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Wednesday, January 05, 2011


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(A1) Jake says ‘I am looking for my car’ (having forgotten where he parked it after getting ‘trolleyed’ and having to take a taxi home)

(B1) Jake says ‘I am looking for a car’ (i.e. he is looking for to buy one, but with no actual car ‘in mind’).

(C1) Kate says ‘Jake says he is looking for a car’.

Some points. First, note that what Kate says is true both of what Jake says in both (A1) and (B1). Second, she is not describing a mental state, but rather something accessible to any competent user of English, namely what Jake is saying. Therefore, if there is any problem about this example, it is not a problem just about individual or personal or private mental states. Thirdly, the fact that Kate’s statement is true of both (A1) and (B1) suggests that there is some extra content (let’s say a ‘singular content’) that is included in (A1) but not in (B1), and Kate’s statement is true because it is more general, i.e. omits specifying the extra singular content.

With this agreed (hopefully), consider

(A2) Jake says ‘I am reading about Bilbo Baggins’ (he is reading The Hobbit)

(B2) Jake says ‘I am reading about a hobbit’

(C2) Kate says ‘Jake says he is reading about a hobbit’.

The first point also applies here. What Kate says is true of both (A2) and (B2). So does the second point – Kate is describing what Jake says, not what he thinks. If any problem occurring here is parallel to any problem about mental states, it follows that the problem is equally a problem of language, not (individual) psychology. (Perhaps it may be a problem about group psychology, if we agree that semantics is group psychology – that’s a separate issue).

The third point also appears to apply. The difference between (A2) and (B2) appears to involve generality. Specifically, what Jake says he is reading about appears to involve a singular meaning in (A2), but a general meaning in (B2).

Peter: >> The above proposal offers a gesture towards EO’s insistence that the surface structure of sentences about intentional states may not always reveal their deep structure.

It’s a nice gesture but I don’t believe the distinction you are drawing between ‘singular’ and ‘general’ thoughts is the right one. I believe that there can be genuinely singular thoughts which have no existing object (which I think you deny). This is not the same as the distinction we need to draw, which is between propositions (sentences) which have existential import, and propositions of a similar surface structure which do not. I have briefly tried to justify this claim above. The difference between (A) and (B) above appears to be between singular and general content. But the second (i.e. A2 and B2) involve non-existent objects (hobbits), so the distinction in question cannot be to do with how the world is.

This is closely related to the points I made in earlier posts about the common object of ‘worshipped Zeus’. The identity of the ‘intentional object’ seems to be numerical identity. Where you have numerical identity you automatically have other issues like explaining singularity, individuation, haecceity and singular concepts and so on and so on.

My POV on this (very briefly) is (1) that there are singular and general meanings, and that this distinction underlies the distinction between singular and general thoughts. I.e. we have to describe a singular thought using a term that has singular meaning. (2) Singular thoughts can be empty just as general thoughts can. (3) the distinction is linguistic/logical, rooted in language and semantics, and nothing actual, such as an ‘intentional object’. The description of certain thoughts requires an accusative, but the accusative is logical/semantic only. (4) Singular meanings do not require ‘haecceities’. We do not explain individuation in terms of features of the world, but rather in terms of logic or language or semantics.

Peter concludes >> The above proposal offers a gesture towards EO’s insistence that the surface structure of sentences about intentional states may not always reveal their deep structure. As I have argued above, this is exactly what happens when the putative intentional object does not exist. Then what appears on surface to be a singular thought is in fact a general thought with a totally different structure. However, agreement ceases at this juncture.

I find it hard to believe that the 'deep structure' of a sentence (surely a very abstract thing?) depends in any way on the existence or otherwise of the object(s) to which it seemingly refers. This for the reason Bill gives, that the world may change the status of the objects without reference to the sentence. Likewise, the deep structure of an intentional state cannot depend on the status of its object. We could place GM-seeking Jake down in a possible world in which the GM did exist and his behaviour (initially) would be just the same.

I don't agree with Bill when he says of Tom's admiring Obama that the content of Tom's thought is general rather than singular. Surely Tom knows the difference between admiring an individual and admiring, say, good public speakers. But it does seem right to say that it's only via something akin to a definite description that Tom can access Obama. The fact that we can't substitute a verbal description of Obama into sentences expressing intentional states directed towards him without change of meaning doesn't imply that Tom's accessor for Obama can't be expressed in words. It just means that it's not made of words.

Bill also says he would question whether there are any truly singular thoughts. When someone says 'x is not a true F' or 'there are no true Fs' I suspect that there is a conflation of nearby concepts occurring, or a conflation of points of view. In this case, from the first person pov there most definitely are singular thoughts, directed, say, towards Obama. The previous sentence induces one. On the other hand, if whatever it is by which I access Obama is some kind of description, then from a third person pov, it may well appear general. For when I use it in the world as it is then it seems to latch on to an individual. But when I express it to you as best I can in words it will be a description, ie, general.

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