Sunday, January 12, 2014

causation in verbal semantics

Causation is a major area of study within linguistic semantics. There is a thorough wiki page on the Causative that provides a good overview. Also, unsurprisingly, Beth Levin has written a nice discussion of the issues in these LSA 09 notes: Lexical Semantics of Verbs III: Causal Approaches to Lexical Semantic Representation.

To list the troubles with defining causation would fill a dissertation, so I won't bother here. Often, semanticists are interested in argument realization (see Levin's notes above). But there are deeper issues with causality that often go unaddressed. The deepest of all: what the hell is causality?

To this point, I ran across an old draft of a grad school buddy's qualifying paper on causation. It's just a draft, and it's old, but it had a nice section that tried to outline the constitutive criteria for causation*. I have since lost touch with this guy (I'll call him "BB"), but I thought this list of criteria is good food for though for anyone interested in causation. I post these as discussion points only. And if BB sees this, give me a buzz :-)

First, here's a taste of the range of causative types taken from the wiki page on Causation (don't be fooled by these English examples, the issues permeate all languages. Causation is tough):

  • The vase broke — autonomous events (non-causative).
  • The vase broke from a ball’s rolling into it — resulting-event causation.
  • A ball’s rolling into it broke the vase — causing-event causation
  • A ball broke the vase — instrument causation.
  • I broke the vase in rolling a ball into it author causation (unintended).
  • I broke the vase by rolling a ball into it  agent causation (intended) 
  • My arm broke when I fell  undergoer situation (non-causative).
  • I walked to the store  self-agentive causation.
  • I sent him to the store  caused agency (inductive causation).

BB's Nine Criteria for the treatment of causation (c. 2002)
  1. Change of state. The caused event must denote a change of state.
  2. Causers must be events. The causer A can not simply be an individual but must be an event.
  3. Argument sharing. The causing event must contain the causee in its representation.
  4. Impingement. There must be a clear indication of impingement between the causer and the causee such that the causer impinges on the causee.
  5. Occurrence condition. The caused event must occur.
  6. Co-occurrence condition. The occurrence of the caused event must be conditional with the occurrence of the causing event, that is, the caused event can only take place if the causing event takes place.
  7. Non-co-occurrence condition. The non-occurrence of the caused event must be conditional with the non-occurrence of the causing event; that is, the caused event does not take place if the causing event does not take place.
  8. Directness of causation. It must be apparent when indirect causation is allowable for causality in lexical items.
  9. Spatiotemporal equivalence. The causing event and the caused event must have an equivalent time and place.

BTW, I recall objecting to #5 "the caused event must occur" because of negative causative verbs like prevent (feel free to read my previous post on these kinds of verbs). I don't know how or if he addressed that in his final version.

* There's so much literature on causation, it would take years to review it all to see if anyone else has done such a thing at quite such a level (many authors mention criteria, but not quite as exhaustively). I wouldn't be surprised if there is a better variation out there, and I'm happy to post it if someone wants to point it out to me.

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