Note on Analyticity and the Definability of "Bachelor"

David Cole

Philosophy Department


February, 1999

Those who have a brief against the analytic-synthetic distinction raise problems for what seem to supporters of the distinction to be some of the clearest cases. That bachelors are unmarried seems to many to be analytically true. But to hold this seems to imply that there is a definition of "bachelor" that includes being unmarried. But critics of the analytic-synthetic distinction, such as Jerry Fodor, deny that there are true definitions (reportive, not stipulative). So there can be no definition of "bachelor". And many have noted that defining "bachelor" is not as easy as appears at first blush.

A representative line of objection is given by Michael Tye in The Imagery Debate pp. 144-5:

What, after all, is a bachelor? One answer: an unmarried male. But what of a newborn male baby? Is he a bachelor? Surely not. So, perhaps we should say that a bachelor is an unmarried male of maturity. But then what of a man who was married but is now divorced, or a man who lives in a society that does not recognize the institution of marriage? What of the pope? Is he a bachelor? What of a man who has lived with the same woman for forty years, who has had several children with her, and whose finances are interwoven with hers? Less seriously, what about the case illustrated in figure 8.4 [a Drucker cartoon of woman sitting at bar, between two male patrons, saying "I'm a bachelor myself"]

Other problem examples might include a male baboon.

It seems reasonable to hold that the concept of bachelor only is applicable against a background of the institution of marriage -- a human institution. Some men are married -- these are paradigmatically not bachelors. Women are not bachelors either, despite the cartoon. So what is about the unmarried males that makes some clearly bachelors, and raises problems for others?

Candidate, suggested by the preceding:

A bachelor is a male eligible for marriage.

The advantages of this analysis, it seems to me, are that it is simple and it rules out the cases I suspect we have the strongest intuitions don't qualify as bachlors. Better, it also provides an explanation of why some of the problematic cases are problematic. To start with, the analysis rules out the first case Tye cites, that of a newborn male. A newborn male is not eligible for marriage. Nor is a male baboon. The Pope, though male and unmarried, is not eligible for marriage. Yet I suppose this latter is contingent -- a Pope presumably could resign his office and marry. And if this became very common, if Pope's generally sloughed their pontifical robes at the turn of a skirt, then Popes might be bachelors.

With regard to the remaining Tye cases, I think they are genuinely in a gray area. We have trouble saying whether they are bachelors or not -- and the virtue of the analysis is that we have corresponding trouble saying whether they are eligible for marriage. A divorced male may or may not be regarded as eligible for marriage. His eligibility has, as it were, a cloud over it. My intuitions are that a divorced man is once again a bachelor. If your intuitions run strongly counter to this, you might wish to amend the analysis by inserting "first" before "marriage".

A man in a society that does not recognize marriage is not a bachelor, relative to that society. But he could be regarded a bachelor if he is ready and able to move into a society in which marriage is a prospect, and he is interested in getting married. He would then be eligible as a marriage partner for persons not in his current society. For example, a man who is a member of a society that does not recognize marriage, but who flies to New York in search of a marriage partner, arrives at the airport, it seems to me, a bachelor. In view of these considerations, it appears we don't know what to say to Tye's question as asked about the status of a man who is in a culture that does not recognize marriage not because the question has no answer, but because we need substantial background information. But it seems to me that our uncertainty substantially dissipates if we have the information I have indicated.

Finally, with respect to the man who appears to be in a common-law marriage, I would think it reasonable to hold that if he is committed to that relationship, he is not a bachelor. His eligibility is near zero. But if he is on the prowl, and ready and willing to end the relationship, he might be regarded to be a bachelor -- though again, one with some of the cloud of the divorced.

Problems for this account:

This account makes "eligible bachelor" pleonastic. And it may make "confirmed bachelor" contradictory -- a confirmed bachelor is not willing to enter marriage, which counts against his eligibility.

I suspect "eligible bachelor" is often used with intensifiers and degree indicators such as in "very eligible bachelor", "some of the most eligible bachelors". Constuctions like this sometimes tolerate degrees of pleonism, as in "very elderly elder", "very wise sage", etc. "Very eligible" and "most eligible", used of bachelors, seems to function as a way of indicating the high degree of suitability of the male in question as a potential marriage partner. This is certainly something worth noting, even if if involves a degree of pleonism. (It also calls attention to properties that are likely to appeal to a potential marriage partner, whereas 'bachelor's bachelor" calls attention to traits likely to appeal to other bachelor's -- the sets of traits likely have little intersection.)

Lastly, confirmed bachelors. A confirmed bachelor is one who is not interested in marriage. But the confirmed can become unconfirmed: Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady is an example. And even if disinclined, a confirmed bachelor is still eligible for marriage, as I am an eligible voter even though I am a confirmed non-voter. With Liberace, say, we may be more puzzled. Rightly so. But that may turn on contingencies of the forms of marriage recognized in a society: if Liberace's society had recognized same-sex marriage, he might have been an extremely eligible bachelor.

I conclude that bachelors are eligible males. Rules out popes and infants; leaves entangled unmarried males in where they belong and seek to be: limbo. And perhaps is an advance toward retrieving the analytic-synthetic distinction from that same place.