Friday, 13 December 2019

Tractarian Propositions and Taking the 'X in Y' Construction Seriously

This is a sequel to the previous post, in which I continue to react to interesting recent "cognitive act theories" of propositions championed by Soames and Hanks, and work out my own views in relation to them.

In Soames's recent article on the Tractatus, he argues that Wittgenstein's conception of a proposition - that it is a propositional sign in its projective relation to the world - is incoherent. Soames's idea is that this doesn't actually specify a thing over and above the propositional sign. Just as Soames-in-relation-to-his-wife (one of his examples) isn't actually a separate thing or person from Soames, a propositional sign in its projective relation to the world isn't actually something other than the propositional sign. It is not some "larger" entity which includes the propositional sign as a part.

This then leads Soames to propose, on the basis also of a remark in the Tractatus that our thinking the sense of a proposition is our putting it in relation to the world, that Wittgenstein would have been better off identifying propositions as propositional signs together with cognitive acts. And this is similar to his own recent theory of propositions, on which they are just cognitive acts in abstraction from any particular signs. 

In this way, Soames presents Wittgenstein as groping toward a better view of the nature of propositions - better than those of Frege and Russell, for whom propositions were Platonic things independent of language use - and offering a more coherent way of doing this.

Recently Peter Hanks has argued that there is another way here: that we can instead look at the (to me confusing and confused) idea in the Tractatus that a propositional sign is a fact. (This is something Wittgenstein later came to think of as a category mistake - but the new act theorists of propositions are generally disposed to be less keen to convict philosophers of category mistakes. After all, the view that a proposition is an act - a thing done - itself sounds like a category mistake. So we're in a pocket of philosophy where there's a fair amount of tolerance of what can seem like category mistakes, being explained away in terms of unimportant intuitions that should be overcome as we better systematise out thinking.) Looking at it that way, Hanks argues that the propositional sign in its relation to the world may be seen as a "larger" fact which involves the fact that is the propositional sign, but where the elements of that sign/fact that are related to one another are also related to further elements, things out in the world. 

I share Hanks's sense that Soames's argument against the coherence of Wittgenstein's conception of propositions and how they relate to propositional signs is surmountable. But I confess that the idea of a sign as a fact has never appealed to me, and really does seem like a category mistake. 

I think there's a third way to understand this talk of a proposition being a propositional sign in its projective relation to the world. It may even be more faithful to the Tractatus, but maybe not. I think it probably is more faithful to Wittgenstein's ideas as they developed after the Tractatus though. More importantly, I think it may be the best way of thinking about these matters.

Soames complains that a thing in some relation isn't actually a separate thing. And this is meant to be an objection to the Tractarian notion of a proposition, the idea being that propositions are meant to be distinct things from propositional signs. 

But who said they had to be? The objection I have to both Soames's and Hanks's reconstructions of the Tractarian idea is that they both look for a way to avoid taking the 'X in Y' construction seriously, whereas part of what makes it a truly radical and fruitful idea may get lost that way. (The new act theorists want propositions to be inherently representational things. But perhaps part of Wittgenstein's thinking is that really we have signs, and we use them, and it is only in those uses that they bear representational properties and properties like truth. And so looking for a further object over and above the sign is unnecessary, and even a mistake.)

Now, there are different ways to think about how this conception can be expressed, and how expressions of it can be decomposed. You might think of it this way: there's a complex sign, which may get used in two different language systems. Then you might think that this sign is true in one of its projective relations to the world, and false in another. Here the 'in projective relation R' becomes part of the predicate, like 'true-in-L' in discussions of Tarski. But you can also put it into the subject, 'The sign in relation R' and then predicate truth of the sign in that relation. Is this a further entity over and above the sign? You can think of it that way, but perhaps there's another way here, where we just have the property of truth - not some more complicated projective-relation-involving predicate - and we just have the sign as our main entity. But we nevertheless predicate truth not of the sign simpliciter but we predicate it of the sign in a particular projective relation to the world. On this conception, it's not that we have an augmented predicate or a thing over and above the sign, rather we're just using a logical form which isn't just a simple subject-predicate proposition of the sort whose truth conditions can be given as: the proposition is true iff the property expressed by the predicate is possessed by the entity denoted by the subject. To squeeze the Tractarian conception of propositions into that form is to water it down. In particular, it is to water down its ability to get around the problem laying at the foundation of the new act-based theories of propositions - the problem about propositions needing to be inherently representational. Taking the Tractarian idea of a proposition more seriously, we don't have to find a thing that is inherently representational and then put that at the basis of our theories. We may insist that the primary truth bearers really are signs, but that these signs only bear truth in use, and that a given sign can bear truth in one use and falsity in another. 


Hanks, Peter (2019). Soames on the Tractatus. Philosophical Studies 176 (5):1367-1376.
Soames, Scott (2016). Propositions, The Tractatus, and "The Single Great Problem of Philosophy". Critica 48 (143):3-19.


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