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The Singularity of Experiences and Thoughts


Recently, various people have maintained that one must revise either the externalistically-based notion of singular thought or the naïve realism-inspired notion of relational particularity, as respectively applied to some thoughts and to some perceptual experiences. In order to do so, one must either provide a broader notion of singular thought or flank the notion of relational particularity with a broader notion of phenomenal particularity. I want to hold that there is no need of that revision. For the original notions can still play the role for which they were invoked. This requires that (i) both the first and the second notion respectively involve a dependence on and a metaphysical relation to the intentional objects of certain mental states once we are ontologically committed to such objects; (ii) both that object-dependence and that metaphysical relation are interpreted in terms of a substantive individuation of the relevant mental state via the object it is about: that object constitutes the state.

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  1. 1.

    A typical representative of this externalist point of view is McDowell, e.g. (1982, 1986).

  2. 2.

    One of the first attempts at moving in this direction was Recanati (2000), who talked about pseudo-singular beliefs (or pseudo-thoughts in general) in order to account for these cases. See again his (2012).

  3. 3.

    Clearly enough, if one individuated singular thoughts in terms of singular propositions, the structured entities made by objects and properties that many people believe to be the propositional contents of such thoughts, the same problem would arise. For a thought that a certain actually nonexistent object is so and so still seems a singular thought, even though if there is no such object there is not even a singular proposition that constitutes that thought’s content. Yet since by following Crane (2001, 2013) I allow for merely objectual thoughts, i.e., thoughts that are about an object even if they have no propositional content, I have formulated the problem in a broader way. Granted, one may worry whether propositional singular thoughts must be individuated not only in terms of singular propositions but also in terms of the constituents of such propositions, rather than merely depend on such constituents (cf. Armstrong and Stanley 2011). Yet if, as we will see later, singular thoughts—whether propositional or objectual—are constituted by the objects they are about, just as singular propositions are, that worry may be easily answered positively.

  4. 4.

    For this example, see Twardowski (1982).

  5. 5.

    Cf. Crane (2013, p. 9). Certainly, Crane’s attempt is not the only one on the market. An obviously related one is Taylor (2010), who distinguishes between a narrow notion of singularity for thoughts, singularity of content, and a broader one, singularity of form. Unlike the former, the latter is individuated syntactically: all thoughts which merely purport to refer to something yet which have a certain objectually-oriented syntax just instantiate singularity of form rather than of content. This idea returns in Recanati (2012, p. 170). Another similar project is Carpintero (2010), who appeals to a liberalised notion of singular thought that covers not only traditional singular thoughts, but also thoughts that have a descriptive content one of whose elements is however both linguistic and singular (in the traditional sense). For Carpintero, this is definitely the case as far as an imagination about a fictional individual F that does not exist is concerned. In such a case, one thinks of a certain token of the name ‘F’ that there is an individual doing certain things that token refers to. Granted, such a thought is poorly singular insofar as its content is mainly descriptive. A different yet related project is Sainsbury’s (2010). Yet instead of looking for a broader notion of singularity, Sainsbury splits singularity in two. For him, the notion of external singularity, which concerns externistically individuated singular thoughts, must be flanked by a notion of internal singularity, which affects just those (for him empty) thoughts whose objects do not actually exist.

  6. 6.

    For this position, cf. e.g. Martin (2002, 2004, 2009), Fish (2009).

  7. 7.

    See also Soteriou (2000).

  8. 8.

    Both qualifications are important. For there may be both sensory yet nonperceptual experiences, as according to some people the socalled interoceptive sensations (pains, itches, tickles …,) are, insofar as they are not intentional states (cf. e.g. Block 1996), and experiences that are neither sensory nor perceptual, as some people believe that occurrent thoughts are (cf. e.g. Montague 2011, 2016).

  9. 9.

    Cf. e.g. Crane (2001, pp. 75–76). The terminological distinction between sensuous and nonsensuous phenomenal character comes from Maund (2003, p. 37). Independently of terminological choices, the point is well-established in the literature: cf. also Strawson (1994, pp. 6–7), McCulloch (2003, p. 10), Montague (2016).

  10. 10.

    I defended these claims more in detail in Voltolini (2013a). This position is not Meinongianism in disguise, for it does not entail that the objects whose nature is such that objects of that nature are allowed in the overall ontological domain are Meinongian objects. By this I mean objects that are essentially qualified by their being in a certain way [their Sosein, in Meinong’s (1960) terms]: a kind of exotica, in Sainsbury’s (2010) terms. For example, mere possibilia are allowed in the overall ontological domain and yet they are no Meinongian objects. The position simply shares with Meinongianism the idea that existence is not the mark of ontological commitment.

  11. 11.

    For arguments in favour of ficta, cf. Thomasson (1999) and Voltolini (2006). For a false parsimony argument in favour of mere possibilia, cf. Lewis (1986a, b), Voltolini (2007).

  12. 12.

    For this conception of concreta cf. Cocchiarella (1982), Priest (2016).

  13. 13.

    It may even be the case that we do not know whether a certain object exists. Yet a fortiori this epistemic ignorance is irrelevant for ontological commitment, provided that the object is question has a nature such that objects of that nature are allowed in the overall ontological domain.

  14. 14.

    Remarkable exceptions on this point are Priest (2016) and Berto (2012). Granted, there are different kinds of impossibilia: first of all, impossibilia that metaphysically fail to exist, such as Twardy; moreover, impossibilia that metaphysically fail to subsist, such as Biggie Numbie, the greatest natural number. This amounts to saying that being impossible amounts to either impossibly existing or impossibly subsisting. Being ascribed this metaphysical kind is however enough for not being allowed in the overall ontological domain; on this respect, therefore, nothing substantial hinges on the difference between being an impossibly existing item and being an impossibly subsisting item.

  15. 15.

    As McDowell (1998, pp. 475–476, 483) originally maintained.

  16. 16.

    See again McDowell (1998).

  17. 17.

    I appeal to the hypothesis in question just to rule out the claim that the name has a referential import insofar as the description in question fixes its reference, as Evans (1982) claimed with respect to his similar example of the descriptive name “Julius”. (Granted, Evans is taken to have held that who entertains a “Julius”-thought in the case he proposes, entertains a general thought: cf. Recanati 2012, p. 159). Indeed, if one did not appeal to such an hypothesis, in order to defend Evans’ point one might also invoke the Semantic Instrumentalist thesis defended e.g. by Kaplan (1989a, b) as concerning the examples respectively provided by Kripke (1980) and Kaplan himself of the names “Neptune” and “Newman1”, whose reference is respectively fixed by corresponding descriptions. For in virtue of that thesis one might say that “Adam” involves a singular thought just as “Neptune” and “Newman1” do. On that thesis and its evaluation, see however below.

  18. 18.

    Meinong-inspired people would say that, since a number is an abstract entity that exists non-spatiotemporally, i.e., subsists—cf. Meinong (1960)—the greatest natural number neither subsists nor might have subsisted.

  19. 19.

    Cf. e.g. Recanati (2012), Sainsbury and Tye (2012).

  20. 20.

    Clearly enough, if the information were widely individuated it would differ: Vulcan is supposed to orbit between Mercury and the Sun, while Twin Vulcan is supposed to orbit between TwinMercury and TwinSun. Yet information so individuated cannot be here appealed to, since it is not available to the twin astronomers; if they unconsciously swapped their galactic position, they would notice no difference.

  21. 21.

    Granted, one might think that there are other cases that justify the introduction of phenomenal particularity, namely cases of sensory perceptual experiences that instantiate relational particularity, for they refer to objects and yet that do not instantiate phenomenal particularity, for they are not felt to so refer. Examples of this kind should be both interoceptive sensations and moods (cf. Crane 2001, pp. 79-81). Yet I strongly doubt that such experiences are perceptual, for I wonder whether they really are intentional states. Cf. Voltolini (2013b).

  22. 22.

    I rule out cases of socalled veridical hallucinations that allegedly involve existent objects. For if there are any, they admittedly have a general, not a singular content. For example, I hallucinate that there is a brown table in front of me and actually there is such a table. Moreover, purportedly singular hallucinations that are about existent objects, as in dreams, are rather imaginations of such objects.

  23. 23.

    Notoriously, Kripke’s examples concern the epistemic possibility that Hesperus is not Phosphorus: cf. (1971, p. 157fn.15), (1980, pp. 103–104,143).

  24. 24.

    This option is held (in different ways) both by artefactualists à la Thomasson (1999) and by unorthodox Meinongians à la Zalta (1983, 1988).

  25. 25.

    Granted, if one allows for pictorial experience as a sensory perceptual experience, there may be sensory perceptual experiences of fictional characters that are seen-in pictures. Cf. e.g. Currie (2017). Yet once again, such experiences would be metaphysically relational ones. See later in the text.

  26. 26.

    For those who believe that ficta are a kind of abstracta, there is no problem as to have imaginations about such objects. Cf. Thomasson (1999), Zalta (1988).

  27. 27.

    Cf. e.g. Priest (2016). Meinongians who believe that ficta are concrete Meinongian objects are to be classified either in this group, for they believe that some concrete Meinongian objects are impossible, or in the group of possibilists, for they believe that some concrete Meinongian objects are possible. Cf. e.g. Parsons (1980), Castañeda (1989).

  28. 28.

    Cf. again Priest (2016), Berto (2012), and also Yagisawa (2010).

  29. 29.

    Priest himself, who believes that one may perceptually experience impossibilia, provide examples that are either of the second kind—experiences of impossible pictures—or of the first one: the waterfall illusion, an illusory perception of something having two incompatible colours at once. Cf. Priest (1999).

  30. 30.

    For a positive stance in this debate, see notoriously Wollheim (1980). For problems with that stance, see e.g. Hopkins (2010, 2012)

  31. 31.

    Priest himself admits that in certain cases of socalled impossible pictures, such as the devil’s fork, a ‘fork’ one of whose parts is at the same time both its full ‘head’ and an empty background for a figure that stands out, we do not have a (pictorial) experience of an impossibile. Cf. (1999, p. 440).

  32. 32.

    This does not entail that, while focusing on certain parts of the 2D figure, we do not manage to have pictorial experiences of particular subjects. Yet not only such subjects are definitely possible individuals (as many have maintained: cf. e.g. Cresswell 1983), so that relational particularity would again be involved by such experiences. The point is also that while focusing on the figure as a whole, we do not manage to entertain a pictorial experience of an alleged subject to be discerned in it.

  33. 33.

    For instance, the aforementioned Wollheim (1980).

  34. 34.

    Some people believe that impossible figures are actually ambiguous pictures, for they elicit both a possible and an impossible interpretation. In the 2D Penrose triangle, one may either see a possibile—namely an ordinary 3D triangular body of the same kind as that we may perceive face-to-face, in which one of its 3D legs is just nested into another leg—or an impossibile, each of whose legs is both in front and behind another one. Cf. Elpidorou (2016). Granted, we may group an impossible figure’s elements in a way so that we grasp a possibile in it. Yet for the reason I appealed to in the text we do not manage to do the same as far as the socalled impossible interpretation is concerned. Thus, unlike a genuinely ambiguous picture, in such a case we are not switching aspects. Rather, a genuinely pictorial reading of the picture (in the first interpretation) is flanked by a nonpictorial one (in the second interpretation).

  35. 35.

    Montague (2011, 2016) may allow for such an idea.

  36. 36.

    Granted, also in the aforementioned case of a subject’s desiring the nonexistent Mary Jane she would believe that her desire is about a particular something. Yet since in such a case the desire would be about a merely possible object, hence something we are ontologically committed to, according to me we would have just another ordinary case of a singular thought in the traditional, object-involving sense.

  37. 37.

    Perhaps, as I said before—fn.21—is also entailed by it.

  38. 38.

    Various people side with Crane on this; cf. e.g. Jeshion (2010), Taylor (2010).

  39. 39.

    This thesis is clearly endorsed by McGinn (1989, p. 7) and reprised by McDowell (1998).

  40. 40.

    As Martin (2002) has correctly noted. That conception would be strengthened if one claimed that for a thought being about an object amounts to being constituted by it. I defend such a claim in Sacchi and Voltolini (2012), Voltolini (2015).

  41. 41.

    See fn.3. Salmon (2007, p. 60) precisely holds that for a proposition to be (directly) about a certain object is for the former to be constituted by the latter. As I said in the previous footnote, I hold the same straightforwardly as to singular thoughts.

  42. 42.

    I defend this point more in detail elsewhere (Sacchi and Voltolini 2012).

  43. 43.

    One might object that this constitutive view does not solve the problem of which intentionale, especially a nonexistent one, one is thinking about among those that compose the overall ontological domain. Yet insofar as this is no longer an epistemic but rather a metaphysical problem, it is solved by providing suitable identity criteria for the kinds of object one is thinking. Cf. Voltolini (2017).

  44. 44.

    This thesis has notoriously Kaplan (1989a, b) among its champions.

  45. 45.

    In this respect, my approach is similar to Jeshion’s (2010) Cognitivism, which invokes a similar priority reversal. Yet it is not identical with Cognitivism, for Jeshion reintroduces the epistemological constraint for a singular thought from the rear door. For her, each singular thought involves a (different) mental file, the repository of information purportedly concerning a certain object. Now, one of the roles a mental file plays for her is the epistemic role of identifying the object the corresponding singular thought is about (2010, p. 131). Granted, a mental file may fail to identify something. Yet its having this role implies that the relevant thought really involves an object only when it is rightly assumed that the thought’s bearer is acquainted with that object (cf. Recanati 2012, pp. 156–158, 164–70). However, if that thought is constituted by that object, it is again meaningless to look for such an identification.

  46. 46.

    Granted, in defense of a dependence rather than an individuation approach to singular thoughts one may hold that a singular thought may depend not on its object’s existence but on its object’s being, where being is traditionally taken à la Russell (1937) as a universal first-order property of existence that all the objects in the overall ontological domain possess (for this idea under a different labeling, see Williamson 2002). One might be prompted to make such a move if one were ready to say that singular thoughts are not individuated not only by singular propositions, à la Armstrong and Stanley (2011), but also by the objects they are about and that constitute such propositions. Yet since the above universal first-order property is also possessed by such objects necessarily (see again Williamson 2002), then to say that a thought depends on its object’s being for its existence trivialises matters. Since in this framework all objects, both those that actually exist and those which actually fail to exist, are necessary beings (Williamson 2002, 2013), a thought about a certain object may depend for its existence on any such objects. Cf. Sacchi and Voltolini (2012).

  47. 47.

    The idea of Martin’s (2002) that I recalled in fn.40 gestures towards this direction.


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Preliminary versions of this paper have been presented at the conferences Perspectives on Intentionality, Fefor Høifjellshotell (Norway), September 23-26, 2014; Intentionality, Singularity and Object- Dependence, University of Fribourg (Switzerland), September 4, 2015. I thank all the participants for their stimulating questions.

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Correspondence to Alberto Voltolini.

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Voltolini, A. The Singularity of Experiences and Thoughts. Topoi (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-017-9522-4

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  • Singular thoughts
  • Relational particularity
  • Phenomenal particularity
  • Intentional objects