The other [feature] was Schmitt's characterization of all legal norms as resting, explicitly or implicitly, on a sovereign decision, which either applied rules generally to people's actions or announced an exception to them.

I would like to ask you why the past tense is used in the two bold verbs of the clause. Is it because of backshifting? The content of the passage has the character of the general statement so I would use the simple present tense.

  • Schmitt's characterization -- reported "speech" (broadly conceived to include opinion, explanation, theorizing, etc). Feb 2 '16 at 16:02
  • Would it be considered as a mistake, when using the present simple there?
    – bart-leby
    Feb 2 '16 at 16:20
  • 3
    It's all about clarity and disambiguation, not about correct/incorrect. Backshifting is the speaker distancing himself from the statement. I am not saying this, I'm just reporting what he said. Backshifting in reported speech contexts is relaxed when it is abundantly clear that the speaker is not making the assertion but reporting the assertion, or when the speaker feels no need to distance himself from the assertion, as might be the case if the speaker's views aligned with the reported views (as happens often in writing), or the statement is clearly the elaboration of another's opinion. Feb 2 '16 at 17:50
  • Can you identify the source of the passage? It's not necessarily clear what which references. It could conceivably be characterization, though it's more likely decision. Couldn't it also be ambiguous in the sense that 1) all norms are deemed resting on a single decision; or 2) each norm rests on one of a number of decisions, as in all the girls wore a hat. I'm not entirely sure that an answer needs these issues clarified, but it couldn't hurt. Feb 3 '16 at 2:33
  • M. Lilla: The Reckless Mind, p. 94.
    – bart-leby
    Feb 3 '16 at 10:25

If I guess the meaning of the sentence correctly, I think we have a conventional use of the past tense here: A reference to a past event that occurred in a finished past time period. Thus there is no backshift.

If the decision mentioned caused a change, the instance of causing a change is finished, though the effects of the change may endure. (If it's considered a set of decisions, then we can characterize a decision as a singular representation of a category of decisions.)


The “Information Revolution” began with the digitization of individual enterprises, which created networks of increasingly ubiquitous computers . . . [emphasis mine].

http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~ekerschn/courses/c150042/lectures/03_information_revolution.pdf (p. 8)

I think we can say that the decision was made, an event that occurred and ended in the past. Therefore the statement is not "general" insofar as it references a specific decision, not decisions (or sovereign decisions) generally.

Contrast, for example: Sovereign decisions [always] apply rules generally to people's actions.

  • I consider to use the present tense because Lilla paraphrazes the theory of decisionism of Carl Schmitt which sure had the ambition to describe how the law works in the society and which he articulated as some kind of the social rule.
    – bart-leby
    Feb 3 '16 at 10:32
  • It's complex! Maybe the past tense is used to anchor the time of a (any) decision event as prior to supporting an associated legal norm, even if the writer saw the idea as a timeless rule (or recognized that Schmitt did). I'm not sure. Feb 3 '16 at 12:04

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