Caitlin asked:

My name is Caitlin Dewey and I’m a reporter at the Washington Post. I am quite desperate to ‘ask a philosopher’ something, so thought I’d reach out directly.

It’s a little silly, but bear with me here: You may have seen the news this morning that, yesterday, a journalist tweeted a fake quote and attributed it to Donald Trump as a joke. Donald Trump then retweeted the quote. My question now is: Has the quote become ‘real’? (Is anything on Twitter real?) I don’t know, really! But I’d be very interested in having a philosopher’s take on the subject.

Is there any way you or someone on your panel could ponder that and get back to me this morning? I’d really appreciate it. Thanks for your time!

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There is a simple logical answer to this.

There are two possibilities:

1. When Donald Trump retweeted the quote, he was referring to it or talking about it rather than stating the thought attributed to him. Typically, when doing this you would use quotation marks to show the difference. As in, ‘Look what someone attributed to me, ha ha, “Prime Minister David Cameron is the world’s greatest living philosopher”.’

2. When Donald Trump retweeted the quote, he intended to endorse it, even if the words did not come from him originally. In that case, he is stating the thought attributed to him. He is stating that he really thinks that, etc.

Note that in neither case is Trump claiming authorship of the original quote. In the first case he is quoting it, in the second case, he is stating it.

In Logic, the distinction in question is recognized as between ‘mention’ and ‘use’. (You can Google the ‘use-mention distinction’.) However, it is a distinction that is perfectly understandable outside the philosophy seminar room.

It appears that Trump was duped into thinking that he was the original author of the quote. He evidently agrees with it so this would be case 2.

First published online in The Washington Post as A metaphysical inquiry: If Donald Trump retweets a fake Donald Trump quote… does the quote become real? June 10th 2014