Friederike Moltmann » Teaching » Act-Based Conceptions of Propositional Content, ESSLLI Barcelona August 2015
Act-Based Conceptions of Propositional Content, ESSLLI Barcelona August 2015

Date: August 03, 2015



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The Fregean notion of a proposition as a mind-independent abstract object that has truth conditions essentially is a central notion both in linguistic semantics and in contemporary philosophy of language. Recently, a number of philosophers of language have put forward serious criticisms against this notion, however, and have proposed instead act-based conceptions of propositional content, tying the representational status of propositions to the intentionality of agents (Jubien, Hanks, Soames, among others). The course will discuss the motivations and the different developments of the act-based approach to propositional content with their actual and potential semantic applications. It will most importantly present a particular version of the act-based approach based on the notion of a (nonenduring) product of an act, an agent- and mind-dependent ‘abstract artifact’ (Thomasson). It will develop various novel formal semantic applications of that approach, in particular to the semantics of different sorts of clausal complements and the semantics of quotation.


Motivation and Description

Propositions play a central role in linguistic semantics and philosophy of language. The motivations for propositions comes from the particular semantic roles they are meant to play, namely as the meanings of sentences (and the meanings of embedded that-clauses in particular), as the ‘objects’ of propositional attitudes, as the (primary) bearers of truth and falsehood, and as the semantic values of ‘propositional’ anaphora and quantifiers, such as English something, nothing, and that. As such, propositions are generally conceived as mind- and language-independent entities that have their truth conditions essentially (Schiffer 2003). The two main conceptions of propositions are as set of circumstances (possible worlds or situations) and as structured propositions, such as n-tuples of a property or relation and n-1 arguments Making use of propositions for those roles has become standard in both philosophy of language and in linguistic semantics. But propositions are also associated with a range of conceptual and empirical problems, some of which have received significant attention in the recent philosophical literature (Moore 1999, Jubien 2001, Iacona 2003, Soames 2010, Hanks 2009, 2011). Thus, it is very unclear how an abstract proposition can act as the content of a cognitive act or state, how a structured proposition can have the particular truth conditions it has on the basis of its constituents and their order (the problem of the ‘unity of propositions’), and moreover why an abstract proposition can be truth-directed in the first place. Abstract propositions in fact cannot have truth conditions inherently, but only by stipulation.

     Propositions as the objects of propositional attitudes go along with a relational analysis of attitude reports according to which John thinks that S has the logical form think(John, p), where p is the proposition that that S stands for. This analysis faces serious empirical problems, though, in that that-clauses simply do not behave like singular terms standing for a proposition: a that-clause generally is not replaceable by an explicit proposition referring terms (Prior 1971, Bach 1997, King 2002,2007, Moltmann 2003a,b, 2013, Chapt. 4)

     In order to account for the conceptual problems for propositions, a number of philosophers have more recently proposed act-based conceptions of the notion of a propositional content, pursuing the idea that cognitive acts of predication provide the ‘glue’ that constitutes the unity among the propositional constituents and give the truth-directedness of a propositional content (Jubien 2001, Hanks 2009, 2011, Soames 2010). The course will discuss the various act-based approaches, how they may or may not account for the conceptual and empirical problems for propositions, and how they could deal with a range of challenging constructions, such as sentences with quantifiers, negation, coordination, presuppositions, and anaphora, and different sorts of clausal complements.

      The course will present a novel act-based approach to propositional content, which centers not on cognitive acts, but on cognitive and illocutionary products of cognitive or illocutionary acts, in roughly the sense of Twardowski’s (1912) distinction between actions and products. Whereas acts of thinking, judging, and demanding are actions, thoughts, judgments, and demands are their (nonenduring) products -- or abstract artifacts in Thomasson’s (1999) sense. Unlike actions, products have truth conditions or more generally satisfaction conditions inherently, have a part structure driven by partial content, and display conditions of similarity strictly driven by the sharing of propositional contents. Moreover, they carry relevant normative and evaluative properties in the way artifacts (such as laws or objects of art) generally do. Unlike abstract propositions, cognitive and illocutionary products, like artifacts in general, are mind- and agent-dependent and thus cognitively accessible.       

      Cognitive and illocutionary products are not only the primary bearers of truth or satisfaction conditions, but also of truth makers or other satisfiers, and different products differ in the way they may be satisfied and in the kinds of entities acting as their satisfiers. Whereas an assertion is made true by situations, demands are fulfilled by actions, and questions by illocutionary products of assertions or epistemic products of knowledge.

    The notion of a cognitive or illocutionary product goes along with a non-relational view of attitude reports according to which clausal complements embedded under attitude verbs do not stand for propositions but rather characterize the product of the action or state described by the embedding verb (the Davidsonian event argument). Clausal complements can do so in different ways, depending on the embedding verbs and context (speaker’s intentions), for example by specifying smaller referential and predicational products composing the cognitive or illocutionary product in question or by just specifying its truth makers or satisfying actions. This crucially allows the account to stay neutral as to how mental states (cognitive products) are to be conceived philosophically, as on a representational, functional, dispositional, or interpretationist conception. The account is committed only to a conception of illocutionary products, as characterized by independent sentences.

      The act-based approach to propositional content allows in particular for a new account of quotation which promises a unified account of various phenomena of quotation based on a novel view of its syntactic basis. On that account, the interpretation of pure, direct, and mixed quotation involves ‘lower-level linguistic product types’, making use of Austin’s (1965) distinction between linguistic acts of increasingly higher levels: phonetic acts - phatic acts - rhetic acts - locutionary acts - illocutionary acts – perlocutionary acts. Ordinarily, such acts are ordered by the ‘by’-relation or what Goldman (1970) calls ‘level-generation’: a speaker performs a phatic act by performing a phonetic act etc. On the act-based approach, quotation consists in that lower-level linguistic acts are performed not or not only in order to perform higher-level linguistic acts. Applying this account to John called Mary ‘Marie’, ‘Marie’ will convey, let’s say, a phonological product type, which will be predicated of the product of the Davidsonian event argument of called. The interpretation of ‘extraordinary’ in the mixed-quotation sentence John said that Mary is an ‘extraordinary’ woman will consists both in a content-related and a form-related product type, both of which serve to partially characterize the product of the Davidsonian event argument of said.

     This account will be combined with a particular view of the syntactic structure of sentences with quotation. Most theories of quotation take pure quotation to consist in the formation of an expression-referring term (while theories differ as to how such expression-reference is achieved). On the act-based account, the syntactic contexts allowing for quotation simply accept expressions that are not syntactic units, but may just be morphological, phonological, or phonetic units. The syntactic structure of the overall sentence will then include a part that involves a phonetic, phonological, or morphological categorical specification, rather than a syntactic one. Crucially, the act-based account allows for interpretations of such parts as well, namely as lower-level linguistic product types which can serve a range of functions in the interpretation of the sentence. On this view, the interpretation of quotation is based on the structure of the sentence, and the semantic contributions of quotations as lower-level product types are systematically integrated into the meaning of the overall sentence in virtue of the syntactic and lexical context in which the quoted expressions occur.


Course Outline

Session 1

The philosophical and linguistic motivations for the notion of a proposition and the problems for that notion

-  The Fregean tradition and the role of propositions in contemporary philosophy of language and linguistic semantics

-  Conceptual problems for propositions and empirical problems for the relational analysis of attitude reports

Session 2

Act-based conceptions of propositional content

-  The views of Jubien, Hanks, and Soames, their applications, potential developments and problems

-   Historical act-based conceptions of propositional content: Husserl, Meinong, Reinach,

Session 3

Cognitive and illocutionary products

-   The distinction between actions and products: Twardowski

-   The more general distinction between actions and abstract artifacts: Ingarden and Thomasson

-   Cognitive products and the noton of a mental states

-   Cognitive and illocutionary products and truthmaker semantics

Session 4

Nonrelational act-based analyses of propositional attitude reports

-  The neo-Russellian analysis of attitude reports (Jubien, Moltmann) and its problems

-  An alternative view: that-clauses as characterizing products (of Davidsonian event arguments)

-  Finite, infinitival, and interrogative complements

Session 5

An act-based approach to quotation

-  Overview of approaches to quotation and some of their main problems

-  A novel, act-based account of quotation: interpreting quotation as lower-level linguistic product types


Expected level and prerequisites

Basic knowledge of linguistic semantics and philosophy of language



Austin, J.L. (1965): How to do Things with Words. Oxford UP, Oxford.

Bach, K. (1997): 'Do Belief Reports Report Beliefs?'. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 78,


Goldman, A. (1970): A Theory of Human Action. Prenctice-Hall, Los Angeles.

Hanks, P. W. (2007): ‘The Content-Force Distinction’. Philosophical  Studies 134, 141-164.

--------------- (2001): ‘Structured Propositions as Types’. Mind 120, 11-52.

Jubien, M. (2001): ‘Propositions and the Objects of Thought’. Philosophical Studies 104,


King, J. (2002): ‘Designating Propositions’. Philosophical Review 111, 341-471.

--------- (2007): The Nature and Structure of Content. Oxford UP, Oxford.

Moltmann, F. (2003a): 'Nominalizing Quantifiers'. Journal of Philosophical Logic.35.5., pp.


---------------- (2003b):  'Propositional Attitudes without Propositions'. Synthese 135, pp.


----------------- (2013a): Abstract Objects and the Semantics of Natural Language, Oxford UP,

----------------- (2013b): ‘Propositions, Attitudinal Objects, and the Distinction between

     Actions and Products’.  To appear in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, special issue on

     propositions, edited by G. Rattan and D. Hunter.

------------------ (to appear a): ‘The Distinction between Actions and Products and the

     Semantics of Attitude Reports’. In Moltmann / Textor (eds.).

------------------- (to appear b): ‘Variable Objects and Truthmaking’. In M. Dumitru (ed.):

     Meaning, Metaphysics, and Modality. Themes from Kit Fine. Oxford UP, Oxford.

Moltmann, F. / M. Textor (eds;): Act-Based Conceptions of Propositional Content.

     Contemporary and Historical Perpectives. (Oxford UP, to appear)

Moore, J. G. (1999): ‘Propositions, Numbers, and the Problem of Arbitrary Identification’.

     Synthese 120, 229-263.

Schiffer, S.  (2003): The Things we Mean. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Soames, S. (2010): What is Meaning?. Princeton UP, Princeton.

Thomasson, A. (1999): Fiction and Metaphysics. Cambridge UP, Cambridge.

Twardowski, K. (1912): ‘Actions and Products. Some Remarks on  the Borderline of

     Psychology, Grammar, and Logic’. In J. Brandl/J. Wolenski (eds.): Kazimierz

     Twardowski. On Actions, Products, and Other Topics in the Philosophy. Rodopi,

     Amsterdam and Atlanta, 1999, 103-132.


Associated Projects

[1] France-Berkeley Fund 2014, Project title: ‘The Distinction between Actions and Products and its Importance for Speech Act Theory and Social Ontology’. Project partner: John Searle, University of Berkeley. http://fbf.berkeley.edu/

[2] Soutien à la Mobilité Internationale, CNRS, 2014. Research project ‘Acts, Products, and Content’ in the Department of Philosophy at NYU.

[3] Project ‘Acts, Content, and Quotation’, 2014, Maison des Sciences Humaines Paris Nord (MSH Paris Nord)