.)

A sentence like “I’m sorry if you’re offended” might be meant as a regular conditional, in which case it would be, as Hancock says, a conditional apology. My being sorry would be represented as conditional on your being offended. I’m not sorry unless you’re offended. But it also might be a ‘biscuit’ conditional. I’m sorry whether or not you’re offended. But if you are offended, you might be particularly interested in the fact that I’m sorry just as, if you want some biscuits, you might be particularly interested in the fact that there are some on the sideboard.

So, was Hillary’s apology in the form of a regular conditional or a biscuit conditional? There are two problems here. First, there is no way to tell except through context and background information. We know that the biscuit example is not a real conditional because we know that a visitor’s desires cannot retroactively determine the location of the biscuits. In the apology case, we would have to appeal to context and a sense of what HRC is doing to determine the kind of conditional. Unfortunately, the context is hardly clear enough to settle the question without begging it.

The second problem, however, is that what Hillary actually said is not really a conditional at all, but a sentence fragment. One might think (I did think, when I read the quote before I heard it) that she was uttering a conditional whose “if” part was “my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation and in particular the Kennedy family was in any way offensive” and whose “then” part was “I regret that”. (Recall that the word “then” can often be silent in conditionals.) On this reading, the next thing to do would be to determine what the “that” in “I regret that” referred to. Presumably, it would have to be the “if” part itself. So the sentence would look like this: “if p, then I regret p.” Such a sentence could not very well be a ‘biscuit’ conditional, for the following reason. It was a mark of a real conditional, as opposed to a ‘biscuit’ conditional, that the “then” part would be true, whether or not the “if” part was. (The biscuits are on the sideboard whether or not you want them. But the light won’t come on unless you flip the switch.) But it would be pragamatically odd to say that you regretted p, whether or not p was true. So the regretting, most likely, would be genuinely conditional on the “if” part, and Hancock would be right that it was a conditional apology.

Unfortunately, however, when you listen to Hillary deliver the line, it is clear that “I regret that” is not the “then” part of a conditional, in which “that” refers back to the “if” part, but rather the introduction of indirect discourse in which “that” functions as a conjunction. She is saying, in effect, “Here is what I regret. It is that if my remarks….”. But there is no “then” part to complete the conditional. Her utterance was actually of the form “I regret that if p….”.

Most likely, the two constructions “If my remarks caused offense, [then] I regret that fact” (which offers a conditional apology) and “I regret that it is the case that if my remarks caused offense, then…[left uncompleted]”, which strictly speaking offers no apology at all, are being conflated by HRC. But since we don’t know what would have completed the latter construction, had she been using that construction unequivocally, we can’t say whether it would have been a conditional or an unconditional apology – whether the “if… then… ” would have been a real conditional or a biscuit conditional.

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