Define Proposition Of Fact Essay

We will attempt only the briefest history of the topic, focusing on key episodes rather than on a comprehensive survey.

It is difficult to find in the writings of Plato or Aristotle a clear endorsement of propositions in our sense. Plato’s most challenging discussions of falsehood, in Theaetetus (187c-200d) and Sophist (260c-264d), focus on the puzzle (well-known to Plato’s contemporaries) of how false belief could have an object at all. Thinking that Theaetetus flies would seem to require thinking the non-existent flying Theaetetus. Were Plato a propositionalist, we might expect to find Socrates or the Eleactic Stranger proposing that false belief certainly has an object, i.e., that there is something believed in a case of false belief — in fact, the same sort of thing as is believed in a case of true belief — and that this object is the primary bearer of truth-value. But it seems no such proposal is seriously considered. In both dialogues, it is suggested that thought is a kind of inward dialogue carried on in the mind itself (Theaetetus 189e-190a and Sophist263e), and that judgment results when the two inward voices affirm the same thing. Plato is standardly understood as explaining false belief (doxa) in terms of the assertion of a false statement (logos). But it is far from clear that he takes the objects of belief to be statements rather than simply the ordinary concrete objects (e.g., Theaetetus) and forms (e.g., flying) which the statement is about, and still less clear that he takes statements to be sharable between minds. Statements, for Plato, might simply be tokens of inner speech, as Nuchelmans (1973, p. 21) suggests.

Aristotle expends great energy in investigating what in reality makes true statements true, but less investigating the nature of truth-bearers themselves. In his most significant discussions of truth and falsehood, he seems not to take a clear stand on the question of propositions. In On Interpretation 1 16a, for instance, Aristotle remarks that falsity and truth require combination and separation, whether of names and verbs in speech, or of elements in thought. However, it is unclear whether the resulting combination of thought elements is anything other than a token thought, as opposed to something which is the content of the token thought and which could be thought by others, could be denied, asserted, etc.

Arguably, the first employment in the western philosophical tradition of the notion of proposition, in roughly our sense, is found in the writings of the Stoics. In the third century B.C., Zeno and his followers, including Chrysippus especially, distinguished the material aspects of words from that which is said, or lekta. Among lekta, they distinguished the complete from incomplete (or deficient), the latter corresponding roughly to the meanings of predicates, the former to the meanings of sentences. Among complete lekta they included axiomata, or the meanings of declarative sentences. For the Stoics, only axiomata, and not the words used to articulate them, were properly said to be true or false. Axiomata were therefore the proper subject matter of Stoic logic.

Lekta posed a problem for Stoic materialism, according to which everything real is corporeal. For the Stoics, the real was limited to that which can act or be acted upon, and therefore to the bodily. Lekta, however, were thought to be incorporeal. Seneca explains:

For instance, I see Cato walking; the sense of sight reveals this to me and the mind believes it. What I see is a material object and it is to a material object that I direct my eyes and my mind. Then I say ‘Cato is walking’. It is not a material object that I now state, but a certain affirmation about him… (Epistulae morales, 117, 13)

The notion of a proposition can also be found in the works of Medieval philosophers, including especially Abelard (1079–1142) and his followers, but also among later scholastic philosophers in England, including Adam Wodeham (d. 1358) and Walter Burleigh (1275–1344).

Abelard distinguishes between dicta or what is said and acts of assertion (or thinking), the former being the fundamental bearers of truth-value. While Abelard himself seems to have had little to say about the nature or identity conditions of dicta, his successors took up the subject with vigor (Nuchelmans 1973, pp. 162–3). Are dicta particular acts of thinking, concrete events or facts, or entities having the same sort of being as universals? Each of these views is considered and evaluated in the treatise Ars Meliduna, of unknown authorship.

A similar debate raged among the English scholastics in the fourteenth century. Against Ockham’s nominalistic account, under which the object of assent is a complex token mental sentence, Adam Wodeham, for example, maintained that the object of assent is not any sort of mental entity, nor even a thing at all, properly speaking, nor of course a nothing but rather a being the case (see Wood 2003, and Nuchelmans 1996, IV for further discussion of Wodeham and his contemporaries).

One complicating factor for the contemporary reader in examining Medieval (and later) work on the topic is that the term “propositio” was standardly used, following Boethius, to refer to sentences, mental as well as written or spoken (oratio verum falsumve significans, i.e., speech signifying what is true or false). Propositions in our sense were what was signified by these >propositiones if they signified at all.[2]

When we turn to the early modern period, it is not easy to find, at least in the writings of major philosophers, an unabashed assertion of the reality of propositions. Unsurprisingly, one looks in vain in the writings of the British empiricists. As for Descartes, particular acts of judgments serve as the primary bearers of truth-value (although there is considerable debate about the status of his eternal truths). Leibniz’s cogitato possibilis have some of the characteristics of propositions. These possible thoughts seem to play the role of thought-contents and the fundamental bearers of truth-value. However, it is a matter of debate whether they are accorded real ontological status.

Propositionalists were by no means rare in the 19th century, Gottlob Frege being the best known example. The Czech philosopher and mathematician Bernard Bolzano also deserves special mention. In his Wissenschaftslehre, or Theory of Science, published in 1837, he argued for the existence of what he called ‘Sätze an sich,’ or sentences in themselves, which he clearly distinguished from linguistic items or mental phenomena. They are the fundamental bearers of truth and falsity, and the objects of the attitudes. It is the goal of every science, including mathematics, is to state the fundamental true sentences in themselves pertaining that subject matter. (This marks a clear departure from the psychologizing approaches of many of Bolzano’s contemporaries.) Like Frege after him, Bolzano conceived of propositions as complexes composed of wholly abstract mind-independent constituents (Vorstellungen an sich). Bolzano’s work has had a profound influence on Husserlian phenomenology and the development of modern logic.

Arguably, the three figures whose work has most shaped the framework for contemporary Anglophone work on propositions are Gottlob Frege, G.E. Moore, and Bertrand Russell. We will give short summaries of their thought on the matter.

In 1892, Frege published his classic paper “On Sense and Reference”. This paper contains his first formulation of the distinction between sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung). Roughly speaking, the sense of an expression is the mode of presentation of its referent, or the cognitive value of its referent. Expressions were said to express their senses. Sentences, too, had both referents and senses, according to Frege. The referent of a sentence is its truth-value. Its sense is a thought (Beaney 1997, p. 156), not a token thought, but a thought in the sense of a proposition: a sharable content. Thus, in Fregean jargon, meaningful sentences express thoughts.

Frege conceived of thoughts as structured complexes of senses. The thought expressed by ‘The evening star is bright’ consists of the sense of ‘the evening star’ and the sense of ‘is bright’. (It should be noted that this claim about structure does not strictly follow from the fact that sense is compositional, i.e., that the sense of a whole expression is fixed by the senses of its constituent parts and their syntactic mode of arrangement.) In his late masterpiece, “The Thought” (1922), Frege is explicit about the nature of thoughts. They are not part of the outer realm, which consists of those entities perceivable by the senses. This Frege thinks is obvious. Nor are they part of the inner realm, which consists of ideas. Unlike ideas, thoughts do not require an owner (i.e., they exist even if not present in any mind), and can be present to more than one mind. A third realm must be recognized, he tells us — a realm of abstract eternal entities which we can grasp by virtue of our power of thinking. However, Frege is explicit that thoughts do act:

Thoughts are not wholly unactual but their actuality is quite different from the actuality of things. And their action is brought about by a performance of a thinker; without this they would be inactive, at least as far as we can see. And yet the thinker does not create them but must take them as they are. They can be true without being grasped by a thinker; and they are not wholly unactual even then, at least if they could be grasped and so brought into action (Beaney 1997, p. 345).

This is perhaps the locus classicus for platonism in the modern sense of that term, that is, for the doctrine that there exist mind-independent abstract entities.

In their early writings, Russell and Moore endorse propositionalism. In his 1903 book The Principles of Mathematics, Russell affirms the existence of propositions, taking them to be complexes of ordinary concrete objects (the referents of words) rather than of Fregean senses (p. 47). Propositions so conceived are now standardly called Russellian, and propositions conceived as complexes of senses or abstract entities are called Fregean. In his 1899 paper, “The Nature of Judgment,” Moore affirms the existence of propositions, taking them to be broadly Fregean in nature (in particular as being complexes of mind-independent Platonic universals which he calls concepts).

Russell and Moore later grow suspicious of propositions (although Russell seems to have accepted them later as a kind of derived or immanent entity). Interestingly, Moore’s thinking on the matter seems to have changed dramatically during the winter of 1910–11, as his published lectures Some Main Problems of Philosophy reveal. Before Christmas, Moore claims:

In the one case what is apprehended is the meaning of the words: Twice two are four; in the other case what is apprehended is the meaning of the words: Twice four are eight… Now by a proposition, I mean the sort of thing which is apprehended in these two cases…. I hope it is plain that there certainly are such things as propositions in this sense. (p. 73)

After Christmas, Moore is more skeptical. While the theory of propositions is admittedly simple and natural (p. 286), there are good reasons to reject it. He specifies two problems, both having to do with facts, a topic he avoided in his earlier lectures. The first is that the theory of propositions suggests the “primitivist” theory of truth, previously held by Moore and also Russell, according to which truth is a simple unanalyzable property of propositions. Primitivism, Moore now claims, requires the claim that facts consist in the possession by a proposition of the simple property of truth. This Moore now finds unacceptable. The second problem is simply that the theory seems intuitively false:

…if you consider what happens when a man entertains a false belief, it doesn’t seem as if his belief consisted merely in his having a relation to some object which certainly is. It seems rather as if the thing he was believing, the object of his belief, were just the fact which certainly is not — which certainly is not, because the belief is false. (p. 287)

Russell echoes similar sentiments in essays after Principles. In 1910 he writes that “we feel that there could be no falsehood if there were no minds to make mistakes” (Slater 1992, p. 119), and in the 1918 he remarks that a person with “a vivid instinct as to what is real” cannot “suppose that there is a whole set of false propositions about ” [Russell 1956, p. 223).

These doubts led Russell (1912) to propose a multiple relation theory of judgment, to replace the standard two-place relational theory (which is discussed at length in section 3.1). To use Russell’s example, in judging that Desdemona loves Cassio, Othello stands, not in a binary relation to a proposition, but rather in a multiple or many-placed relation to Desdemona, loving, and Cassio. Othello’s judgment is true when there is a fact of Desdemona loving Cassio and otherwise false. This theory, and its contemporary incarnations, is discussed in a supplementary document.

Moore’s doubts led him to postulate what appear to be merely possible facts as the objects of the propositional attitudes. When a subject believes that x is F and x is not F, the object of belief is the non-existent but possible fact that x is F. See section below for further discussion of possible facts and their relations to propositions.

2. Roles for Propositions: Modality

If there are propositions, they would appear to be good candidates for being the bearers of alethic modal properties (necessary and possible truth), as well as the relata of entailment. And if propositions stand in entailment relations, then there would seem to be maximal consistent sets of them. Prima facie, such sets seem to be good candidates for possible worlds (Adams 1974; 1981). A proposition will be true in a possible world (at a maximal consistent set of propositions) iff it is a member of that world.

If possible worlds are understood in this way, however, it is important to distinguish two meanings for talk of ‘the actual world’. This may refer either to the totality of what exists, to what Lewis calls “I and all my surroundings”, or to the maximal consistent set which includes all the true propositions. The latter is part of I and all my surroundings, but only a proper part.

3. Roles for Propositions: Semantics

3.1. The Relational Analysis

By our stipulation, ‘proposition’ is used to pick out the objects of the attitudes and the bearers of truth and falsity. One would therefore expect that if there are propositions, they would figure importantly in the semantics of attitude- and truth-ascriptions. One would expect, in particular, that in ‘S believes that p’, and in ‘that p is true’, the that-clauses would refer to propositions.[3]

One might doubt whether that-clauses could really refer, if reference is understood on the model of proper names. For, that-clauses are not proper names, nor are they noun phrases.[4] Still, because propositions are the objects of the attitudes and the bearers of truth, mustn’t they somehow be semantically associated with ascriptions of attitudes and of truth? Following Jeffrey King (2002), we will use the term ‘designate’ as a catch-all covering any sort of semantic association between a linguistic item and an entity. We follow standard terminology in using the word ‘express’ to pick out the relation between a predicate and the property which is its sense or semantic content.

More carefully, then, the propositionalist will find it natural to accept the following account of attitude-ascriptions:

The Relational Analysis of Attitude Ascriptions

An attitude ascription ‘SVs that p’ is true iff ‘S’ designates a person who stands in the attitude relation expressed by ‘V’ to the proposition designated by ‘that p’ (and false iff ‘S’ designates a person who doesn’t stand in such relation to such a proposition).

Analogously, there is the Property Analysis of truth-ascriptions:

‘That p is true’ or ‘it is true that p’ is true iff the proposition designated by ‘that p’ has the property expressed by ‘true’.

One of the great advantages of these analyses — the combination of which we will simply call The Relational Analysis — is the smooth explanation of the validity of certain inferences. Consider, for example:

Charles believes everything Thomas said.
Thomas said that cats purr.
So, Charles believes that cats purr.

Something Barbara asserted is true.
Nothing John denied is true.
So, something Barbara asserted John did not deny.

John believes that every even is the sum of two primes.
Goldbach’s Conjecture is that every even is the sum of two primes.
So, John believes Goldbach’s Conjecture.

These inferences are valid if they have the following simple logical forms:

For all x such that Thomas said x, Charlie believes x.
Thomas said A.
So, Charlie believes A.

Some x such that Barbara asserted x is true.
No x such that John denied x is true.
So, some x such that Barbara asserted x is such that John did not deny x.

John believes A.
Goldbach’s Conjecture is A.
So, John believes Goldbach’s Conjecture.

We will discuss problems for the Relational Analysis in Section 5.[5]

3.2. Meanings of Sentences

Propositions are also commonly treated as the meanings or, to use the more standard terminology, the semantic contents of sentences, and so are commonly taken to be central to semantics and the philosophy of language. However, there is room for doubt about whether propositions are the right sort of entity for the job (Lewis 1980). Here is why. Note that a sentence would appear to contribute the same content regardless of whether it occurs as a proper part of a larger sentence. So, a sentence such as ‘in the past, Reagan was president’ would seem to be true depending on whether the content of ‘Reagan is president’ is true at some past time. But this would seem to imply that this content must lack temporal qualification — that it can change in its truth-value over time. Similarly, it seems there are locative sentential operators ‘in Chicago, it is raining’. If so, then by a similar argument, it would seem that the content of ‘it is raining’ would have to lack spatial qualification. The problem is this: it seems propositions, being the objects of belief, cannot in general be spatially and temporally unqualified. Suppose that Smith, in London, looks out his window and forms the belief that it is raining. Suppose that Ramirez, in Madrid, relying on yesterday’s weather report, awakens and forms the belief that it is raining, before looking out the window to see sunshine. What Smith believes is true, while what Ramirez believes is false. So they must not believe the same proposition. But if propositions were generally spatially unqualified, they would believe the same proposition. An analogous argument can be given to show that what is believed must not in general be temporally unqualified.

If these worries are well-taken, then the meanings or contents of sentences are not in general propositions.

Appealing to recent work in linguistics, Jeffrey C. King (2003) presents evidence against one of the crucial assumptions of the above arguments, that there are no genuine locational or temporal operators in English. King claims that ‘somewhere’ and ‘sometimes’ are better regarded as quantifiers over locational and temporal entities (i.e., either locations and times themselves or locational or temporal properties of events). Thus, ‘somewhere, it is raining’ would have the logical form ‘there is some location L such that it is raining at L’. King further argues that tenses are best analyzed as quantifiers over times rather than temporal operators. ‘John flunked chemistry’, thus, would have the form ‘there is some time t within I* such that John flunks chemistry at t’, where the interval I* is contextually supplied. These analyses, of course, require the controversial claim that predicates like ‘is raining’ and ‘flunks ’ include extra argument places for locations and times.

King emphasizes that his argument is thoroughly empirical. It relies on results from empirical linguistics. If King is right, however, the view that the contents of sentences are propositions can be maintained.

For other criticisms of Lewis’s argument, see Richard (1982), Salmon (1989) and Cappelen and Hawthorne (2010). Brogaard (2012) provides a defense of the temporalist view of propositions.

4. Arguments for Propositions

4.1 One over Many

One familiar argument for propositions appeals to commonalties between beliefs, utterances, or sentences, and infers a common entity. Thus, it has been suggested, less in print perhaps than in conversation, that propositions are needed to play the role of being what synonymous sentences have in common, what a sentence and its translation into another language have in common, etc.

Arguments of this sort are typically met with the following reply: commonalties do not necessarily require common relations to a single entity. Two red things have something in common, in that they are both red, but it does not follow that they bear a common relation to a single entity, the universal of redness. Similarly, two sentences, in virtue of being synonymous, can be said to have something in common, but that fact alone does not entail they are commonly related to a proposition. When a relation R is symmetric and reflexive with respect to a certain domain, it may be useful to speak of the things in the domain which bear R to one another as “having something in common”, but nothing of ontological significance follows. Thus, the conclusion is drawn: we need an argument for thinking that commonalties require common relations to a single entity.

4.2 Metalinguistic Arguments

One standard sort of argument for propositions is metalinguistic. Thus, many argue that we think of that-clauses as designating expressions if we are to explain how certain argument patterns (such as those considered in Section 2) are valid and in fact have sound instances (Horwich 1990, Higginbotham 1991, Schiffer 1996, Bealer 1998). Since some of these sound argument instances contain as premises sentences attributing truth to the designata of that-clauses, those designata must be bearers of truth-values. Similarly, premises of some of these sound instances ascribe attitudes toward the designatum of a that-clauses, these designata would seem to be objects of attitudes. In brief, in order to explain these facts about validity and soundness, it seems that-clauses must not only designate but must designate entities fitting the propositional role.

Whether propositions are needed for the semantics of natural language is a matter of continuing dispute. For more on these matters, see the entry on theories of meaning.

4.3 The Metaphysics 101 Argument

Our focus here will be on a different sort of argument. Here is a speech the basic character of which should be familiar to undergraduate students of metaphysics:

When someone has a belief, we can distinguish what she believes from her believing it. I have a belief that Trump is the US president, for example. We can distinguish what I believe in believing that Trump is the US president — the content of my belief — from my believing that Trump is the US president. What I believe in believing this is something you believe, too. What we both believe is the proposition that Trump is the US president. This same proposition may be asserted, doubted, etc. And, in fact, this proposition is true: Trump is the US president. So, there are propositions, and they are the contents of beliefs and other attitudes and they are the bearers of truth and falsity.

One might attempt to regiment these remarks, somewhat artificially, to take the form of an argument, which we will dub the Metaphysics 101 argument:

  1. With respect to any belief, there is what is believed and the believing of it, and these are distinct.
  2. What is believed is something that may be rejected, denied, disbelieved, etc. by multiple subjects, and is something that may be true or false.
  3. There are beliefs.
  4. So, there are propositions (i.e, sharable objects of the attitudes and bearers of truth-values).

Further tinkering might improve the argument in certain ways. Our concern, however, is whether the argument goes seriously awry.

The Metaphysics 101 Argument is not metalinguistic. It does not rely on premises about English. This can be verified by noting that the argument looks just as good after it is translated into other languages. Nevertheless, it might be claimed that the argument derives its apparent force from a seductive mistake about how English (and other languages) function. Perhaps this is another case of what Wittgenstein called “language on holiday.”[6]

5. Linguistic Problems?

How might one reply to the arguments for propositions just discussed? One might reply, of course, by arguing for the opposite conclusion. Thus, many have argued, on broadly naturalistic grounds, that we ought not accept propositions. Any such argument will involve controversial claims about the nature and status of propositions. These issues are discussed in section 7. However, one increasingly popular reply to arguments for propositions is to argue, (1), that they presuppose the Relational Analysis, and (2), that the Relational Analysis does a poor job of accounting for certain linguistic data.

5.1 The Substitution Problem

The problem here is quite simple. If, as the Relational Analysis entails, attitude-ascriptions of the form ‘SVs that p’ assert relations to propositions, then we should be able to replace ‘that p’ with ‘the proposition that p’ without affecting truth-value. But in general we can’t do this. Therefore, the Relational Analysis is false. Here are some examples of failed substitutions:

1. I insist that it will snow this year. (TRUE)
*2. So, I insist the proposition that it will snow this year.

3. I imagine that it will snow this year. (TRUE)
4. So, I imagine the proposition that it will snow this year. (FALSE)

5. I remember that combustion produces phlogiston. (FALSE)
6. I remember the proposition that combustion produces phlogiston. (TRUE).

The class of attitude verbs for which substitution problems arise — the “problematic” attitude verbs — can be divided into two subclasses: one consisting of verbs which do not grammatically tolerate substitutions (e.g., intransitive verbs such as ‘insist’, ‘complain’, ‘say’, and VPs of the form ‘Aux Adj’, such as ‘is pleased’, ‘was surprised’); the other consisting of verbs which grammatically tolerate substitutions but for which truth-value is not necessarily preserved (e.g., ‘expect’, ‘anticipate’, ‘bet’, ‘gather’, ‘judge’, ‘claim’, ‘maintain’, ‘hold’, ‘judge’, ‘feel’, ‘remember’, ‘know’, ‘recognize’, ‘find’).

Friederike Moltmann (2003) dubs this problem the Substitution Problem. (See also Vendler 1967, Prior 1971, Parsons 1993, Bach 1997, McKinsey 1999, Recanati 2000, King 2002, Moffett 2003, Harman 2003.)

5.2 The Objectivization Effect

Closely related to the Substitution Problem is what Moltmann (2003, p. 87) calls the Objectivization Effect, or objectivization. Substitutions in some cases seem to force a new reading for the verb, an object reading rather than a content reading. Thus, in ‘I imagine that it will snow this year,’ ‘imagine’ has the content reading (this is, by stipulation, what the content reading is!), whereas in ‘I imagine the proposition that it will snow this year,’ ‘imagine’ takes an object reading — it expresses the same relation that holds between subjects and garden variety objects such as those designated by NPs like ‘19th-century Wessex’ and ‘my college roommate’.

The problem here can be described as follows. If the Relational Analysis is true, then propositional attitudes are relations to propositions; but then it seems very odd that we should be unable to retain the content meaning by substituting ‘the proposition that p’ for ‘that p’.

5.3 Defensive Responses

Defensive Response #1. The above arguments against the Relational Analysis prove too much. Similar problems arise for the appeal to facts (as distinct from true propositions), properties, and events in semantics. Here are several examples of substitution failures.

S found that the room was a mess.
So, S found the fact that the room was a mess.

Freedom is on the march.
So, the property of freedom is on the march.

I jumped a jump.
So, I jumped an event (of jumping).

A difficulty for Defensive Response #1 is that it seems to spread a problem around rather than solve it. One might argue that relational analyses invoking propositions, facts, properties, and events all make the same mistake of reading too much ontology into English.

Defensive Response #2. From ‘S believes that p’ we can infer ‘S believes the proposition that p’ and ‘S believes a proposition.’ And the same goes for ‘reject’, ‘assert’, ‘deny’, and many other attitude verbs. If we concede that these sentences assert relations to propositions, then we are conceding that there are propositions. Against this, it might be argued that the many substitution failures give us reason to rethink the cases in which the substitutions go through.

Apart from such defensive replies, though, the relationalist might attempt to solve the problems. We will discuss two approaches.

5.4 The Ambiguity Response

The relationalist might claim that-clauses are ambiguous, and in particular that they pick out different kinds of entities depending on which attitude verb they complement. How do we tell what kinds of entities are picked out? We look at substitution failures. Thus, it might be argued the truth of ‘S remembers that p’ requires that the subject bear the remembering relation to a fact, rather than a proposition. After all, ‘remember’ shows substitution failures for ‘the (true) proposition that p’ but not for ‘the fact that p’.

However, there are obstacles to this response. For one thing, some attitude verbs seem not to permit substitutions no matter which nominal complement is chosen. King (2002) gives the example of ‘feel’. What sorts of entities, then, do that-clauses designate when they complement ‘feel’? No answer is possible. Is the Relational Analysis therefore false of such verbs? Perhaps even more damaging, there are verbs which are near synonyms of ‘believes’, at least in attitude ascriptions, and which grammatically take NP complements, but which exhibit substitution failures and objectivization. ‘Feel’ is one example, as are ‘maintain’, ‘hold’, ‘judge’, ‘expect’, and ‘suspect’. How could ‘believes’ designate a relation to propositions in attitude ascriptions but these verbs not? (Consider also the near-synonyms ‘assert’ and ‘claim’.)

Even if the ambiguity hypothesis cannot provide the propositionalist with a general solution to the Substitution Problem and the Objectivization Effect, it may help in explaining other linguistic phenomena, such as the distributional differences between various nominal complements (‘the fact that p’, ‘the proposition that p’, ‘the possibility that p’, etc.). (See Vendler 1967 and Moffett 2003.)

5.5 The Syntax Response

Next, following Jeffrey King (2002), the propositionalist might give a purely syntactic answer to the problems. King (pp. 345–6) claims, first, that there is a very simple syntactic explanation for the substitution failures that produce ungrammaticalities: such verbs don’t take NP complements at all, and so don’t take nominal complements, which are NP complements. (A verb can take that-clause complements without taking NP complements, because that-clauses are not NPs.) One might say something similar, for example, about why we cannot substitute descriptions for names in apposition (e.g., ‘The philosopher Plato believed in universals’ is true but ‘the philosopher the teacher of Aristotle believed in universals’ is not true.) King claims, second, that the other class of failures are explained by shifts in verb meanings (i.e., because of objectivization). These shifts are due to syntactical matters, in particular the syntactic category of the verb complement. If the complement is an NP, the verb has an object meaning. If it is a that-clause, it has the content meaning. King recognizes the need for qualifications: verbs in the problematic class can have the content reading with certain special NPs, e.g., quantifiers (‘everything Bill holds, Bob holds’), and anaphoric pronouns (‘I hold that, too’.). In the final analysis, King claims only that all the syntactic properties of the complement (and not just its general syntactic category) determine the verb’s meaning when taking that complement.[7]

5.6 Substitution and Objectivization Problems for Everyone?

Although the dominant view in the literature is that the Substitution Problem and the Objectivization Effect are problems principally for defenders of the Relational Analysis (e.g., Prior 1971, Bach 1997, Recanati 2000, Moltmann 2003; 2004), it is intriguing to ask whether some version of these problems arise for everyone — friend or foe of the Relational Analysis, friend or foe of propositions.

As noted above, there are near-synonyms which are alike in taking nominal complements but which differ with respect to substitutions. This seems to be a fact that everyone must explain. It is hard to think that the very slight differences in meaning between ‘hold’ and ‘believe’ as they occur in ‘SVs that p’, could explain the substitutional differences. Nor, as we saw above, does the ambiguity hypothesis seem helpful here. It seems likely that the substitutional differences must be explained in terms of shifts in verb meaning. Because substitution does not affect the meaning of ‘believe’, it must affect the meaning of ‘hold’, and, intuitively, it does. This does leave the question of how the Objectivization Effect itself is to be explained. But one might hope that a broadly syntactic solution — perhaps like King’s — would be available to anyone, regardless of one’s stance on propositions.

If these problems are problems everyone faces, some heat is taken off the relationalist, and the propositionalist generally.

That said, the relationalist may have to take account of other linguistic puzzles. She will need to explain why it sounds so peculiar, e.g., to talk of “my believing what you desire, or my dreading what the thermometer indicated.” And, even with purely cognitive attitude verbs, similar puzzles arise: the mild peculiarity of “I doubt/assert what you contemplate/entertain,” for example, will require explanation. (For more on these matters, see Vendler 1967 and Harman 2003.)

5.7 Modifying/Replacing the Relational Analysis

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, the linguistic problems discussed above undermine the Relational Analysis. Can a propositionalist dissociate herself from that analysis, and its linguistic difficulties, while still endorsing the arguments we discussed for propositions in section 5.1?

Some modifications of the Relational Analysis do not avoid the linguistic problems. For instance, it is not enough to claim that attitude verbs designate three-place relations between subjects, propositions, and modes of presentation.

One possibility is to deny that attitude verbs designate relations when complemented by that-clauses, and to claim that they rather make a syncategorematic semantic contribution. Under one approach, that-clauses in attitude ascriptions designate propositions which serve to “measure” attitudes conceived of as mental particulars (Matthews 1994). It is not clear that this view will be immune to substitution and objectivization problems. See Moltmann (2003) for further discussion.

Another possibility is to abandon the Relational Analysis altogether, in favor of a version of Bertrand Russell’s “multiple relation” theory. Following Russell (1911; 1913; 1918), Newman (2002) and Moltmann (2003; 2004), have recently argued that that-clauses in attitude ascriptions do not designate propositions but rather provide a number of entities as terms of a “multiple” attitude relation. These philosophers nonetheless do accept propositions, and use them to explain sentences in which ‘proposition’ explicitly occurs, e.g., (‘Some proposition that John believes is true’, ‘John believes the proposition that snow is white’). The basic idea is that there are propositions, but they have the status of “derived objects” — derived from our attitudes, which themselves are not relations to propositions. It is an interesting question whether a Russellian is positioned to endorse the arguments for propositions given in section 4. (For more on the Russellian theory, see the supplementary document:

The Multiple Relation Theory

6. The Metaphysics 101 Argument: Deep or Shallow?

We have suggested that the most promising arguments for propositions are the metalinguistic arguments and the Metaphysics 101 argument. The former arguments are plainly theoretical: they appeal to the explanatory power of semantical theories invoking propositions. To resist them, there is no need to explain away their intuitive appeal, because they do not and are not intended to have intuitive appeal. This is not true of the Metaphysics 101 argument. It is thoroughly intuitive, and so resisting the argument requires giving a story about how and why intuition goes wrong. In this section, we will consider one general strategy for doing this.

The Metaphysics 101 argument can seem Janus-faced: its premises seem utterly shallow, and yet its conclusion seems to resolve a deep ontological debate. One is apt to think, “Sure, what I believe is different from my believing it. And so we can distinguish the content of a belief from the attitude of belief. These contents are propositions. Fine, but now it seems there must be a domain of entities here, whose nature remains to be investigated. How could that be?” One might suspect some sort of equivocation or ambiguity is at work, some oscillation between a shallow and a deep interpretation.

6.1 The Internal/External Distinction

Rudolf Carnap’s (1956) distinction between internal and external questions may prove relevant here. For Carnap, an internal question is a question that is asked within a particular linguistic framework. Internal questions are answered by invoking the rules of the framework together with logic and the empirical facts. Not all such questions are trivial, but questions about the existence of the sorts of entities definitive of the framework are. Carnap in fact thought that the traditional metaphysician aimed to ask a framework independent question, an external question, failing to realize that external questions are best seen as non-cognitive practical questions about which framework to adopt and at worst meaningless. (See the link to Weisberg 2000, in the Other Internet Resources section).

Relying on Carnap’s distinction, within certain linguistic frameworks, such as that presupposed by the Metaphysics 101 argument, it is almost trivial that there are propositions. All it takes is something as superficial as the Metaphysics 101 argument, or the following even less enlightening argument, “The proposition that snow is white is true; therefore, some proposition is true; therefore, there are propositions.” The traditional metaphysician, however, aims to ask a non-trivial question about the reality of the propositions outside such frameworks. Such questions have no cognitive content.

One of the chief difficulties for Carnap is to explain the truth of internal statements. If ‘there are propositions’ is true, even within a framework, what does its truth consist in? If truth in a framework is explained in terms of truth given the axioms of the framework, we will want to know about the truth-value of the axioms themselves. If they are true, what makes them true? If they are not true, why can’t we conclude that there really are no propositions?

Even if we must reject Carnap’s internal/external distinction, perhaps some form of “Neo-Carnapian” ambiguity hypothesis can help explain away the appeal of the Metaphysics 101 argument.

A number of questions arise for the Neo-Carnapian. First, how are the internal and external readings to be distinguished? Second, how pervasive is the ambiguity? are there different readings not only for quantified sentences but for attitude- and truth-ascriptions as well? Third, what is the status of the Metaphysics 101 argument, given the two readings? The argument must be unsound when understood externally, but must it be invalid, or is it a valid argument with a false premise? If so, which is false? Fourth, how could philosophers regularly miss the internal/external ambiguity?

We will briefly describe two Neo-Carnapian accounts.

6.2 Fictionalism

One possibility is to explain the internal/external distinction by reference to fictions. Internal statements are statements made within or relative to a fiction, and they are to be assessed as true or false relative to the fiction.

However, any fictionalist interpretation of the internal/external distinction would have to explain why the fiction of propositions, like the fictions of properties and numbers, is not a mere game, but can be used for describing reality. We will briefly discuss a kind of fictionalism designed to do just this: figuralism. (For discussion, see Yablo (2000, 2001), Yablo and Rayo (2001), Yablo and Gallois (1998), and for a similar view, Balaguer 1998a and 1998b).

Relying on pioneering work by Kendall Walton (1990), Yablo argues that pretense can serve serious practical and theoretical purposes. To use Walton’s example, by pretending that Italy is a boot, I can easily convey to you the location of the Italian town of Crotone. Here I am, in effect, using a pretense to convey information about the real world. Literally, Italy is not a boot, but my interest is not in speaking the literal truth, but in conveying a rather complicated fact to you as effectively as I can. Similarly, Yablo and Gallois claim, one may pretend there are certain entities in order to better convey certain facts (1998, 245–8). One might pretend there are directions in order to facilitate communication of facts about which lines stand in which geometric relations to which other ones. Perhaps one could do the same with propositions?

However, Yablo (2001) emphasizes that the figuralist need not be committed to any psychological thesis about making-believe. We may not consciously pretend that there are propositions when we say that what we believe is true, just as we may not consciously pretend that there are such things as stomach butterflies when we say we have butterflies in our stomach. Figuralism requires only that there is a semantical distinction between literal content and figurative content, and that by asserting sentences with certain false or at least highly doubtful literal contents, we may also express genuine facts, which would be well nigh impossible to express literally. (See Balaguer 1998a and 1998b on the concept of representational aids)

Figuralism makes it possible to diagnose the failure of the Metaphysics 101 argument as follows. If its steps are interpreted literally, the argument is unsound but valid. If its steps are interpreted figuratively, it is sound. Why are we fooled, then? One promising suggestion is that it can be very difficult to distinguish figurative from literal content, particularly when the figures employed have little presentational force.

If we accept this diagnosis, we are committed to thinking that every belief-ascription is literally false. This is a bitter pill to swallow, though it may seem less bitter the less importance is placed on literalness in communication (See Yablo 2001, p. 85).

6.3 Two Readings for Quantifiers

Some philosophers have suggested that ordinary English quantifiers are susceptible to multiple readings, or different readings in different contexts of use. Thus, Hilary Putnam (1987, 2004) has argued that there is no single meaning associated with the vocabulary of quantification, and that, depending on context, an assertion of ‘there are Fs’ might be true or false. For example, the Polish mereologist, in certain contexts, might be able to speak truly in asserting ‘any objects compose a further object’, whereas an assertion of the negation of this sentence might true in different contexts. (Note that Putnam is clear that the phenomenon he is describing isn’t mere quantifier-restriction.)

The acknowledgement of different meanings for the quantifiers is not enough by itself to explain away the intuitiveness of the Metaphysics 101 argument. As we mentioned earlier, what is needed is an account of the apparent oscillation between a shallow and a deep interpretation. There could, in principle, be a plurality of interpretations of the quantifiers even if none of the readings differed with respect to metaphysical depth.

Recently, Thomas Hofweber (2005, 2016) has claimed to have found the required pair of readings. A quantifier, he claims, may have either a domain-conditions or inferential role reading. The domain-conditions reading is just the familiar reading we know from first order semantics: ‘there are Fs’ is true iff there exists an entity in the relevant real domain which satisfies ‘F’. This reading is therefore ontologically committing and so deep (and thus external). The inferential reading, by contrast, brings with it no ontological commitment, and so is shallow (and thus internal).

Hofweber explains that the inferential role reading serves an important function. It enables us the easy expression of partial information. For example, I might not recall a name or unique description of Fred’s favorite detective, but if I want express the partial information I have, I can do this by saying “Fred admires some detective.”. Now, on the domain-conditions reading, what I express is false, and so I have misinformed my audience. What we need, to achieve the desired end, is a reading for ‘there is an F’ which validates existential generalization, regardless of whether the names occurring in the premise refer to an entity. This is what the inferential role reading provides. Thus, we say “Fred admires some detective — yes, it’s Sherlock Holmes!”

Hofweber points out that these two readings are not like the two readings for ‘bank’. They validate many of the same inferences (e.g., ‘there is an F&G, therefore, there is an F and there is a G’) and, within discourses lacking empty singular terms, they validate all of the same inferences.

Now for the relevance to the Metaphysics 101 argument. On either reading of the relevant quantifiers in the Metaphysics 101 argument (those in steps 1, 2, and 4), the argument is valid. But on the domain-conditions reading, premise 1 (at least) is, if not false, then at least dubious — a piece of controversial ontology. On the inferential-role reading, all the problems go away, and the argument appears completely shallow. The Janus-faced character of the argument comes from oscillating between the two readings. Moreover, given the close relations between the two readings, it is understandable that the metaphysician fails to realize her mistake in thinking that the argument establishes the existence of propositions.

For an account like Hofweber’s to succeed, it must be possible for attitude- and truth-ascriptions to be true even if that-clauses do not designate. For if they designate, then the domain-conditions reading of ‘there is something S believes’ would be true.

7. The Nature and Status of Propositions

7.1 Easy Arguments: Mind-Independence and Abstractness

Reflection on the proposition role leads many propositionalists to rather dramatic answers to questions about the nature and status of propositions. Below is one standard line of argument, versions of which can be found in Bealer (1998) and Schiffer (2003). (See also Cartwright (1962) and Soames (1999).)

The proposition that there are rocks, which we denote <there are rocks>, does not entail the existence of any beings that have or are capable of having mental states. It entails this neither in a strictly or broadly logical sense. That is, it is possible in the broadest sense for <there are rocks> to be true in the absence of all mental states. But now, if this proposition is possibly true in the absence of mental states, then it possibly exists in the absence of all mental states, and so is mind-independent. This is an easy argument for the mind-independence of at least some propositions.

A parallel “easy argument” can be given for the abstractness of at least some propositions. <2+2=4> does not entail the existence of concrete entities. So it is possible for it to be true (and so to exist) in the absence of concrete entities. Thus, it is possibly abstract. Assuming, contra Linksy and Zalta (1996), that abstractness is, necessarily, an essential feature of abstract entities, then it follows that <2+2=4> is in fact abstract. One might want to extend such arguments to contingent propositions. Consider <there are trees>. This proposition is false in a world without concrete entities. But if it is false in such a world, it must exist in that world, and so is possibly, and so actually abstract.

Similar arguments can be constructed for properties. If properties are what we assert of objects and what is true/false of objects, then there are simple arguments for the conclusion that at many properties are mind-independent and abstract.

It is dangerous to generalize these sorts of “Easy Arguments” to all propositions (particularly singular propositions). But even if they cannot be fully generalized, they threaten to show that propositions would be mind-independent abstract entities. Now, given that propositions de jure are sharable objects of attitudes, it is antecedently unlikely that they should turn out to be, say, token utterances. But one might have thought that propositions could be identified with natural language sentence types (as in Quine 1960), or with sentence types in the language of thought. But if the Easy Arguments succeed, it seems that to accept propositions, we must accept Platonism. Conceptualism about propositions seems ruled out.

Many philosophers deny that there are propositions precisely because they accept the validity of these Easy Arguments (and the truth of certain attitude ascriptions). There are familiar problems besetting the believer in abstract entities. The two “Benacerraf problems,” in particular have received much attention in the literature: the epistemological problem and identification problem. The epistemological problem for abstract propositions, roughly, is this: how can we know about abstract propositions, given that we cannot causally interact with them? The identification problem requires a bit more explanation. If propositions are abstract, then there will be many distinct candidates for propositions which seem to play the proposition role equally well. If certain entities, the Fs, are candidates for being propositions, why won’t the entities consisting of an F paired with the number 1 count as adequate candidates as well, so long as we reconstrue predicates for propositions in such a way as to make the number 1 irrelevant? But propositions cannot be both Fs and these new entities, because these new entities are not Fs. Is it simply indeterminate what propositions are? See the entry on platonism: in metaphysics. (See also J. Moore 1999)

The Easy Arguments can appear suspicious. How can the seemingly obvious acknowledgement that there are propositions — i.e., that beliefs have sharable objects which bear truth-values — commit us to there being mind-independent abstract entities? We will discuss two sorts of reply found in the literature. Both are objections to the inference from there being propositions to the claim that propositions have the surprising features. We are putting aside objections to the claim that there are propositions.

7.2 Reply #1: Truth in a World vs. Truth at a World.

The Easy Arguments rely on an assumption about entailment and truth, namely:

(Assumption A) If a proposition <p> fails to entail a proposition <q>, then it is possible for <p> to be true while not-q.

This assumption is needed to reason from premises about propositions failing to entail other propositions about there being mental states or being concrete entities to the possible truth of those propositions in the absence of mental states and concrete entities.

But how could (A) fail? If a proposition fails to entail that q, doesn’t it follow that there is a possible world in which the former is true and not-q?

Some philosophers (Pollock 1985, King 2007) have argued that principles like (A) have two readings, one clearly acceptable but useless to the Easy Arguments and the other useful to those arguments but false. The two readings correspond to two ways of understanding talk of truth with respect to possible worlds. One way for something to be true with respect to a world requires the truth-bearer to exist in the world and be true there. Another way is for the truth-bearer to “correctly describe” the world, where this does not require existing in the world. Pollock gives the example of a picture depicting the non-existence of all pictures. The picture could correctly depict a situation even though the situation it depicts is one in which the picture itself does not exist. Similarly, the Medieval philosopher Jean Buridan discusses the example of an utterance of ‘there are no negative utterances’. This utterance correctly describes a certain possible situation even though that situation is one in which the utterance would not exist. Following Adams (1981), we may call the former way of being true with respect to a world truth in a world and the latter truth at a world. The conceptualist may claim that propositions can be true at worlds without being true in them, by analogy with the examples from Pollock and Buridan. A proposition like <there are no propositions> is true at certain possible worlds but true in none. Since we do not want to say that such propositions are necessary, we must understand necessity as truth at every possible world. Correspondingly, to preserve the connections between entailment and necessity, we must understand entailment in terms of the entailed proposition being true at every world at which the entailing proposition is true. Given all this, we can distinguish two readings for Assumption A:

(Reading 1) If a proposition <p> fails to entail a proposition <q>, then there is a possible world W such that <p> is true inW and not-q at W.

(Reading 2) If a proposition <p> fails to entail a proposition <q>, then there is a possible world W such that <p> is true atW and not-q at W.

Given the understanding of entailment in terms of truth at a world, the conceptualist will claim that Reading 1 is false, while Reading 2 is true but useless to the Easy Arguments. Thus, the conclusions of those arguments are blocked.

The plausibility of this response depends on having a good account of what truth at a world amounts to. But this, in turn, depends on issues in the metaphysics of modality.

If worlds are concrete particulars (“I and all my surroundings”), as they are for David Lewis (1986), then we could say that a proposition is true at a world if the proposition is about the entities that are parts of that world and is true, and true in a world if true at a world and also part of that world. There may well be difficulties of explaining how a proposition could be part of more than one concrete world (and why it would only be part of some concrete worlds but not all), but this framework seems to make conceptual room for the possibility propositions being true at worlds without being true in them.

Suppose, however, that worlds were conceived as world stories, i.e., as maximal consistent sets of propositions (see Section 2). How, then, might truth at a world be understood? One approach, favored by Adams (1981), is to explain truth at a world in terms of truth in a world, understanding the latter to amount to truth were the world actual (were all its members true). On this approach, we would understand what is true at a world in terms of what is true in it, together with certain facts about the actual world. However, the conceptualist cannot abide this approach. For, on this approach, the members of any world are true in that world. But since the members of any and every world are propositions, it would follow that, contrary to conceptualism, that it is necessary that there are propositions. A more conceptualist-friendly approach is to reverse the order of explanation, to explain truth in a world in terms of truth at a world + existence in that world. How could truth at a world be understood? A natural proposal is to understand it as membership in a world story.

Difficulties emerge with this proposal when we face the question of how to understand consistency of world stories. There are maximal sets of propositions that are not possible worlds because they are not consistent in the relevant sense. But the relevant sense is not easily defined. Following Adams (1981), we might wish to use the concept of possibility to gloss the notion of consistency: a set of propositions is consistent if and only if those propositions could all be true together. This returns us to the problem noted in the previous paragraph: it again would turn out that necessarily there are propositions (even in mindless worlds).

The conceptualist might hope to take the relevant notion of consistency as primitive and reject the gloss in terms of joint possible truth. Still, we should ask about the broader implications of denying the joint possible truth of consistent world stories. Consider, for instance the notion of actuality. Only one of the many possible worlds is actual, although each is actual relative to itself. The actual one, on the world story view, is the one all of whose members are true. But if this is what actuality for worlds amounts to, then assuming possible worlds are possibly actual, it would follow that for each possible world all its members could be true together. Ought we to deny that possible worlds are possibly actual?

The conceptualist might hope to avoid these problems, without falling back on Lewis’s concrete realism about possible worlds, by understanding worlds in terms of properties or states of affairs, rather than propositions. Following Stalnaker (1976), one might think of worlds as properties which are ways things could have been. Following Plantinga (1974) and others, one might think of worlds as maximal consistent states of affairs, where these are thought of as distinct from propositions.

However, this retrenchment may end up only shifting the Platonist worries elsewhere. To distinguish the ways that are possible worlds (or possible world-states) from those which are not, it is difficult to avoid appealing to a gloss in terms of being possibly instantiated: the possible worlds are not only maximal but they could be instantiated. Taking this line would require conceding that in every world there are properties. Something similar holds for the conception of possible worlds as maximal consistent states of affairs.

One might think, however, that Platonism about properties is less problematic than Platonism about propositions. The former do not represent the world, whereas the latter, as truth-bearers, do (Jubien 2001, King 2007). However, properties can apply or fail to apply to objects, and can be said to be true or false of objects, and so it is not clear that worries about representation clearly gain more traction for propositions than for properties. Similar considerations apply to states of affairs.

Despite these worries, the conceptualist might be encouraged by the example of singular propositions. Hasn’t the truth in vs. truth at distinction been useful in dealing with the modality of singular propositions? For example, consider any singular proposition about Socrates, e.g., the proposition that Socrates was a philosopher. Such propositions, plausibly, depend for their existence on the object they are directly about. One might therefore think that no singular proposition about Socrates could exist unless Socrates existed. Consider, then, the proposition that Socrates does not exist. It is clearly contingent that Socrates exists; things could have been otherwise. But then the proposition that Socrates does not exist would appear to be possible without being possibly true. Unlike the examples from Pollock and Buridan, however, we cannot understand such possibility without possible truth in terms of expressing a possibly true proposition while not being possibly true itself. Propositions do not express propositions, of course, and so we cannot understand their possibility without possible truth in this way (Plantinga 1981). What is it, then, for such a singular proposition to be possible but not possibly true? Answering this question was one of the key motivations in the development of the distinction between truth in and truth at a world. But while Adams and others attempted to do this by thinking of truth at a world as determined by what is true in that world together with a certain set of facts about the actual world, the conceptualist hopes to kick aside the ladder of truth in a world altogether. Whether this hope is reasonable or not is an important issue in contemporary work on propositions. (Key recent discussions include King 2007, Soames 2010, and Merricks 2015).

7.3 Reply #2: Deflationism to the Rescue?

Another response to the Easy Arguments is, so to speak, to deflate their significance by deflating propositions. The Easy Arguments succeed, but their success marks no great philosophical discovery and raises no hard questions of the sort that have traditionally bothered metaphysicians of a nominalist bent.

We will here discuss only Stephen Schiffer’s (2003) theory of “pleonastic propositions.”[8]

Propositions exist, for Schiffer, but unlike rocks or cats, there is nothing more to them than what our concept of a proposition guarantees. One may call them “abstract entities,” if one likes, but this label should not encourage the thought that our minds can reach beyond the physical world to make contact with denizens of a Platonic universe. We know about propositions, not by interacting with them, as we do with rocks and cats, but by being participants in certain sorts of linguistic or conceptual practice. It’s because we speak or think in certain ways that we are able to know about propositions.

Schiffer argues, in effect, that given our proposition-talk and thought, propositions are, in D. M. Armstrong’s phrase, a kind of “ontological free lunch.” That is, the key “axioms” of our proposition-talk and thought are guaranteed to be true. These include the instances of the equivalence schema (E) for propositions: The proposition that p is true iff p. Given the truth of such axioms, it follows that propositions exist and have the features attributed to them by our axioms. Moreover, because these axioms are constitutive of the concept of a proposition, it follows that, by possessing that concept, we can know the truth of these axioms.

One might concede to Schiffer that the axioms are constitutive of our concept of a proposition. But why think those axioms are true? Schiffer stresses that we do not make the axioms true by saying, thinking, or “stipulating” that they are true. The mind-independence of propositions, after all, is implicit in those axioms.

Schiffer’s argument for pleonastic propositions is of a piece with his argument for pleonastic entities generally, including fictional entities, events, and properties. A pleonastic entity, for him, is an entity that falls under a pleonastic concept. The latter is the key notion and is defined as follows.

Definition: A concept F is pleonastic iff it implies true something-from-nothing transformations.

A SFN (something-from-nothing) transformation (about Fs) is a statement that allows us to deduce a statement about a kind of entity F, from a statement that involves no reference to Fs. (61) SFN transformations assert a kind of supervenience condition on Fs: if the relevant non-F conditions obtain, Fs exist and have the relevant features. (E.g., if snow is white, then the proposition that snow is white exists and is true.)

If the concept F is pleonastic, then there are Fs. We need to know how to tell if a concept is pleonastic. Here is Schiffer’s test:

Test: A concept F is pleonastic (and so implies true something-from-nothing transformations) iff adding it to any theory yields a conservative extension of that theory. (57)

Schiffer’s final formulation of the conservativeness test is:

For any theory T and sentence S expressible in T, if the theory obtained by adding to T/~F <the theory resulting from restricting quantifiers in T to ~Fs> the concept of an F, together with its something-from-nothing F-entailment claims, logically entails S~F<the sentence resulting from restricting quantifiers in S to ~Fs>, then T/~F logically entails S~F. (p. 57)

One might think the conservativeness test is overly complicated, and that all that matters is that the new entities not interfere with the empirical world. If so, then the test would mention only empirical theories not all theories. But, as Matti Eklund (2007) points out, two kinds of entity that are individually non-interfering with respect to the empirical world might interfere with one another. Schiffer is aware of this problem (see his discussion of anti-fictional entities, pp. 55–6), and this is why he turns to the more complicated account.

Schiffer’s picture is this. If a concept satisfies the conservativeness test, then its instantiation would be unproblematic because it would interfere with nothing else. Its instantiation comes for free. If a concept doesn’t meet this test, it doesn’t come for free.

Although Schiffer’s view of propositions can be described as deflationary in one sense (because it attempts to deflate questions about the existence and nature of propositions), the meta-ontology underlying Schiffer’s approach is, if anything, inflationary: all “non-interfering” kinds of entity are instantiated.

Schiffer’s, and other deflationist theories, must, at a minimum, answer the following two questions, in addition to the questions facing all propositionalists:

(1) Why would the non-interference of Fs be evidence for their existence?

Even if Fs would be non-interfering in Schiffer’s sense, the postulation of Fs logically conflicts with some consistent theories, e.g., ‘There are no Fs’. Schiffer places severer constraints on the denial of entities than on the acceptance of them. Suppose Fs would be non-interfering. Then adding them would not add information about non-Fs. But suppose also that denying Fs would not add information about non-Fs. Why isn’t this a reason to deny Fs? So, in this sense, the theory denying Fs passes a corresponding conservativeness test.

(2) How can the deflationist explain how these propositions have truth-conditions?

If the proposition that snow is white is a simple, necessary and eternal object, why does its having a property (truth) have anything to do with concrete snow’s having a property (whiteness)? Do instances of the T-schema simply state brute necessary connections between abstract objects and concrete ones? Or do these necessary connections somehow derive from our practices, and if so, how?

7.4 Reply #3: Propositions as Types

Another reaction one might have to the Easy Arguments is to accept their conclusions but to give an account of the nature of propositions which will make these conclusions palatable. One promising line of thinking, in this regard, is to think of propositions as types, the tokens of which are mental or linguistic acts or events, and in particular the acts that would be thought to express the proposition. Such views have been developed in recent years by Dummett (1996), Hanks (2011, 2015), and Soames (2010, 2014a, 2015). We focus here on the recent proposals put forth by Hanks and Soames.

The type view is motivated by its answers to otherwise puzzling features of traditional Platonist views of propositions (e.g. Frege (1984)). On this view, belief and other attitudes are understood as relations to already-existing propositions which represent things as being a certain way. The truth or falsity of an individual’s belief or other cognitive state is explained by the truth or falsity of the proposition which is the object of that state. If truth consists in a representation’s being accurate, then a proposition is true just in case it accurately represents things as being a certain way. Thus, on the traditional view, thinking subjects represent things as being a certain way (either in thought or language) by standing in appropriate relations to propositions which fundamentally represent things as being a certain way.

Two problems arise for the Platonist’s position. First, how do cognizers come to be acquainted with such propositions? Second, what explains how propositions represent things as being a certain way? Platonists appear to have no answer to the epistemic question, and presumably accept representation as a primitive feature of propositions. Type theorists, however, explain the relation between a cognizer and a proposition simply as an instance of the general relation between type and token. Consider, as Dummett (1996, p. 259) does, one’s humming of a tune. The tune is a species or type of musical performance capable of having multiple performances at differing times or locations, while the humming of it is a token act belonging to that type. One might then see the relation of a proposition to a mental or linguistic act as one between the type of act performed and the performance of the act.

What type of acts should one identify with propositions? For both Hanks and Soames, propositions are types of predicative acts. The notion of predication here is simply, for atomic propositions, one of an agent’s representing an object o as having property F. (Hanks (2015, p. 64) characterizes predication as categorization, or the sorting of things into groups according to a rule. We will take this to be a form of representation.) Since representation is primarily something done by cognitive agents, according to Hanks and Soames, one might wonder whether the proposition itself is representational, and so possesses truth-conditions, on the type view. Both theorists respond to this concern by claiming that propositions are representational in a secondary, derivative sense. There are many examples of types that inherit features of their tokens (a sonata (type) can be discordant in virtue of performances of it being discordant; a movie can be frightening in virtue of its tokens being so, etc. See the entry on types and tokens.) Just as an act can be described as intelligent in order to communicate that the agent acted intelligently in performing the act, type theorists will claim that a proposition represents o as F in a similarly derivative sense wherein any agent who performs the act of predicating F of o will thereby represent o as F. One question that arises for such a view is whether propositions are genuinely representational entities with truth-conditions, or whether the claim that a proposition represents things as being a certain way is simply a convenient manner of speaking indirectly about the actual and possible representational acts of thinkers.

As we have seen, the type view reverses the traditional order of explanation concerning the nature of predication, representation, and truth-conditions. On the traditional, Fregean picture, propositions exist as objective, mind-independent entities “waiting” to be entertained, judged or asserted, so to speak. On this view, for a subject S to predicate F of o is for S to entertain the proposition that o is F; for S to represent o as F in thought or language is to have have a thought or utterance with the primarily representational proposition that o is F as its content, etc. On the type view, a proposition’s representational and predicative properties are derived from the fundamentally representational and predicative acts of agents.

A concern for the type view is whether there will be “missing propositions” — truths or falsehoods which have never been entertained. One drawn to the type view may allow for the existence of uninstantiated types to account for the existence of these propositions. However, given that propositions are claimed to derive their representational features from their tokens, such uninstantiated types would lack representational features, and so lack truth-conditions. Hanks suggests dealing with such propositions counterfactually. Even if no one had ever predicated eloquence of Clinton, the proposition that Clinton is eloquent is true iff Clinton is eloquent because if someone were to predicate eloquence of Clinton, the token would be true iff Clinton is eloquent. Predicative types, then, inherit their representation features from both their actual and possible tokens. This response, however, leaves us with the question of truths for which there are not even any merely possible tokens — for example, mathematical truths that are too complicated for any finite mind to grasp. What, if anything, provides the truth-conditions of these propositions?

Hanks (2015, p. 27) allows that propositions are mind-independent and objective entities which do not depend for their existence on having any tokens, just as one might think about a difficult type of dive that has never been performed. Thus, while Hanks’ view appears to be a rejection of a traditional Platonism about propositions, it seems nevertheless to accept a Platonism about types by untethering their existence from their tokens. (Compare to Dodd’s (2007) defense of Platonism about types.) Soames (2014a,b) also allows for untokened types, but only those whose constituents have been referred to or predicated in other propositions. For Soames, a proposition p may exist in w even if no token of p has been performed in w. For Soames, if in w a predicative event has occurred in which an agent predicates n-place property R of n objects, and in w events of referring to or thinking of objects o1...on have occurred, then the proposition that is the type of act of predicating R of o1...on exists (even if R has never been predicated of o1...on in w). Still, it would seem that there can be truths in a world about objects that have never been thought of or referred to in that world. In response to this, Soames claims that a proposition need not exist in a world w in order to be true in w. In support of this, Soames appeals to other, albeit controversial, cases in which an object can have a property despite not existing. For instance, Socrates can have the properties of being referred to or being admired despite no longer existing. Thus, Soames’ accommodation of our intuitions concerning propositions that have never been thought appears to involve a rejection of Actualism.

The type view has been argued to provide solutions to several traditional problems for propositional thought, including Frege’s puzzle, first-person belief, Kripke’s puzzle about belief, and the problem of empty names. In responding to these problems, Soames invokes “Millian modes of presentation,” or ways of cognizing an object in thought which do not affect the representational content of the act, to preserve a non-Fregean, Millian view of semantic content for names and natural kind terms while individuating propositions finely enough to solve traditional problems in the philosophy of language. Hanks, by contrast, invokes distinct types of referential and expressive acts as the constituents of propositions. On this view, each use of a name falls under several different reference types which differ in their fineness of grain, each associated with a different proposition.

As we have seen, the type view is motivated in large part by the perceived need to explain how propositions represent things as being a certain way on the grounds that a view which accepts primitively representational propositions is objectionably mysterious. Some question, however, whether the representational properties of propositions can (or need to) be explained at all (McGlone 2012, Caplan, et al. 2013, Merricks 2015). Merricks, for example, argues that we should accept that there are fundamentally representational entities, but that we have no reason to favor mental states (such as beliefs) over propositions as being the fundamental bearers of representational properties. For if, e.g., beliefs are fundamentally representational, then it is either a primitive fact about them that they represent what they do, or it is a feature capable of explanation. If it is a primitive fact about them, then the view appears just as mysterious as one which accepts that propositions are primitively representational. If it is a fact capable of explanation, as the type theorists contend, then it is presumably explained in terms of an agent’s ability to predicate properties of objects. But unless there is some explanation of how an agent can engage in predication, predication must itself be a primitive representational ability, and the theory has not made any genuine progress on what was to be explained.

A final question worth considering at this stage is whether propositions are representational entities at all. Richard (2013) and Speaks (2014), for instance, each develop views of propositions which deny that they are. Consider the view defended by Richard. Sentences, beliefs, and the like represent things as being a certain way — snow as being white, for example. Put another way, the sentence ‘Snow is white’ represents snow’s being white, where this is simply a way for things to be — a state of affairs or property that is either instantiated or not (but does not represent things as being any way, just as properties are not in general representational). On this approach, the proposition expressed by the sentence is identified with the way that things are represented as being, not as something which has representational properties either primitively or in need of explanation by more fundamental acts of predication. If an approach along these lines is correct, the type view appears to lose one of its central motivations.

8. The Individuation of Propositions

Some philosophers, notably W.V.O. Quine, recognize the existence of certain sorts of abstract entities but not others at least partly on the basis of concerns about identity conditions. Quine granted the existence of sets, in part because they obey the extensionality axiom: sets are identical iff they have the same members. When it came to properties, relations and propositions, however, he found no such clear criterion of identity. The property of being a creature with a heart, he noted, is distinct from the property of being a creature with a kidney, even if all the same things exemplify the two properties.

It is a controversial matter whether Quine was right to demand such rigorous criteria of identity as a condition for acceptance of a class of entities. However, even if Quine asks too much, any good theory of propositions ought to have something to say about when propositions are identical and when they are distinct. Developing theories which give such accounts in a way that fits well with intuitive data concerning propositional attitude ascriptions would enhance our reasons to accept propositions.

The question of identity conditions for propositions is importantly related to the question of whether propositions are structured entities. Propositions are structured if they have constituents, in some broad sense, and the order of the constituents matters. Order matters only if there could be two structured propositions sharing all the same constituents, but which are distinct due to differences in the way under which those constituents are “united” in the proposition. E.g., if the proposition that a loves b is the ordered triple <loving, a, b>, it is distinct from the proposition that b loves a, which would be the ordered triple <loving, b, a>.

If propositions are structured entities, then sameness of constituents and sameness of order will entail identity. There are, of course, dangers, in regarding propositions as structured. Prima facie, one would rather not claim that the proposition that x is triangular is identical to the proposition that x is trilateral, since a subject might believe one but not the other. It will be important, then, not to individuate propositions too coarsely. However, one might worry, in the opposing direction, about overly fine individuations of propositions. Is the proposition that John loves Mary different from the proposition that Mary is loved by John? For more on structured propositions, see the entry on structured propositions.[9]

Any theory that construes propositions as structured entities would seem to face the problem of the unity of the proposition. It is not entirely straightforward to say what this problem or set of problems is. But at the very least, there are at least two problems here. There is the problem of explaining why one sort of structured whole, a proposition, can be true or false, while the set of its constituents is not. A list isn’t true or false, and a proposition with the same constituents is; why is this? Second, there is a general problem of explaining how two distinct things could have all the same constituents. For a thorough discussion of the history of philosophical work on the unity of the sentence and the proposition, the reader should consult Gaskin (2008).

Some hold that propositions lack constituents altogether, and so are unstructured. If propositions are unstructured, then if they are sets, they inherit the identity conditions for sets: sameness of members. Thus, if a proposition is the set of worlds in which it is true (as in Stalnaker 1976), then P=Q iff P and Q have the same worlds as members iff P and Q are true in the same worlds. As is well-known, this theory leads to a very coarse individuation of propositions, too coarse, arguably, to handle propositional attitudes. (See Soames (1987) for a discussion of this theory as well as the theory of propositions as sets of concrete situations or facts.

If propositions are unstructured and distinct from sets, there are several possibilities for explaining their identity conditions. First, identity conditions might be specified in terms of possible attitudes. One possibility is this: P=Q if, necessarily whoever believes (asserts, denies, etc.) P believes (asserts, denies, etc.) Q, and vice versa. Second, proposition identity might be reduced to property identity in the manner of Myhill (1963) and Zalta (1983). Thus, Zalta (1983, 72) offers the following definition of proposition identity: <p>=<q> if and only if the property of being such that p is identical to the property of being such that q. A third proposal, not incompatible with the second, is to explain proposition identity in terms of the “free generation” of propositions from a stock of certain non-propositional entities, e.g., individuals, properties and relations, by algebraic operations (Bealer 1982, Menzel 1986, Zalta 1983 and 1989).[10]

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how claims, evidence, and warrants function to create an argument.
  2. Identify strategies for choosing a persuasive speech topic.
  3. Identify strategies for adapting a persuasive speech based on an audience’s orientation to the proposition.
  4. Distinguish among propositions of fact, value, and policy.
  5. Choose an organizational pattern that is fitting for a persuasive speech topic.

We produce and receive persuasive messages daily, but we don’t often stop to think about how we make the arguments we do or the quality of the arguments that we receive. In this section, we’ll learn the components of an argument, how to choose a good persuasive speech topic, and how to adapt and organize a persuasive message.

Foundation of Persuasion

Persuasive speaking seeks to influence the beliefs, attitudes, values, or behaviors of audience members. In order to persuade, a speaker has to construct arguments that appeal to audience members. Arguments form around three components: claim, evidence, and warrant. The claim is the statement that will be supported by evidence. Your thesis statement is the overarching claim for your speech, but you will make other claims within the speech to support the larger thesis. Evidence, also called grounds, supports the claim. The main points of your persuasive speech and the supporting material you include serve as evidence. For example, a speaker may make the following claim: “There should be a national law against texting while driving.” The speaker could then support the claim by providing the following evidence: “Research from the US Department of Transportation has found that texting while driving creates a crash risk that is twenty-three times worse than driving while not distracted.” The warrant is the underlying justification that connects the claim and the evidence. One warrant for the claim and evidence cited in this example is that the US Department of Transportation is an institution that funds research conducted by credible experts. An additional and more implicit warrant is that people shouldn’t do things they know are unsafe.

The quality of your evidence often impacts the strength of your warrant, and some warrants are stronger than others. A speaker could also provide evidence to support their claim advocating for a national ban on texting and driving by saying, “I have personally seen people almost wreck while trying to text.” While this type of evidence can also be persuasive, it provides a different type and strength of warrant since it is based on personal experience. In general, the anecdotal evidence from personal experience would be given a weaker warrant than the evidence from the national research report. The same process works in our legal system when a judge evaluates the connection between a claim and evidence. If someone steals my car, I could say to the police, “I’m pretty sure Mario did it because when I said hi to him on campus the other day, he didn’t say hi back, which proves he’s mad at me.” A judge faced with that evidence is unlikely to issue a warrant for Mario’s arrest. Fingerprint evidence from the steering wheel that has been matched with a suspect is much more likely to warrant arrest.

As you put together a persuasive argument, you act as the judge. You can evaluate arguments that you come across in your research by analyzing the connection (the warrant) between the claim and the evidence. If the warrant is strong, you may want to highlight that argument in your speech. You may also be able to point out a weak warrant in an argument that goes against your position, which you could then include in your speech. Every argument starts by putting together a claim and evidence, but arguments grow to include many interrelated units.

Figure 11.2 Components of an Argument

Choosing a Persuasive Speech Topic

As with any speech, topic selection is important and is influenced by many factors. Good persuasive speech topics are current, controversial, and have important implications for society. If your topic is currently being discussed on television, in newspapers, in the lounges in your dorm, or around your family’s dinner table, then it’s a current topic. A persuasive speech aimed at getting audience members to wear seat belts in cars wouldn’t have much current relevance, given that statistics consistently show that most people wear seat belts. Giving the same speech would have been much more timely in the 1970s when there was a huge movement to increase seat-belt use.

Many topics that are current are also controversial, which is what gets them attention by the media and citizens. Current and controversial topics will be more engaging for your audience. A persuasive speech to encourage audience members to donate blood or recycle wouldn’t be very controversial, since the benefits of both practices are widely agreed on. However, arguing that the restrictions on blood donation by men who have had sexual relations with men be lifted would be controversial. I must caution here that controversial is not the same as inflammatory. An inflammatory topic is one that evokes strong reactions from an audience for the sake of provoking a reaction. Being provocative for no good reason or choosing a topic that is extremist will damage your credibility and prevent you from achieving your speech goals.

You should also choose a topic that is important to you and to society as a whole. As we have already discussed in this book, our voices are powerful, as it is through communication that we participate and make change in society. Therefore we should take seriously opportunities to use our voices to speak publicly. Choosing a speech topic that has implications for society is probably a better application of your public speaking skills than choosing to persuade the audience that Lebron James is the best basketball player in the world or that Superman is a better hero than Spiderman. Although those topics may be very important to you, they don’t carry the same social weight as many other topics you could choose to discuss. Remember that speakers have ethical obligations to the audience and should take the opportunity to speak seriously.

You will also want to choose a topic that connects to your own interests and passions. If you are an education major, it might make more sense to do a persuasive speech about funding for public education than the death penalty. If there are hot-button issues for you that make you get fired up and veins bulge out in your neck, then it may be a good idea to avoid those when speaking in an academic or professional context.

Choosing such topics may interfere with your ability to deliver a speech in a competent and ethical manner. You want to care about your topic, but you also want to be able to approach it in a way that’s going to make people want to listen to you. Most people tune out speakers they perceive to be too ideologically entrenched and write them off as extremists or zealots.

You also want to ensure that your topic is actually persuasive. Draft your thesis statement as an “I believe” statement so your stance on an issue is clear. Also, think of your main points as reasons to support your thesis. Students end up with speeches that aren’t very persuasive in nature if they don’t think of their main points as reasons. Identifying arguments that counter your thesis is also a good exercise to help ensure your topic is persuasive. If you can clearly and easily identify a competing thesis statement and supporting reasons, then your topic and approach are arguable.

Review of Tips for Choosing a Persuasive Speech Topic

  1. Choose a topic that is current.
    • Not current. People should use seat belts.
    • Current. People should not text while driving.
  2. Choose a topic that is controversial.
    • Not controversial. People should recycle.
    • Controversial. Recycling should be mandatory by law.
  3. Choose a topic that meaningfully impacts society.
    • Not as impactful. Superman is the best superhero.
    • Impactful. Colleges and universities should adopt zero-tolerance bullying policies.
  4. Write a thesis statement that is clearly argumentative and states your stance.
    • Unclear thesis. Homeschooling is common in the United States.
    • Clear, argumentative thesis with stance. Homeschooling does not provide the same benefits of traditional education and should be strictly monitored and limited.

Adapting Persuasive Messages

Competent speakers should consider their audience throughout the speech-making process. Given that persuasive messages seek to directly influence the audience in some way, audience adaptation becomes even more important. If possible, poll your audience to find out their orientation toward your thesis. I read my students’ thesis statements aloud and have the class indicate whether they agree with, disagree with, or are neutral in regards to the proposition. It is unlikely that you will have a homogenous audience, meaning that there will probably be some who agree, some who disagree, and some who are neutral. So you may employ all of the following strategies, in varying degrees, in your persuasive speech.

When you have audience members who already agree with your proposition, you should focus on intensifying their agreement. You can also assume that they have foundational background knowledge of the topic, which means you can take the time to inform them about lesser-known aspects of a topic or cause to further reinforce their agreement. Rather than move these audience members from disagreement to agreement, you can focus on moving them from agreement to action. Remember, calls to action should be as specific as possible to help you capitalize on audience members’ motivation in the moment so they are more likely to follow through on the action.

There are two main reasons audience members may be neutral in regards to your topic: (1) they are uninformed about the topic or (2) they do not think the topic affects them. In this case, you should focus on instilling a concern for the topic. Uninformed audiences may need background information before they can decide if they agree or disagree with your proposition. If the issue is familiar but audience members are neutral because they don’t see how the topic affects them, focus on getting the audience’s attention and demonstrating relevance. Remember that concrete and proxemic supporting materials will help an audience find relevance in a topic. Students who pick narrow or unfamiliar topics will have to work harder to persuade their audience, but neutral audiences often provide the most chance of achieving your speech goal since even a small change may move them into agreement.

When audience members disagree with your proposition, you should focus on changing their minds. To effectively persuade, you must be seen as a credible speaker. When an audience is hostile to your proposition, establishing credibility is even more important, as audience members may be quick to discount or discredit someone who doesn’t appear prepared or doesn’t present well-researched and supported information. Don’t give an audience a chance to write you off before you even get to share your best evidence. When facing a disagreeable audience, the goal should also be small change. You may not be able to switch someone’s position completely, but influencing him or her is still a success. Aside from establishing your credibility, you should also establish common ground with an audience.

Acknowledging areas of disagreement and logically refuting counterarguments in your speech is also a way to approach persuading an audience in disagreement, as it shows that you are open-minded enough to engage with other perspectives.

Build common ground with disagreeable audiences and acknowledge areas of disagreement.

Determining Your Proposition

The proposition of your speech is the overall direction of the content and how that relates to the speech goal. A persuasive speech will fall primarily into one of three categories: propositions of fact, value, or policy. A speech may have elements of any of the three propositions, but you can usually determine the overall proposition of a speech from the specific purpose and thesis statements.

Propositions of fact focus on beliefs and try to establish that something “is or isn’t.” Propositions of value focus on persuading audience members that something is “good or bad,” “right or wrong,” or “desirable or undesirable.” Propositions of policy advocate that something “should or shouldn’t” be done. Since most persuasive speech topics can be approached as propositions of fact, value, or policy, it is a good idea to start thinking about what kind of proposition you want to make, as it will influence how you go about your research and writing. As you can see in the following example using the topic of global warming, the type of proposition changes the types of supporting materials you would need:

  • Proposition of fact. Global warming is caused by increased greenhouse gases related to human activity.
  • Proposition of value. America’s disproportionately large amount of pollution relative to other countries is wrong.
  • Proposition of policy. There should be stricter emission restrictions on individual cars.

To support propositions of fact, you would want to present a logical argument based on objective facts that can then be used to build persuasive arguments. Propositions of value may require you to appeal more to your audience’s emotions and cite expert and lay testimony. Persuasive speeches about policy usually require you to research existing and previous laws or procedures and determine if any relevant legislation or propositions are currently being considered.

“Getting Critical”

Persuasion and Masculinity

The traditional view of rhetoric that started in ancient Greece and still informs much of our views on persuasion today has been critiqued for containing Western and masculine biases. Traditional persuasion has been linked to Western and masculine values of domination, competition, and change, which have been critiqued as coercive and violent (Gearhart, 1979).

Communication scholars proposed an alternative to traditional persuasive rhetoric in the form of invitational rhetoric. Invitational rhetoric differs from a traditional view of persuasive rhetoric that “attempts to win over an opponent, or to advocate the correctness of a single position in a very complex issue” (Bone et al., 2008). Instead, invitational rhetoric proposes a model of reaching consensus through dialogue. The goal is to create a climate in which growth and change can occur but isn’t required for one person to “win” an argument over another. Each person in a communication situation is acknowledged to have a standpoint that is valid but can still be influenced through the offering of alternative perspectives and the invitation to engage with and discuss these standpoints (Ryan & Natalle, 2001). Safety, value, and freedom are three important parts of invitational rhetoric. Safety involves a feeling of security in which audience members and speakers feel like their ideas and contributions will not be denigrated. Value refers to the notion that each person in a communication encounter is worthy of recognition and that people are willing to step outside their own perspectives to better understand others. Last, freedom is present in communication when communicators do not limit the thinking or decisions of others, allowing all participants to speak up (Bone et al., 2008).

Invitational rhetoric doesn’t claim that all persuasive rhetoric is violent. Instead, it acknowledges that some persuasion is violent and that the connection between persuasion and violence is worth exploring. Invitational rhetoric has the potential to contribute to the civility of communication in our society. When we are civil, we are capable of engaging with and appreciating different perspectives while still understanding our own. People aren’t attacked or reviled because their views diverge from ours. Rather than reducing the world to “us against them, black or white, and right or wrong,” invitational rhetoric encourages us to acknowledge human perspectives in all their complexity (Bone et al., 2008).

  1. What is your reaction to the claim that persuasion includes Western and masculine biases?
  2. What are some strengths and weaknesses of the proposed alternatives to traditional persuasion?
  3. In what situations might an invitational approach to persuasion be useful? In what situations might you want to rely on traditional models of persuasion?

Choose a persuasive speech topic that you’re passionate about but still able to approach and deliver in an ethical manner.

Organizing a Persuasive Speech

We have already discussed several patterns for organizing your speech, but some organization strategies are specific to persuasive speaking. Some persuasive speech topics lend themselves to a topical organization pattern, which breaks the larger topic up into logical divisions. Earlier, in Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech”, we discussed recency and primacy, and in this chapter we discussed adapting a persuasive speech based on the audience’s orientation toward the proposition. These concepts can be connected when organizing a persuasive speech topically. Primacy means putting your strongest information first and is based on the idea that audience members put more weight on what they hear first. This strategy can be especially useful when addressing an audience that disagrees with your proposition, as you can try to win them over early. Recency means putting your strongest information last to leave a powerful impression. This can be useful when you are building to a climax in your speech, specifically if you include a call to action.

The problem-solution pattern is an organizational pattern that advocates for a particular approach to solve a problem. You would provide evidence to show that a problem exists and then propose a solution with additional evidence or reasoning to justify the course of action. One main point addressing the problem and one main point addressing the solution may be sufficient, but you are not limited to two. You could add a main point between the problem and solution that outlines other solutions that have failed. You can also combine the problem-solution pattern with the cause-effect pattern or expand the speech to fit with Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.

As was mentioned in Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech”, the cause-effect pattern can be used for informative speaking when the relationship between the cause and effect is not contested. The pattern is more fitting for persuasive speeches when the relationship between the cause and effect is controversial or unclear. There are several ways to use causes and effects to structure a speech. You could have a two-point speech that argues from cause to effect or from effect to cause. You could also have more than one cause that lead to the same effect or a single cause that leads to multiple effects. The following are some examples of thesis statements that correspond to various organizational patterns. As you can see, the same general topic area, prison overcrowding, is used for each example. This illustrates the importance of considering your organizational options early in the speech-making process, since the pattern you choose will influence your researching and writing.

Persuasive Speech Thesis Statements by Organizational Pattern

  • Problem-solution. Prison overcrowding is a serious problem that we can solve by finding alternative rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders.
  • Problem–failed solution–proposed solution. Prison overcrowding is a serious problem that shouldn’t be solved by building more prisons; instead, we should support alternative rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders.
  • Cause-effect. Prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders, which leads to lesser sentences for violent criminals.
  • Cause-cause-effect. State budgets are being slashed and prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders, which leads to lesser sentences for violent criminals.
  • Cause-effect-effect. Prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders, which leads to increased behavioral problems among inmates and lesser sentences for violent criminals.
  • Cause-effect-solution. Prisons are overcrowded with nonviolent offenders, which leads to lesser sentences for violent criminals; therefore we need to find alternative rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders.

Monroe’s Motivated Sequence is an organizational pattern designed for persuasive speaking that appeals to audience members’ needs and motivates them to action. If your persuasive speaking goals include a call to action, you may want to consider this organizational pattern. We already learned about the five steps of Monroe’s Motivated Sequence in Chapter 9 “Preparing a Speech”, but we will review them here with an example:

  1. Step 1: Attention
    • Hook the audience by making the topic relevant to them.
    • Imagine living a full life, retiring, and slipping into your golden years. As you get older you become more dependent on others and move into an assisted-living facility. Although you think life will be easier, things get worse as you experience abuse and mistreatment from the staff. You report the abuse to a nurse and wait, but nothing happens and the abuse continues. Elder abuse is a common occurrence, and unlike child abuse, there are no laws in our state that mandate complaints of elder abuse be reported or investigated.
  2. Step 2: Need
    • Cite evidence to support the fact that the issue needs to be addressed.
    • According to the American Psychological Association, one to two million elderly US Americans have been abused by their caretakers. In our state, those in the medical, psychiatric, and social work field are required to report suspicion of child abuse but are not mandated to report suspicions of elder abuse.
  3. Step 3: Satisfaction
    • Offer a solution and persuade the audience that it is feasible and well thought out.
    • There should be a federal law mandating that suspicion of elder abuse be reported and that all claims of elder abuse be investigated.
  4. Step 4: Visualization
    • Take the audience beyond your solution and help them visualize the positive results of implementing it or the negative consequences of not.
    • Elderly people should not have to live in fear during their golden years. A mandatory reporting law for elderly abuse will help ensure that the voices of our elderly loved ones will be heard.
  5. Step 5: Action
    • Call your audience to action by giving them concrete steps to follow to engage in a particular action or to change a thought or behavior.
    • I urge you to take action in two ways. First, raise awareness about this issue by talking to your own friends and family. Second, contact your representatives at the state and national level to let them know that elder abuse should be taken seriously and given the same level of importance as other forms of abuse. I brought cards with the contact information for our state and national representatives for this area. Please take one at the end of my speech. A short e-mail or phone call can help end the silence surrounding elder abuse.

Key Takeaways

  • Arguments are formed by making claims that are supported by evidence. The underlying justification that connects the claim and evidence is the warrant. Arguments can have strong or weak warrants, which will make them more or less persuasive.
  • Good persuasive speech topics are current, controversial (but not inflammatory), and important to the speaker and society.
  • Speakers should adapt their persuasive approach based on audience members’ orientation toward the proposal.
    • When audience members agree with the proposal, focus on intensifying their agreement and moving them to action.
    • When audience members are neutral in regards to the proposition, provide background information to better inform them about the issue and present information that demonstrates the relevance of the topic to the audience.
    • When audience members disagree with the proposal, focus on establishing your credibility, build common ground with the audience, and incorporate counterarguments and refute them.
  • Persuasive speeches include the following propositions: fact, value, and policy.
    • Propositions of fact focus on establishing that something “is or isn’t” or is “true or false.”
    • Propositions of value focus on persuading an audience that something is “good or bad,” “right or wrong,” or “desirable or undesirable.”
    • Propositions of policy advocate that something “should or shouldn’t” be done.
  • Persuasive speeches can be organized using the following patterns: problem-solution, cause-effect, cause-effect-solution, or Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.


  1. Getting integrated: Give an example of persuasive messages that you might need to create in each of the following contexts: academic, professional, personal, and civic. Then do the same thing for persuasive messages you may receive.
  2. To help ensure that your persuasive speech topic is persuasive and not informative, identify the claims, evidence, and warrants you may use in your argument. In addition, write a thesis statement that refutes your topic idea and identify evidence and warrants that could support that counterargument.
  3. Determine if your speech is primarily a proposition of fact, value, or policy. How can you tell? Identify an organizational pattern that you think will work well for your speech topic, draft one sentence for each of your main points, and arrange them according to the pattern you chose.

Putting your strongest argument last can help motivate an audience to action.

Celestine Chua – The Change – CC BY 2.0.


Bone, J. E., Cindy L. Griffin, and T. M. Linda Scholz, “Beyond Traditional Conceptualizations of Rhetoric: Invitational Rhetoric and a Move toward Civility,” Western Journal of Communication 72 (2008): 436.

Gearhart, S. M., “The Womanization of Rhetoric,” Women’s Studies International Quarterly 2 (1979): 195–201.

Ryan, K. J., and Elizabeth J. Natalle, “Fusing Horizons: Standpoint Hermenutics and Invitational Rhetoric,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 31 (2001): 69–90.

This is a derivative of Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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