“It’s Causal”

Believe it or not, what constitutes a cause (or a causer) in natural language is extremely complex. Allow me to recommend a new book that may be unfamiliar: Perspectives on causation edited by Bar-Asher Siegal & Boneh.

Perspectives on Causation: Selected Papers from the Jerusalem 2017 Workshop (Springer 2020, eds. Elitzur A. Bar-Asher Siegal and Nora Boneh).

This fascinating book brings together linguists, philosophers, and psychologists to examine traditional assumptions about causation. The chapter by Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal and Norah Boneh on lexical causatives in Modern Hebrew (“Sufficient and Necessary Conditions for a Non-Unified Analysis of Causation“) is excellent.

For example, have you ever considered that certain lexical causatives express a dependency that is presupposed rather than asserted? This may be what distinguishes the semantics of lexical causatives from mere caused activities, that is, “whether they encode a necessary or a sufficient condition and whether this is only asserted in positive sentences or also can be presupposed in negative ones, presupposing the relevancy of being a potential condition.” For example (57):

A: It is hot in the room. To let some air in, someone opens the window.
B: The heat in the room created such pressure that the window opened by itself.

Here (A) portrays the temperature as a necessary but not a sufficient condition for opening the window, while (B) portrays it as both necessary and sufficient. This is reflected in the behavior of lexical causatives and mere caused activities. Overt causatives like (1) can describe both (A) and (B) but change of states (2) can only describe (B):

(1) החום גרם לפתיחת החלון

‘The heat caused the opening of the window.’

(2) החום פתח את החלון

‘The heat opened the window. ‘

What does this mean? It means the change of state verb in (2) portrays the heat as a sufficient condition for opening the window, while the causative verb in (1) does not, hence the infelicity of (2) when describing (A).

Causation…much more complex than you think!