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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The propositional turn

Since 2009 I have been toying with the idea, that titled a paper I gave with Manuel in a Metaphysics of Science conference in Nottingham, of making a linguistic turn of 360 degrees. If the linguistic turn amounted to move from things to words, to the structure of the world to the structure of language (and from the believer to the speaker), a linguistic turn of 360 degrees would move through words, language and speakers only to get back to things, world and believers only in a more informed way. In other words, to adapt an image put forward by Tim Williamson, language can be a telescope for metaphysical inquiry.

I´ve been reading King, Soames and Speaks interesting book on propositions (New Thinking about Propositions, Oxford Scholarship, 2014). More than the arguments themselves against sententialism and a Davidson-like theory of meaning, the idea of the book enticed me to have another look at propositions. In fact, much philosophical enlightenment lies in the very possibility of propositions - and not merely sentences - as bearers of truth. A metaphysics of ´the proposition would investigate what is the role of predication in the world - how the copula between subject and predicate in fact take place. Once propositions are at least prima facie accepted in an ontology, the issue of its nature seems fascinating and open (given that Russellian, Fregean and possible worlds-based accounts fail, as chapter 3 of the book persuasively argues).

Such a metaphysics of the proposition could benefit from a linguistic turn of 360 degrees - it could be informed by philosophy of language. Hence, for instance, it is a propositional issue what takes place in the process of reference fixing. So, if fixing a reference is something different from giving a description of what is being refered, it is maybe constituting maybe pinpointing a proposition. ´Cats´ are about cats even if cats are not animal - to use Putnam´s famous example - because ´cats´ carves the world in a way such that some propositions arise (say, "cats are animals", "cats are robots"). The act of fixing a reference is the act of giving rise to propositions - or access a realm of them. Reference-fixing is perhaps not an issue in language, between terms and parts of the world, but rather an issue in intentionality where an expression picks a particular way to track, or to individuate, bits of the world.

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