Two years after a group of mostly Saudi men flew commercial planes into One and Two World Trade Center, resulting in both buildings' collapsing, several New Yorkers packed into a courtroom, a mile from where the buildings once stood, in order to hear a court case on the semantics of the word occurrence. In July of 2003, Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center site, sued the insurers of the WTC site, claiming he was entitled to 7.1 billion dollars, twice the amount the insurers believed he was entitled to. According to policy, Silverstein was guaranteed maximum compensation for any occurrence that led to the devastation or destruction of the buildings, but the language of the contract was shaky about what constituted an occurrence. An occurrence was defined as “losses or damages that are attributable directly or indirectly to one cause or to one series of similar causes.” In this somewhat idiosyncratic rendering, an occurrence is basically a bad event caused by a person or persons, or some other event, say a natural disaster like an earthquake. The question in the courtroom that July, for the three Second Circuit Court judges, was this: Was the attack on One and Two World Trade Center one event or two?
Silverstein and his lawyers argued that the attack constituted two events. At 8:46 AM, the five terrorists in the cockpit of American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north face of One World Trade Center, and about 15 minutes later, five different terrorists crashed into the south face of Two World Trade Center. It's possible that either never happened, that no terrorist attack was ever planned and carried out, that One and Two World Trade Center are still standing and that the people inside are at work as usual. It's also conceivable that after the first building was hit that an air marshall aboard United Airlines Flight 175 recruited passengers to help take out the terrorists aboard and diverted the flight path away from Two World Trade Center. Silverstein and council believed that if it's possible that no attack was carried out, or that only one attack was carried out, then the destruction of both towers must be two events.
The World Trade Center insurers claimed otherwise. They argued that the terrorists aboard those commercial planes intended to destroy both buildings and as such was part of one large plan. Therefore, the attacks constituted one event, they said.
To the three Circuit Court judges, none of this was clear. Everyone agreed about the facts but here they were listening to lawyers have a conceptual debate. And it was up to the judges to make a ruling based on the argumentation about what an event really is. Even though it might not have been clear to the judges, it's not too hard to understand the conceptual distinction being made here. When we're talking about people, should we think about the events they bring about as what springs from their larger plan? Or we should we think in terms of the result of their actions and number what they wrecked? The judges eventually sided with the insurers, by fiat determining in a court of law that an event is really a matter of the successful execution of plans, at least when we're talking about persons.
But there really is no answer to the question of what events are, outside of some framework or other, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that when talking about what people do and why they do what they do, we appeal to the reasons why they act as they do, and in the absence of knowing what the reasons are, we reconstruct them. Conceivably, two otherwise incommensurate constructions of reasons for actions can account for the events that follow. It's possible, for example, to construe the attacks on 1WTC and 2WTC as the conjunction of two events, with the intention to carry them both out, and it is just as valid a construal to conceive of the attacks as part of one orchestrated plan, and so as one event. This is what the lawyers were doing regarding the insurance claim.
There's another reason there's no telling what events are, though, a deeper reason, and that is because there are no word-world relations that we know of. Another way to say this is there's no semantics in the formal sense, let alone a real meaning to what events are. On that July day, when the lawyers for both Silverstein and the insurers used the word occurrence, they used it in reference to the attacks, roughly in the same context but with vastly different intentions. But the different intentions are not internal to the word; they're internal to the people using them. Questions about meanings of a word are really questions of normativity, namely how we ought to use the word. Even if we were to grant that certain words have a definite range of meanings—say we assume that events are limited in scope to either successful execution of a plan or conformability to acts we can individuate—this range would still be limited to the internal structure of a word or the word's concept and tell us nothing about the word's deeper relationship to the world.
The only way to say whether an event ought to be one thing or another is just to define it a certain way so that it fits the framework you want to use it in. If you want to make use of the word to understand how something works, you can't be agnostic about what it is. This defining of words ahead of time to fit some explanatory framework is not as strange as it might sound. For example, we talk about the gravity of a situation, or, a person's gravitas. This usage predates Isaac Newton's use of the word gravity, but it made sense to use it in the way that he did. He needed some name for what he was looking for, namely some name for force that attracts bodies. But regarding uses of the word event, we won't know how to make use of it unless we know what we're looking for. So we can't know what it is until then.
This has larger implications for rational inquiry in general. Think of Alfred North Whitehead's attempt to construct an event ontology as opposed to an object ontology, or Donald Davidson's event semantics. Or the lawyers' squabble over whether the WTC attacks were one event or two. We need to know what we're investigating here. What is an event? The question should be posed to those people seeking to understanding something. The appropriate response to anyone seeking to make use of the term when they want to know how the world works is: You tell us.
An article on Larry Silverstein's claim against the WTC insurers can be found in Dan Ackman's article in Forbes titled “Larry Silverstein's $3.5 B Definition” (23 July 2003).
Discussion of the semantics of the word event is in Steven Pinker (2007), The Stuff of Thought, New York: Viking, pp. 1-24, and also in the context of the September 11 attacks.
Donald Davidson's “Actions, Reasons, and Causes (1963)” in Essays on Actions and Events (2001), Oxford: Oxford UP, pp. 3-20, was helpful to me in formulating how we explain human behavior in terms of reasons for action.
For more discussion of the possibility of semantics in the formal sense (in terms of word-world relations), see Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (2002), New York: Cambridge UP.
I learned of Isaac Newton's use of gravity as metaphor from James Gleick, Isaac Newton (2004), New York: Vintage.
For more information on Donald Davidson's event semantics, I highly recommend Terence Parsons, Events in the Semantics of English (1990), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (NB. Amazon list price is $500. Best to check it out from your local library.)
Billie Pritchett is a writer and English professor with interests in moral and political philosophy, philosophy of social science, and phenomenology. He maintains his own blog called si hoc legere scis... and is on Twitter via @b_pritchett.