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International Journal for Ontology and Metaphysics

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About Aboutness

Joshua Rasmussen
Published Online: 2014-03-14 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/mp-2014-0011


I develop a new theory of the nature of aboutness. I begin by presenting an “aboutness” puzzle that exposes a problem for many theories of aboutness. I then develop the components for a theory of aboutness that can help us solve the puzzle. The theory of aboutness I offer depends upon a theory of propositions as ordered complexes of properties. I develop this theory of propositions and show how it relates to, or builds upon, some of the most recent theories of propositions in the literature. My end goal is to deepen our understanding of how the things we say and think relate to the things we say and think about.

Keywords: aboutness; Russell’s paradox; structured propositions; arrangements


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About the article

Published Online: 2014-03-14

Published in Print: 2014-04-01

I have in mind especially structural theories given by, for example, Russell (in “On Propositions: What They Are and How They Mean”), Frege (1956), Soames (2012, 99–130), Salmon (1986), King (2007), and Hanks (2011). Cf. essays by King, McGlone, Soames, and Speaks (forthcoming).

Cf. Russell 1903, 527. Pruss and Rasmussen (forthcoming) give a formal exposition of this paradox.

Moreover, there is a version of the Aboutness Paradox that is consistent with nominalism. Replace premise 1 with premise 1*: for any xs, possibly, there is the proposition that the xs exist. Then add a necessity operator to premises 4 and 5. An absurd conclusion follows.

I am using the term “part” in its most general sense to include constituents, pieces, ingredients, members, and any other part-like relation. Some philosophers may prefer to view propositions as having constituents rather than as having parts. They are welcome to do so. If there is a part-like relation that propositions can participate in, then that is good enough for the purposes of this paper.

I am assuming that we can express arrangements using such locutions as “the arrangement of x”s bearing r to y’. I am also assuming that “says” is intelligible in this context.

See King (1996).

There may still be a different sense of “meaning” that accords with Mill’s direct reference theory.

By “part” I have in mind proper part.

Maybe too fine-grained. See note 47.

Therefore, we don’t expand “that thing named by ‘Tibbles’” via a Russellian expansion to “a thing uniquely named by ‘Tibbles’”.

Soames (2002, 18–54) gives a trenchant critique of rigidified descriptivist theories of meanings. The heart of Soames’ main critique, as I interpret it, is that rigidified descriptions are too fine-grained if they are indexed to the actual world: for if descriptions are indexed to the actual world, then no one in any other possible world brings to mind those same descriptions; the result is that people in nearby worlds cannot believe any of the same propositions that we, in the actual world, believe. Fortunately, his critique doesn’t target the third option, since that option doesn’t index descriptions to worlds. Moreover, for what it’s worth, I am unsure about Soames’ premise that agents in nearby worlds believe the very same proposition we believe. I think there is room for debate here.

Menzel (2010) explores the challenge of countenancing individual essences in “Problems with the Actualist Accounts”.

The constituent ontologist will disagree, of course. But note that on the usual constituent ontology theory, properties are parts/constituents of concrete things. When it comes to abstract properties, by contrast, it seems that some of them are metaphysically simple, despite having many properties. Of course, one could suppose that some, but not all, abstract things contain some, but not all, of the properties they exemplify. But this view is metaphysically extravagant: what could ground these different manners of exemplification? It seems to me that the answer, in this context, can only be given in terms of what the proposition is about, but that answer defeats the whole point of analyzing aboutness in terms of more basic ontological building blocks.

I develop this proposal in Rasmussen 2013.

The definition of “x is a composition of the ys” is equivalent to Peter van Inwagen’s definition of “x is a mereological sum of the ys” in “Can Mereological Sums Change Their Parts”, pp. 616–7.

Citation Information: Metaphysica, ISSN (Online) 1874-6373, ISSN (Print) 1437-2053, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/mp-2014-0011.

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©2014 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin / Boston. Copyright Clearance Center

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