Speaks on Merricks; criticisms of the Russellian orthodoxy

Earlier this morning I had a chance to comment on Jeff Speak's talk “Merricks vs. the Russellian orthodoxy” at the Philosophical Aspects of Modality workshop  and you can watch the whole thing now at the following video:

And here is the outline for my comments (the sections in blue are the ones we debated in the session):

§1. Why think that propositions are structured?
“Structured propositionalists have not always been as clear as they could have been, either about what the claim that propositions have constituents means, or about what, exactly, this claim is supposed to explain.” 
So here is a probably partial list taken three recent papers: Gasiunas (forthcoming), Keller (2013) and Tillerman and Fowler (2012):

  • Explain general content differences, for example between the proposition that Paris is a city and that Santa Monica is a city, or between the proposition that Ana loves Mary and that Mary loves Ana. According to proponents of the structured-propositions hypothesis, the difference is that, in the first case, the first proposition has Paris (or the sense of "Paris") as a constituent, and the second does not (instead, it has Santa Monica or the meaning of "Santa Monica” as constituent); and in the second case, the difference is that even though the constituents are the same, they are somehow composed in a different way.
  • Flesh out the pre-theoretical notion of aboutness. Propositions that are (pre-theoretically) about the same thing must have something in common that explains this. What simpler way to achieve this than by literally having something (some constituent) in common? Consequently, propositions must have ‘sharable’ constituents. Miles Davis is a jazz musician has something in common with the proposition that John Coltrane is a jazz musician, and something different in common with the proposition that Miles Davis released Kind of Blue”. According to this hypothesis, propositions are about their constituents, so that propositions about the same thing have a common constituent representing that aspect of reality they have in common.
  • Give conditions of epistemic access to propositions. For example, explain why we can not grasp the proposition that Paris is a city if we do not have something like the concept of city or some kind of epistemic access to Paris.
  • Explain how thoughts stand in logical and semantic relations to one another because of their form.
  • Capture the intuition that objects and concepts play different roles in the proposition: concepts are ways of classifying or grouping things as instances of a general kind, objects are the kind of things that get classified or grouped by concepts. 
  • Explain how concepts are freely recombinable (for example, as expressed by Evans’s “Generality Constraint”): Someone who can think a thought of the form a is F and who can think a thought of the form b is G can also think thoughts of the form a is G and b is F.
  • Explain the metaphysical dependence (if any) between propositions and the world, in general, and those parts of the world they are about, in particular.

Yes, not all that support the hypothesis think it should accomplish all these goals, and they disagree as to which and how many are necessary and which are optional or desirable.

Here, it might be helpful to appeal to the old distinction within the idea of “explaining why propositions have the representational properties they do” between explaining why a representation represents (i.e., why does it represent something instead of not representing anything at all) and why a representation represents what it represents, instead of representing something else. Speaks and Merricks are both skeptical as to whether the hypothesis of structured propositions can help us say something about the first question, but that does not mean that it might not help us give an answer to the second question. Speaks argument in section 3 is only that structure does not seem to help to answer this first question (given that we have no good theory of composition, which we do, mine). A Speaks,' Soames', Hank's, King's, etc. theory for the first question and a theory of composition to answer the second question would complement each other. 

Under the assumption that that there is some other explanation (or that we accept it as primitive) that they have representational properties at all, structure explains why they have the representational properties they do. Similarly, if you have an explanation of why mereological sums or sets are unified, we can piggyback on that to give propositions unity. So the only thing we want to explain here is what is this relation we call constitution. Also, giving an account of propositional structure is not in itself a defence of the thesis that propositions are structured.

What is not (or at least, less) controversial is that there is an important relation between propositions and what they are immediately about. 

In general, whatever  propositions do, it would be desirable if there was an explanation of how they do it, and therefore it would be good if it could be explained by their being structured. Nevertheless, only some of their properties have been tried to be explained in terms of their structure.

§2 Who has the burden of proof? 
What are Merrick and Speaks disagreeing on?
That there are not enough reasons for the truth of Russellian orthodoxy
vs there are enough reasons for the falsity of  Russellian orthodoxy.
To answer this question, we must answer first the question:
Is the hypothesis that structured propositions more or less parsimonious that the hypothesis that they are not? 
How simple is atomicity?
Maybe Merrick does not need to show that the Russellian orthodoxy is false, but only that we still do not have enough reasons to adopt it.
…but perhaps then Speaks would not disagree.

§3 Heterodox Russelianism
Hidden assumption on the debate on Existentialism:
Constitution is a necessary relation, i.e., a proposition cannot be constituted by different stuff in different possible worlds.
Why would someone reject it:
  1. Because one is a relativist (a la MacFarlane, for example) and thus believes that the same proposition can be about different things in different circumstances.
  2. Because one believes that constitution depends on aboutness (R3), aboutness depends on truth-making (Yablo 2014, Barceló 2015, et.al.),  and truth-making is not a necessary relation (Barceló 2015). For example, my cousins are rowdy has different constituents in different worlds where I have different cousins.
  3. To solve the non-existents problem: “Socrates does not exist” has Socrates as constituent only in those worlds where Socrates exists. Actual constituency does not determine identity, total (including counterfactual) constitution determines identity. Thus, even though “Aristotle is greek” and “Aristotle Onassis is greek” have the same constituents in the actual world, they are different propositions because they have different constituents in other merely possible worlds.
Thus one can keep R1 to R4 without having to accept R5 and, consequently, Existentialism.

One might worry that talk of different entities with the same (actual) constituents is nonsense, and that they cannot understand what it would be for constitution to not be identity or essence. however, that is confusion two metaphysical notions both called “constitution”. So perhaps it would be better to talk of components instead of constituents, so as to avoid this essentialist connotation.

§4 What’s so logical about logical form? (I address this question in Barceló 2012)
“Merricks might reasonably object: ‘OK, you’ve said what it takes for one proposition to be the negation of another, and in that sense have explained what it means for a proposition to be of a certain form. But what makes the forms that you talk about logical?’ This is a fair question, and I think that Russellians should be a bit more cautious in speaking of logical forms of propositions than they sometimes are.”
But there is (at least) a straightforward and orthodox answer:
Being the negation of a given proposition is to have a certain logical form,
because negation is a logical operation,
because (there are many stories to tell, my favourite being that) negation can be defined in purely logical terms,
i.e., in terms of what follows from what, as specified in its introduction and elimination rules. 

§5 A minor point:
Why truth-existence: Necessarily, if a proposition is true, then it exists?
Instead of false-existence: Necessarily, if a proposition is false, then it exists?

Why the asymmetry?


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