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Thursday, January 14, 2016


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Hi Dr. Vallicella,

Suppose we attribute the property, 'is uttering the cogito' to a non-existent, but nonetheless actual item, such as Hamlet*. I wonder if any true proposition would be expressed, or any proposition could be expressed, by Hamlet's* cogito utterance. For what would the referent of the indexical 'I' be?

If we understand propositions in the Russellian sense, then what we have is plausibly a gappy proposition. For nothing exists to serve as the referent, and hence to occupy the place of the singular term in the proposition expressed by the cogito utterance. And if we understand propositions in the Fregean sense, then since the indexical is empty, a proposition may nonetheless be expressed by Hamlet's* uttering the cogito, since empty names may have senses. But the proposition expressed will lack a truth value in virtue of this reference failure.

So with the (broadly) Russellian understanding of propositions, we get a gappy proposition, which is no proposition at all (since 'gappy' functions as a privative adjective). And with the (broadly) Fregean understanding of propositions, we may end up with an expressed proposition (Fregean thought), but it will lack a truth value due to the fact that its singular term fails to refer.

If this is right (and if there are no workable alternatives), then Hamlet*, though he can be ascribed the property of uttering the cogito, cannot thereby express a true proposition (or perhaps any proposition at all). But then, it seems to me, there is no longer a problem. (Now there may be an epistemic problem, viz. we may not be able to satisfy the relevant assertability conditions in this case. That is, we may not be able to establish, for any cogito utterance, whether it expresses a proposition (i.e. is uttered by an existing item or a non-existent but actual item). But we can supply the truth conditions of such utterances, one of which would seem to be that there be an existing agent uttering the cogito.)

On possible objection to what I've said is that indexical like 'I' do refer when uttered by items like Hamlet*, since Hamlet* is actual, and that suffices to secure reference. I'm not sure how to respond to this, in part because I'm not sure I understand the distinction between existing and being actual! But it does strike me as a potential way around my objection (assuming my proposition-objection is any good in the first place, which I concede it may not be!).

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