Source: p 249, Zizek's Ontology ..., by Prof Adrian Johnston BA PhD

Bruce Fink helpfully compares the French ne explétif [hereafter abbreviated as NE] to certain employments of the English word but (as in, for example, "I can 't help but think that... " or "I cannot deny but that ... "). Fink contends that the French ne and the English but are each means of expressing an attitude of ambivalence toward the meaningful content of the sentence uttered (an attitude coloring the position of the subject of enunciation) without, for all that, disrupting or repudiating the literal meaning of the sentence per se as the sense established in the form of an utterance.29

1. I know the definition of per se, but what's its role above?
Would anything change if I deleted it from the sentence?

2. Is question 1 related to an attitude coloring the position of the subject of enunciation ? I didn't understand this parenthesis.

Footnote: Same as the footnote here

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I can't speak for the philosophical content as such; but merely as a native speaker of English with an amateur interest in philosophy.

I would suggest that you wouldn't lose much by dropping the 'per se'; here it seems to be acting as a stylistic marker; there is also the hint of a suggestion that it means this sentence, in itself; and without the surrounding context.

However, considering:

An attitude colouring the subject of enunciation

appears to be a rephrasing in more technical terms what he had written in standard English earlier:

an attitude of ambivalence towards the meaningful content of the sentence uttered

To utter, is to enunciate; the utterer, is a speaker, ie a subject; and thus the subject of enunciation; also I'd read colouring as ambivalence; especially when one considers the platitude 'not everything is black and white', meaning that ambivalence is not 'black and white' but 'coloured'.

Given all this, it seems that the 'per se' is indicating the sentence without the qualifier; for example, using the sentence:

I can't help but think all ethical problems are black and white

The sentence 'per se' is the 'literal' meaning; pointing, or so I think, to the sentence fragment which is without the qualifier 'but' (plus other words that are part of it's construction, to wit the preceding words, and the word think).

all ethical problems are black and white

Finally, this links up with what I wrote earlier; that it loses the 'surrounding context'; that is, in this case, it loses the ambivalence suggested by 'but'.

Note: I can't help but notice that the example I've chosen is a counter-example to Finks thesis - here but is acting as emphasis.


Per se can be used sometimes as a sort of verbal um, but a more nuanced version of it is to highlight that the intension of the description of the item is in some way more crucial to the meaning of the referring phrase than the extension. The President of the United States does not per se have a political party or (say) a gender, even where Barack Obama is a male democrat.

In your example then, "the literal meaning of the sentence per se" is used to emphasise that what is being introduced by the "but" leaves the meaning of sentence fragments in broad generality embedded with variable attitude statements to be in some sense transparently carried over to larger sentences with the relevant structural properties. The phenomenon is supposed to be general, with the "meaning as such" serving as a kind of generic element or parameter to facilitate discussion rather than specifically relating to a schema or class of contents of large numbers of individual sentences to be translated this way.

  • +1. Thanks, but would you please simplify your answer? I'm too naive in philosophy to understand it. For example: 1. Which definition do you mean by intension? 1 or 2? 2. What does sentence fragments in broad generality embedded with variable attitude statements mean? 3. What are the 'the relevant structural properties' ? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Apr 18 '15 at 18:02
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit, I certainly do mean the first, though the definition arguably doesn't help much! In the literature we sometimes think of the Intension of a referring phrase as the means by which the object is presented in language or thought; this can sometimes be just some process by which the interpreter would go about trying to determine what the phrase referred to. The "per se" emphasises that the object is of interest to us in as much as it is the result of some process of reference, rather than as an object in its own right. – Paul Ross Apr 20 '15 at 12:20
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit concerning the "sentence fragments" bit, the author is discussing the role of "ne" and "but" as a grammatical function, the idea being that it imbues some part of a sentence with a certain attitude but without fundamentally changing what it says. In discussing what "but" does, we're therefore talking in a very abstract way about how we manipulate parts of sentences (embedding some attitude that varies depending on context without changing their 'meaning') without trying to talk about what adding "but" might do in every individual sentential construction. – Paul Ross Apr 20 '15 at 12:35
  • @LawArea51Proposal-Commit As for the "Relevant structural properties", mostly that's going to be sentences that are grammatically well formed and that feature "But" or "ne" in them in such a way as to indicate assertion of the fragment that follows "but", and with the attitude modification that the author is suggesting happens when you do things like "you could do this, but you could also do that" (as an example). – Paul Ross Apr 20 '15 at 12:38

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