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Singular thoughts and singular propositions


A singular thought about an object o is one that is directly about o in a characteristic way—grasp of that thought requires having some special epistemic relation to the object o, and the thought is ontologically dependent on o. One account of the nature of singular thought exploits a Russellian Structured Account of Propositions, according to which contents are represented by means of structured n-tuples of objects, properties, and functions. A proposition is singular, according to this framework, if and only if it contains an object as a constituent. One advantage of the framework of Russellian Structured propositions is that it promises to provide a metaphysical basis for the notion of a singular thought about an object, grounding it in terms of constituency. In this paper, we argue that the attempt to ground the peculiar features of singular thoughts in terms of metaphysical constituency fails, and draw some consequences of our discussion for other debates.

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  1. “A singular proposition is a proposition that is about one of its own components by virtue of containing it.” (Salmon 2005, p. 419).

  2. Though see Boer and Lycan (1986) for criticism of the view that ordinary attributions of knowing-wh are necessary and sufficient singular thought.

  3. See Evans (1982, p. 44) and Potter (2008), p. 55) for more discussion.

  4. Although this consensus is certainly not universal; see e.g. Jeshion (2002).

  5. Again, this consensus is not universal. Alvin Plantinga (see Plantinga (1983)) and Thomas Crisp (see Crisp (2003)) have rejected the object dependence of singular propositions. In each case, the rejection of object dependence is motivated by puzzles concerning the truth-value of singular thoughts at worlds or times in which the objects these singular propositions are about do not exist. Perhaps a “truth in/truth at” distinction akin to the one suggested by Adams (1981), Fine (1985), and more recently developed by Jeff King (King (2007), can be used to resolve the puzzles that motivate Plantinga and Crisp to reject the object dependence of singular thought.

  6. For example, on the theory in King (2007, Chapter 2), it would be a proposition in which an object occurred as one of the relata of the propositional relation of that proposition.

  7. Note that despite Kaplan’s attraction to a structured approach to propositions, he gives his formal semantics in the standard possible world framework and explicitly states that the structured approach is not a part of his official theory (p. 496).

  8. Matters are obscured somewhat by the fact that “actual” and “actually” appear to have a purely rhetorical use as an intensifier—as in “I am actually a philosopher”. Used in this way, “actually” does not appear to contribute to semantic content. Soames (2007) argues that in fact “actually” is not ambiguous, and its role as a rigidifier explains its pragmatic role as an intensifier.

  9. More specifically, she grants that what is said by an utterance of “Mount Everest is tall” has an interest-relative profile; it could only be true in a world in which there are people or interests. But she argues that in counterfactual evaluation, we keep certain facts fixed, which has the effect of rigidifying on the relevant interests. Then she argues that Stanley “exploits our correct judgment” about the counterfactual to make false conclusions about the what-is-said claims.

  10. Her first point is that on an unstructured conception of content, there is no room to make the sort of objection involving epistemic involvement that Stanley levels against her interest-relative account of vagueness. We disagree with this claim, but discussion of it will take us too far afield of our topic.

  11. Another point worth emphasizing is that Fara’s response to Stanley’s objection involves the particular details of the syntax and semantics of gradable adjectives. It is far from clear that other vague expressions (that is, almost all expressions) have a similar syntax and semantics. Insofar as her response to Stanley’s objection to her metaphysics is local to the details of gradable adjectives, it is therefore unsatisfying.

  12. We owe this argument to Timothy Williamson (p.c.).

  13. This is not Salmon’s distinction, introduced in the quote above, between immediate and mediate constituency. Presumably, grasp of the proposition that it is not the case that Hannah is a philosopher requires acquaintance with Hannah, even though Hannah is not an immediate constituent of the proposition that it is not the case that Hannah is a philosopher.

  14. One fruitful avenue to explore would begin with the account of the paradox in King (2007, Chap. 7).

  15. We are grateful to Jeffrey King, Ian Proops, Timothy Williamson, and audiences at St. Andrews University and Oxford University for discussion.


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Armstrong, J., Stanley, J. Singular thoughts and singular propositions. Philos Stud 154, 205–222 (2011).

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