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The sentence is:

Kant does something like this when he takes what I believe ultimately amounts to a somewhat different route in the second edition.

I am confused about the exact meaning of "... what I believe ultimately amounts to ...". Does the word "ultimately" refer to "what I believe", meaning "what I at last believe", or does it belong to "amounts to", which means "at last amounts to ..."?

Or does the word "ultimately" in this sentence, when used without context, allow for two different meanings?

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  • If you google the word ultimately, you will find a dozen helpful sites that illustrate and explain what it might mean in the context you describe. Aug 2, 2022 at 8:17
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    This isn't about the meaning of "ultimately", but what word the adverb is modifying.
    – LawrenceC
    Aug 2, 2022 at 15:25

3 Answers 3

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The OED's principal sense of ultimately is:

In the last resort; when carried to the natural or logical conclusion; fundamentally.

If, in the sentence abour Kant, you substitute the ford fundamentally for ultimately - doesn't that clarify the meaning?

I was actually surprised when I looked this up that this was listed as the first sense of ultimately - with examples from 1660. The one involving time and conclusion is actually down as sense 2, with examples from nearly a century later.

But strictly in answer to the question -surely if "ultimately" was qualifying "believe" it would be placed in front of that word. I, for one, would never say "He asked me who I believe ultimately to be the best candidate". I suppose it is not impossible, but I find "ultimately believe" to be more idiomatic. And one would expect anyone erudite enough to be writing about Kant to have a keen sense of the possible confusion arising from placing it between two verbs, when it was meant to be qualifying the first.

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At last X or ultimately X say that we've arrived X after considering multiple other things.

I at last [believe this amounts to X]

Actions other than "believe this amounts to X" were possible before the conclusion was drawn.

I believe at last [this amounts to X]

Belief in things other than "this amounts to X" were possible before the conclusion was drawn.

It's rare for an adverb to "point backward" in a sentence unless it's at the very end (not impossible though).

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As Lawrence C stated, 'ultimately' refers to 'amounts to', and would not be read as referring backwards to 'I believe' in this case. Ambiguity is not entirely ruled out, however, so your confusion is justified. If the author had written "I believe, ultimately, amounts to ..." it would be interpreted as "I ultimately believe ...".

That's mainly because the sentence is an excellent example of academic overqualification getting in the way of easy comprehension. What the author means is:

Kant did this when he took a different route in the second edition.

However academic caution often causes authors to weaken their statements with 'ifs, buts and maybes' (or 'I believes'). Even so, the sentence would probably be better written as:

In my opinion Kant did this when he took a different route in the second edition.

As you can see from my examples, the use of 'ultimately' is arguably redundant. It's just a stylistic choice by the author to further qualify any apparent overconfidence in a statement that could otherwise be read as "Kant did this".

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