De Se and Descartes: A New Semantics for Indexicals

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  • De Se and Descartes: A New Semantics for IndexicalsAuthor(s): Eddy M. ZemachSource: Nos, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jun., 1985), pp. 181-204Published by: WileyStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 04:00

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  • De Se and Descartes: A New Semantics for Indexicals



    The propositional theory of belief has recently come under heavy fire from various quarters. In the present article I wish to examine one such line of attack: the arguments it uses, the evidence it brings against the propositional theory, and the alternative accounts of- fered by its standard bearers. Those who lack the time or incli- nation to follow me down this torturous path may wish to know that my conclusion is a vindication of the propositional theory, albeit in a reformed form, enriched by a new, unorthodox device.

    Robert Stalnaker' summarizes the propositional theory in two theses:

    A. Belief is a relation between an animate subject and a prop- osition.

    B. Propositions have truth values, and their truth values do not vary with time, place, or person.2

    If belief is not given a mere behavioristic characterization and (e.g., Fodor's 3) mental sentences are to be recognized as (at least pos- sible) representations of beliefs, a third thesis is called for:

    C. Some mental entities express propositions.

    These mental entities need not be Fodor's sentences of Mentalese: as argued by Castafieda4 if it is possible for one to refer to some- thing by merely thinking, and thinking something of it, then some referring devices and some proposition-expressing sentences are mental entities.

    The attack on the propositional theory of belief to be discussed in this article takes its cue from the claim that indexicals and quasi- indicators cannot be replaced (salva veritate) by descriptive terms


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  • 182 NOUS

    in certain belief sentences, referred to as 'de se belief sentences'. This proves, it is then argued, that some (and perhaps all, as Lewis and Chisholm think) of the sentences embedded in belief sentences can not be given a de dicto interpretation, and hence do not express propositions. Let us call this view, that the objects of (some, or all) beliefs are not propositions, the De Se Thesis.

    Are there, then, ineliminable indexicals in belief sentences? If so, can these sentences be interpreted de dicto? If not, does this prove the De Se Thesis?

    In order to answer the first question, let us try to replace the indexical terms in a belief sentence by coreferential names or def- inite descriptions, without thereby changing their truth conditions (and, therefore, their meaning). Take, e.g., Castanieda's famous example. If the editor of Soul does not know that he is the editor of Soul, then it seems that

    (1) The editor of Soul believes that he is a millionaire.

    may differ in truth value from

    (2) The editor of Soul believes that the editor of Soul is a millionaire.

    when (2) is read de dicto. It is argued that the same is true of any name or definite description of the editor of Soul substituted for the second occurrence of 'the editor of Soul' in (2). I shall call the said argument, The Irreducibility Argument. The evidence for this argument is that the editor of Soul, being truthful and completely candid, may be willing to assert a token of

    (3) I am a millionaire.

    while dissenting from

    (4) The editor of Soul is a millionaire.

    (or vice versa: assent to (4) and dissent from (3)). This may happen if the editor believes (erroneously) that someone else (not he, him- self) is the editor of Soul. We shall get the same disparity in read- iness to assent to (3) and (4), and, therefore, in the truth conditions of (1) and (2), if we substitute a proper name for the definite description in (4) and in the sentence embedded in (2): the editor of Soul may have forgotten that the said name is his name.

    Before we go any further, let us ask why do we expect such indexicals to be replaceable, salva veritate, by coreferential terms. Failure of substitutivity is one of the hallmarks of de dicto interpreted belief sentences. If we wish to interpret (1) and (2) de dicto, why should truth value be preserved through substitution of corefer-

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    entials? An additional argument is needed: let me call it The Va- cuity Argument. It claims that indexical terms do not describe the objects they refer to, and therefore a sentence containing an in- dexical does not express a proposition, unless the indexical is stand- ing for a name or a definite description.

    Let 'Bd(Fb)' abbreviate, Jones believes, de dicto, that Fb'. Now, if 'Bd(Fb)' is true, the believer identifies b via the property of being- b (if 'b' is a definite description), or via the property of being called 'b' (if 'b' is a proper name). E.g., 'Jones believes (de dicto) that the doctor is coming' implies that Jones identifies the object of his belief as having the property of being the doctor; 'Jones believes that Smith is coming', read de dicto, implies that Jones identifies the object of his belief as called 'Smith'. In other words, the re- ferring terms contribute to the propositional content of these sen- tences. What, then, is the propositional content of (1)? It is not true that the utterer of (3) has identified himself either as being- he, or as being called 'he'; even if there are such properties they are properties of all males; also, it is not necessary for the editor of Soul to identify himself as a male in order to utter (3). Hence (1) cannot express a de dicto belief unless the indexical in it stands for some name or description. If it does not, since no non-indexical term can take its place, as the Irreducibility Argument claims, then (1) cannot be interpreted de dicto. In this case what the editor of Soul is said in (1) to believe is not a proposition.


    There seems to be one obvious way of trying to block this radical conclusion. Perhaps (1), as normally interpreted, is not de dicto, but, rather, de re: a belief of something (however referred to) that it is F. In this case the De Se Thesis is not disproved, but it is not proved, either.

    Let 'Br(Fa)' abbreviate 'Jones believes de re of a that it is F'. In such constructions the term 'a' is completely transparent and purely referential, being the utterer's device of referring to a. It is not indicated in any way how the believer himself does, or would be willing to, refer to it.

    May (1), then, be interpreted simply de re? Indeed, (1) and (2) need not have the same truth value, but this is objectionable only if both are interpreted de re (since 'Br(Fa)' and 'a = b' imply 'Br(Fb)'.) But the natural reading of (2) is de dicto. (1), therefore, may be interpreted as being de re. It is certainly not the case that 'Br(Fa) & a= b D Bd(Fb)'. Since in de re belief sentences that

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  • 184 NOUS

    believer's way of referring to the entity, about which he believes that it is F, is not specified, the Vacuity Argument supports a de re reading.

    This, in fact,. is the suggestion made by Boer and Lycan.5 De re belief is supposed to be a relation between a person, an object, and a predicate or property and not a relation between a person and a proposition or statement (as is the case with de dicto belief). Thus we may regard sentences such as (1) simply as de re belief sentences where the res in question is the believer himself.

    My objection to this suggestion is that sentences like (1), as commonly understood, have the logical features of de dicto belief, and therefore cannot be construed as "unambiguously de re" 6 belief sentences. De re belief sentences are referentially transparent; thus, assuming a = b, 'Br(Fa)' does not give any additional information about the believer over and above 'Br(Fb)', since neither 'a' nor 'b' reflect the believer's own way of referring. But a de se belief sentence (abbreviated, from now on, as 'Bs(Fs)') does give an important additional information over and above what is supplied by 'Br(Fb)', even when s = b is assumed. The additional infor- mation is that the believer attributes 'F' to herself under the description 's' (i.e., 'self'). In other words, 'Br(Fa)' does not imply 'Bd(Fa)', but 'Bs(Fs)' implies 'Bd(Fs)'. There is, of course, a le- gitimate de re reading of (1); under this reading it is implied by (2), interpreted de re. But there is a great difference between (1) as commonly interpreted and (1) interpreted de re: the former says how the believer himself would refer to the object of his belief; the latter does not. This is why we feel that (1) as commonly interpreted implies, but is not implied by, (2) interpreted de re: it simply says more.

    Boer and Lycan are well aware of this objection. They call it 'The "Special Implication" objection'. They dismiss this impli- cation, however, as nonsemantic, a mere (Gricean) conventional implicature. The difference between (1), and (2) interpreted de re, they say, is similar to the difference between 'Fa and Ga' and a sentence such as 'Fa but Ga'. It is inappropriate to use the latter form unless a certain relation holds between F and G, and when that relation holds one is expected to use the more informative form; but that is all; it does not amount to a difference in truth conditions.

    A simple consideration can show that this account is wrong. Let us suppose that the "special implication" is only a pragmatic implicature with no bearing on (1)'s truth conditions. Let Jones know that an editor of Soul would draw a salary of $1,000,000

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    annually, but forget that he is that happy editor. In this case Jones will assert (4), but not (3). Boer and Lycan would then say that (1) is unambiguously true. So let us grant this claim but ask: What is it, then, that Jones forgot and therefore does not believe? Try

    (1')The editor of Soul does not believe that he is a millionaire.

    But this is impossible. (1) has the form 'Br(Fa)', and (1') has the form, '-Br(Fa)'. The two flatly contradict each other and cannot both be true. Try then

    (1") The editor of Soul believes that he is not a millionaire.

    (1") is of the logical form 'Br( Fa)' and thus may be true if (1) is true. But (1 ") is false: poor Jones has no opinion on whether he* is a millionaire or not; he neither believes that (3) is, nor that (3) is not, true (de dicto). Surely there must be some way of de- scribing this situation in plain English? But if (1) has but one linguistic meaning, and it is, in this case, true, we have no way of describing what Jones believes. This is absurd.

    Finding it "hard to think of plausible explanation"' why we tend to regard (1) as false in the above case, Boer and Lycan yet argue that this is so with all de re belief. People tend to regard 'Jones believes that Fa' as false if Jones believes (de dicto) that Fb, not knowing that a = b. Yet surely 'Br(Fa)' is then true? This ar- gument, however, is fallacious. We can explain that tendency, in the usual case, by saying that 'Bd(Fa)' is equivalent to a conjunction of 'Br(Fa)' with several other sentences, some of which may be false, and yet 'Br(Fa)' be true. But it seems that in our case, there is no such false component (conjunct) of (1), as distinct from (1) itself, to be blamed for (1)'s seeming falsity. But if we have to consider (1), as usually used, to be false, then it is clear that 'believes' is used in (1) de dicto, or, at least, not de re.

    For Lycan and Boer, 'I' is, in principle, dispensable: e.g., the hunchback Igor, who refers to himself as 'Igor', does not have any sentence like (3). But this is not true. Igor does have the term 'I' in his idiolect; it sounds like this: 'Igor'. That is to say, 'Igor' does double duty in Igor's idiolect. Why else would he obey orders, answer questions, etc. addressed to Igor and not, e.g., to Ivan? Why does he always express the wishes of Igor and not those of Ivan? If 'Igor believes that Igor is in danger', uttered by Igor, is understood de re only, Igor's behavior is incomprehensible: for why should he care if Igor is in danger? The only explanation is that some tokens of 'Igor', used by Igor, mean 'I'. If Igor ceases to believe that he is Igor he may still use 'Igor' to refer to Igor:

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  • 186 NOUS

    e.g., as in some mentally disturbed people, he may correctly iden- tify Igor's body as Igor's, but disclaim any responsibility for its motions or any interest in its fate. That his behavior will then radically change is enough evidence that his beliefs have changed, too. Since his de re beliefs have not changed, de se is not de re.

    Again we see that the term 'believes', as appearing in (1) and (3), is much closer to de dicto than to de re belief. Jones' believing (de dicto, of course) that p, is sufficient to explain why he acts as he does, given that he does not like that p to be the case. Similarly, 'Bs(Fs)' being true of Jones is sufficient to explain why he acts as he does, given that he does not like to be F. But 'Br(Fb)' being true of Jones does not explain why Jones acts as he does, even if he does not like b to be F. E.g., that Jones does not like his sister to be in debt does not explain why he pays Mrs. Smith's debts if...


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