Introduction: primitivism versus reductionism about the problem of the unity of the proposition


We present here the papers selected for the volume on the Unity of Propositions problems. After summarizing what the problems are, we locate them in a spectrum from those aiming to provide substantive, reductive explanations, to those with a more deflationary take on the problems.

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  1. 1.

    See also King’s “What Role do Propositions Play in our Theories?”, in King et al. (2014).

  2. 2.

    Cf. Davidson’s nice presentation of the early history of the debate in (2005, pp. 76–97).

  3. 3.

    Cf., for instance, King (2009), Schnieder (2010) and Collins (2017).

  4. 4.

    Cf., Davidson, op. cit., p. 85.

  5. 5.

    Thus, for instance, Bradley apparently wanted to have an account free of ontological commitments to relations; cf. Eklund’s contribution.

  6. 6.

    Like King, Davidson also expresses such ambitions in his discussion of these topics. He considers a proposal like the one by Burge, Johnston and Liebesman just outlined, and dismisses it with the complaint that “the purported asymmetry does not explain the relation between the thing named and the property” (2005, p. 86). Earlier he had warned us that, without a substantive account, the “philosophy of language lacks its most important chapter …; the philosophy of mind is missing a crucial first step if it cannot describe the nature of judgment; and it is woeful if metaphysics cannot say how a substance is related to its attributes” (ibid., p. 77). Primitivists would dismiss the worry, on account of Lewis’s point. Tellingly, Burge (2007) and Liebesman (2015) provide compelling reasons to doubt that Davidson’s own proposal accomplishes his ambitious goals.

  7. 7.

    Cf. also Richard (2013) and Pautz (2016), who stress the primitivist leanings of this view.

  8. 8.

    See the nicely elaborated discussion of these matters in Keller (2013), whose related contribution to this volume we present below.

  9. 9.

    Cf. Merricks (2015, pp. 157–168), Speaks’s “Representation and Structure in the Theory of Propositions”, in King et al. (2014), and Keller (2013, p. 670) on “lightweight” constituency. Glick (2017, pp. 31–42) questions Stalnaker’s account, suggesting that it is ultimately a version of a sort of “vehicle-first” account of singularity that he rejects. From a primitivist perspective, Glick longs for a more informative account of singularity than can be had in terms of propositions—while approaches at the level of “vehicles” or representational acts (an example of which for the case of unity is Liebesman 2015) do allow for such accounts.

  10. 10.

    Ostertag (2013, p. 519) puts in these terms Schnieder’s point in a quotation above, dismissing in general the representation problem as a substantive issue, independently of whether we think of propositions as properties; he says that he owes the point to Stalnaker. We present Ostertag’s contribution to this volume below.

  11. 11.

    Cf. Richard (2013, pp. 707–708, 716), and Pickel’s discussion in this volume, §3.

  12. 12.

    Cf. Pickel (2015) for a clear elaboration of these concerns, of a modal nature: kinds do not seem to get their essential properties from the contingent activities of rational beings. See also Speaks’s “Representational Entities and Representational Facts” in King et al. (2014), Caplan et al. (2013), Caplan (2016) and Pagin’s first appendix in his contribution here.

  13. 13.

    As Pickel (2015) shows, this might also create a more straightforwardly Bradley-style regress, on account of the related sort of issues discussed in the papers in the previous footnote. As these writers also suggest, these difficulties in the King–Soames–Hanks program are evidence for a primitivist view.

  14. 14.

    We refer the reader again to Collins (2017, §7), who neatly articulates a related point.

  15. 15.

    The same problem, of course, arises in many other cases: disjunction, negation (Hom and Schwartz 2013, p. 19), the prejacent conditions (sometimes merely contextually implicit, Dowell 2012) and the open sentences required to account for generality (Collins 2017, §6).

  16. 16.

    Collins (2017, §3) presents related objections.


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Financial support was provided by the DGI, Spanish Government, research project FFI2016-80588-R, and through the award “ICREA Academia” for excellence in research, 2013, funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya (Manuel García-Carpintero); Grant Agency of the Czech Republic Project No. GA18-23891S (Bjørn Jespersen). We would like to express our immense gratitude to the referees who helped us tremendously in selecting the papers for this volume and ensuring that the arguments in them acquired their strongest shape, and to the journal’s main editors during this process, Gila Sher and Wiebe van der Hoek, for their help and support. Thanks to John Collins, Richard Gaskin, Peter Pagin, Michele Palmira, Bryan Pickel, Indrek Reiland, François Recanati, and two anonymous referees for comments on a previous version of this introduction, and to Michael Maudsley for his grammatical revision.

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García-Carpintero, M., Jespersen, B. Introduction: primitivism versus reductionism about the problem of the unity of the proposition. Synthese 196, 1209–1224 (2019).

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  • Propositions
  • Representational acts
  • Unity of propositions
  • Predication