# What is the first recorded use of the conditional form in human history?

The conditional form, ⟨ IF ϕ, THEN ψ ⟩, seems to have always been with us, but we don't really know.

So, what is the first attested use of the conditional form in human history?

Thank you for any scholarly reference.

• Commented Jun 28 at 7:55
• The Instructions of Shuruppak and the Code of Urukagina are even older than the Code of Hammurabi, and though only a little of those texts has survived, they seem to have contained conditionals. A code of laws is almost bound to contain conditionals. There are conditionals in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Biblical Book of Job both of which are of unknown date. Commented Jul 30 at 10:43
• (1) It's not completely clear what you mean by "the conditional form" (also see my replies to your further questioning): Is it just the syntax construction of conditional, or is it be the conditional as explicitly used in logic - so the conditional in the context of deductive reasoning or argumentation? (Or yet something else?) (2) I'm genuinely curious to know what you hope to get from the answers to your question (in either interpretation in (1) or in yet another interpretation). What will any answer tell you? Commented Aug 5 at 18:44
• @mudskipper "* Is it just the syntax construction of conditional, or is it be the conditional as explicitly used in logic - so the conditional in the context of deductive reasoning or argumentation?*" There is only one conditional. Although there are different forms, you can translate all forms into the IF-THEN structure. The so-called "material conditional" used in some mathematical contexts is not a conditional despite the name. Commented Aug 6 at 16:35
• @mudskipper "What will any answer tell you?" Sorry, this is classified, but something very interesting, hopefully! Commented Aug 6 at 16:37

If you are talking about the use of the conditional in general, it would be hard to imagine a natural language without the use of conditional; but I suppose one can argue that without a historical record, there may have been natural languages without the notion of if and then. I also suppose definitive proof of the use of if and then might be found in the West in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian epic. From WP:

EDIT Pursuant to comments, the Kesh Temple Hymn and the Instructions of Shuruppak are certainly older.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (/ˈɡɪlɡəmɛʃ/)4 is an epic from ancient Mesopotamia. The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh (formerly read as Sumerian "Bilgames"4), king of Uruk, some of which may date back to the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC).1 These independent stories were later used as source material for a combined epic in Akkadian.

While I personally can't read Sumerian, a quick search will show there are a number of conditional statements in the translation, so presumably Sumerians had a construct for if-then. That's evidence from 5,000 years ago. However, it seems like the use of the conditional is baked into all human metaphysical thought. In The Logical Basis of Metaphysics by Michael Dummett on page 170 begins on talking about the metaphysical basis of the conditional:

A great part of what we take as belonging to the intuitive notion of truth derives from the perceived need for distinguishing truth from the existence of evidence... still less are we aware that it is motivated by a disposition to prefer a notion of truth that distributes over disjunction and the conditional to one that does not... It is the behavior of sentences when they figure as antecedents of conditionals that most powerfully influences what we take to be the 'intuitive' conception of truth. What most vividly testifies to this is our uncertainty about how to apply the notion of truth to conditionals themselves, that is, to the indicative conditionals of natural language.

One can take this as that the use of disjunction and implication in natural language is a reflection of our intuitive understanding that there are possibilities in the world. The conditional then is just the language we use to help describe these possibilities. As noted above by Dummett, the conditional serves the purpose of housing a basic theory that differentiates the evidence in the antecedent from the logical truth value of the conclusion in the consequent.

In logic, of course, Aristotle and his syllogism is a major milestone in the history of the use of conditional. Prior Analytics and eventually the work of the Stoics helped establish the Greeks of Antiquity as the first systematic logicians, and modern symbolic logic and the use of the conditional is frequently attributed to Frege.

• "the Epic of Gilgamesh" I would expect any story to include a fair share of conditionals. I was thinking of more prosaic and more ancient texts. - 2. "modern symbolic logic . . . is frequently attributed to Frege." How does this contribute to answering the question? - 3. ". . . the use of the conditional is frequently attributed to Frege." Are you serious?! Commented Jun 29 at 15:25
• @Corbin I find it fascinating you feel the need to impose your views on others. What's the source of this motivation? Overbearing parents? Overcompensation for inadequacy? God's plan?
– J D
Commented Jul 30 at 15:56
• @mudskipper It's all related! But yes, rationalism, logical coherence, and the correspondence theory of truth are tightly entwined. The how of that in philosophy of language seems to be at the intersection of assertoric force, linguistic context, and logical contradiction. See this paper by Mark Jary. Fascinating stuff.
– J D
Commented Jul 30 at 16:36
• @mudskipper Ah, I see. I read the uncertainty as rejecting the material as a type of indicative conditional as an accurate model of cognition leaving one to choose an alternative explanation. If we set aside the Boolean, mathematical interpretation, which fails because of non-intuitiveness, then should we instead accept some sort of criterion of relevance, probability, possibility, or linguistic context as the basis of our truth conditions instead? Perhaps a pluralist interpretation of inference in thought? And if we reject classical logic as supplying those truth conditions, then what?
– J D
Commented Aug 5 at 21:51
• @mudskipper Thus, outside of the narrow box of Tarskian truth-conditional semantics with its reliance on the material conditional as a facsimile of reason, we have to confront the messy nature of how our intuitive notion of truth is like polysemous and relies on pluralist criteria of truth definition, multiple theories of truth, and non-classical applications of truth. Of course, like I said, I don't have the passage handy at the moment, and would have to reread to establish a broader context.
– J D
Commented Aug 5 at 21:52

The Sumeric artifacts are earlier, but some of the oracle bone inscriptions of the late Shang Dynasty (1200-1046 BCE) contain conditionals. One example is mentioned in the wikipedia entry:

Prognostication on the day wuyin by Diviner Lü: if the king travels to [placename, possibly read Xin], will there be harm?

Note that in early Chinese the conditional is often expressed, as here, by simple juxtaposition: "p q" rather than "if p then q". It's still completely unambiguous based on the grammatical structure and context that we're dealing with a conditional construction.

It's hard to imagine any natural language that didn't have some way to express conditionals. One reason why this is hard to imagine is that there are also clear pre-linguistic conditionals in non-verbal communication. (E.g. pavlovian conditioning; or pointing - as signal to another primate that one wants something.) To understand language -- to understand how logic works and how meaning is acquired --, it's necessary to also consider the pragmatics of speech acts and the non-linguistic embedding of language in pre-verbal communication.

• It is said of the human brain that it at least has the computational ability of the Turing Machine, and essential to the TM are exactly three processes: processing a symbol (operation), deciding among symbols (conditional), and recursing through symbols (iteration). If this is the case, then the external manifestation of the conditional in language is an inevitable consequence of the very ability of neurons themselves to calculate whether to fire or not. IF-THEN is the outward manifestation of action potential.
– J D
Commented Jul 30 at 17:11
• @mudskipper "the conditional is often expressed, as here, by simple juxtaposition" Can you tell where the juxtaposition is? A prediction doesn't necessarily requires a conditional. So, how do we know that there is a conditional in this case? Commented Aug 5 at 15:52
• With juxtaposition I just meant that 'q' follows 'p' in the "p, q" sentence. It's a question of grammar. Leaving out the explicit "then" (or "if .. then") word is similar to for instance the lack of an explicit copula in Russian. Literally in Russian, you say "Эта лошадь белая" (eta lohsyadj bjehlaya) ("this horse white"), which means "This horse is white". So in English we have to use an explicit "is". In classical Chinese, the conditional can also be explicitly expressed (p 則 q = "p thus q" = "if p then q") but usually, if the meaning is clear from context, explicit connectives are absent. Commented Aug 5 at 17:28
• (Note that an interpretative step is also required in English when someone says "if p then q", since in English this could -- depending on semantic context -- also either be meant as logical conditional, or as causal conditional, or simply as temporal sequence. In some contexts it may be clear however that it's really meant as a purely logical connective. Similar in classical Chinese.) Commented Aug 5 at 17:32
• @Speakpigeon - A prediction ("if p happens then q will happen") expresses a causal or (at least) temporal relation, but this can also be seen as a logical relation when we want to use that prediction in (deductive) reasonings. So, imo, what "makes" a relation into a "logical" relation (or what constitues an interpretation as logical connective) depends both on conventional grammar, semantics and on the pragmatic context (deductive reasoning). (Sherlock Holmes stories would be imcomprehensible otherwise :) ) Commented Aug 5 at 17:39

If what is known as the oldest profession is indeed the oldest, then "if ... then ..." conditionals are as old as history itself: if ... then I'll give you a goat". Instances of this are recorded in the scripture (Genesis 38:17-18).

• Please give a more precise citation. Commented Jul 30 at 15:52
• Most of the Bible was allegedly written 3rd to 7th centrury AD IIRC Commented Jul 31 at 12:32
• en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_F._Albright dated Jacob to 19th century BCE. @Phil Commented Jul 31 at 14:46
• Commented Aug 5 at 18:10
• So, the suggestion here seems to be that all bargaining is based on conditionals ("if you do this, then I will do that"). But pointing seems a more primitive act than bargaining - and all pointing also seems based on a grasp of conditionals (if you look there, you will find what you want; if I do this, then I expect you to do that) - In that case, it seems clear that other primates also have an understanding of conditionals. -- As Wittgenstein points out in the Tractatus: All logical constants are always implied in each statement (proposition). I would add commands. "Look there!". Commented Aug 5 at 18:29