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Philosophy Research Archives

Volume 3, 1977

Joseph L. Cowan
Pages 896-915

Cans and Can’ts

What has been has been; what is is; what will be will be. Where in this solidity is there room for the alternative paths seemingly demanded by "can"s and "could"s? What is the relation of that which can be, could be, or could have been to that which is, was or will be? The suggestions that "can" is ambiguous and that it is implicitly conditional are rejected. It is argued instead that "can't" is the affirmative, asserting the existence of one or more "preventers" of the event in question. "Can," its contradictory, is then actually the negative, denying the existence of a limited set of preventers generally specified more or less clearly and delimited more or less sharply by the context in question. This eliminates one, illegitimate, class of deterministic worries over responsibility, praise and blame, but merely intensifies those of another, genuine, kind.