Jeffrey King’s Book Defending Structured Propositions

Jeffrey King has a new book out, defending structured propositions as a theory of content.  Harry Deutsch has a “harsh” (his word) review of it at NDPR.


  1. If a theory of propositions is a psychological theory, why is Deutsch so concerned with its ‘fundamental logical background’? A theory of the structure of propositions is not the same as a theory of logic, and his whole review he treats the two as the same much like an old-school analytic philosopher would have done.

    We don’t have to expect the theorized propositional contents to conform to the dictates of good logic. For instance, contradictions may well be possible. This should be the case in any good model of actual human thinking.

    That review’s cavilling tone is something I’d expect on a blog or internet discussion.

  2. Eric Thomson

    I still agree with what I said above, but trying to be more charitable, I might have confused first- versus second-order theorizing about propositions.

    E.g., even if your theory of human propositional thought allows for contradictions among thoughts (as it probably should), that doesn’t imply that your theory itself, the theory laying out this theory of propositions, should be allowed to have a contradiction.

    I am not all that clear on this, but a silly example shows what I mean.

    Say I think an organism has thoughts in a roughly Fodorian sense (e.g., atomic semantic elements combine via some syntactic operations to produce propositionally structured thoughts). You could also have a syntax of these propositions, the inference rules implicit in this system.

    We could even say that some of the axioms built into its cognitive system frequently lead to contradictions. E.g., to pick a crazy example perhaps it has the denial of the excluded middle law ~(Av~A) built into its cognitive machinery, and this forces it to believe lots of contradictory things (though not everything–perhaps its mind is a paraconsistent logical engine).

    Perhaps Deutsch has no problems with this, but thinks that the problem is in the formulation of the cognitive theory, not in the postulation of a cognitive system that leads to contradictions. If that is what Deutshe is saying, then perhaps he is on better footing. If he is saying that a theory of propositional contents should, by fiat, rule out contradictions, he seems clearly wrong. If he is saying that our theory of cognitive psychological contents is what leads to a contradiction, then he has a more interesting case. I am not clear from the review (which I admittedly read somewhat superficially and didn’t completely understand) which he is saying.

    Do you really need to take a stance on ramified types and that sort of esoterica in philosophical logic to give a coherent theory of how an organism’s propositional thought is structured? I think not, which is why it seems he is talking past so much of King’s book (surprisingly, the review makes me want to read King’s book as it sounds like his view is very reasonable).

  3. gualtiero

    Well, I haven’t read King’s book but I doubt that you will find it entirely to your taste. From what I remember, King is a fairly traditional philosopher of language–not very concerned with empirical sciences of mind.

  4. Eric Thomson

    I emailed King to ask him about the review (which he obviously didn’t agree with).

    He views his theory as a naturalistic theory (though we didn’t discuss specific empirical claims). Just based on the review, it sounds like his position is very naturalism-friendly, and may be a very nice supplement to Dretske or Millikan. The latter two focus on breathing content into individual symbols, while he seems to want to take up the yoke of showing how these can be combined to get full propositional contents.

    (To be fair, Dretske thinks he’s talking about propositions, claiming to show how a brain state carries the information that ‘X is F’, but really he doesn’t address it explicitly, how to individuate predicates from individuals, or how to combine symbols other than a handwavy pointer to “syntax”–Dretske is best with contents of single symbols).

    I’ll be reading the book soon and publish a little review of it, probably confused as this stuff is out of my specialty!

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