On the cognitive significance of indexicals

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    (Received 5 August, 1991)

    In this paper, we shall focus on the following points: (i) According to an orthodox, Perry-inspired] epistemological position, the following schema is valid for indexical expressions ("I," "here," "now," "that," "she," etc.) namely:

    S: determines classifies

    Linguistic . . . . . . . Cognitive . . . . . . . Mental Meaning Significance States

    (ii) Wettstein (1986) questioned the first relation in this schema, i.e. he tried to show that linguistic meaning cannot fully determine cognitive significance (or value); (iii) it could be thought, on the basis of Perry (1988), that a slight modification of the first relation suffices to reply to Wettstein's objection; (iv) however, we shall show that this suggestion may actually threaten the second relation, between cognitive signifi- cance and mental states; (v) we propose the outline of an answer to Wettstein's concern, which fits into the original schema as a whole.


    According to the Perry/Kaplan 2 approach, indexical utterances express singular (or Russellian) propositions, i.e. structured entities in which the referents themselves enter as constituents. However, singular proposi- tions cannot exhaust the cognitive value tied to such utterances. If, for instance, Laureen says, "I am happy," and Humphrey says, addressing her, "You are happy," they both express the same proposition, because "I" and "you" are used here as co-referring terms. Of course, they express this proposition in quite different ways. Hence, it is necessary to introduce at least "ways of cognizing" singular propositions to account for the phenomenon of cognitive significance.

    PhilosophicalStudies 66: 183--196, 1992. 9 1992 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.


    A natural way to explain the different actions available to Laureen and Humphrey, on the basis of their utterances, is to postulate different belief states. Belief states are individuated by the epistemic role they play in the logical space of reasoning. Intuitively, when Laureen and Humphrey both say, "I'm happy," they are in the same belief state, while their beliefs have different truth-conditions, which are identified by the singular propositions expressed in each case. Belief states are, then, related to singular propositions in the same way as modes of presentation are related to their objects. What, however, exactly are the identity conditions of belief states?

    Perry has a substantial proposal here. The use of indexical expres- sions is governed by linguistic rules, which determine their referent in varying contexts. 3 These rules have to be mastered by any competent speaker of the language. In this sense, they are the linguistic meaning of the corresponding expressions. For instance, the rule conventionally associated with "I" can be roughly stated as follows: "T refers to the agent who produced the utterance." In brief, Perry suggests that the identity of the belief state Laureen is in when she says, "I'm happy," is determined by her use of this sentence. Hence, two people who use the same sentence in the same way should be in the same belief state. The cognitive mode of presentation is exhausted by the linguistic rule used by the speaker to speak and think.


    Wettstein argues that linguistic meaning cannot fully determine cogni- tive significance. It is quite easy, he thinks, to construct out a case in which two tokens of the same indexical have two different cognitive values. Hence, if we consider the taxonomy of belief states determined by their cognitive significance, these tokens may involve different belief states. If, for instance, Pierre, while standing at the same spot, first assents and then dissents to the sentence "Here is fine," he may not be irrational, for he may falsely believe that he has moved. 4 Hence, by Fregean standards, the two tokens of "here" do not have the same cognitive value, and the same sentence can indicate different belief states. In short, we seem to have here a case in which the same linguis-


    tic rule is involved, the same referent is designated in each case (so that the same singular proposition is expressed), but in which the cognitive significance nevertheless differs. 5

    We have to make a choice. Either we definitely sever linguistic meaning from cognitive significance, or we modify the links between the two notions so that Wettstein's example can be accommodated. While Wettstein will pursue the first choice, Perry will choose the second one. To put it crudely, Wettstein's position is extremely skepti- cal. Indeed, his conclusion belongs to a more general argument accord- ing to which semantics for natural languages does not have to deal with cognitive significance. However, as we shall try to show, Wettstein's conclusion is not inevitable and the fact that this is so undermines his general argument.


    According to Perry, Wettstein's examples motivate a distinction be- tween the proposition expressed and the proposition created by an utterance (1988: p. 7). To these propositions correspond two different notions of truth-conditions. On the one hand, the proposition expressed by an utterance corresponds to what Perry (1990) calls the "incre- mental truth-conditions" of the utterance, i.e., the state of affairs literally depicted by the utterance. The incremental truth-conditions represents "what is said" by the utterance, and does not necessarily contains the utterance itself as a constituent. On the other hand, the proposition created by an utterance corresponds to its "pure truth- conditions." Propositions created are determined by the rule that gives, in a particular context, the conditions under which a given utterance is true. Hence, utterances themselves, and not their referents, become constituents of the proposition created. A created proposition is a singular proposition as well.

    Let us take an example. The linguistic meaning associated with the sentence "You are spilling coffee" can, according to Perry (1988: p. 7), be specified as follows:

    An utterance u of "You are spilling coffee" by an agent a at


    a time t in circumstances C expresses singular proposition P,

    iff There is an individual x such that (i) a's addressing x at t is part of C; (ii) P is the singular proposition that x is spilling coffee.

    Some remarks have to be made. First, the linguistic meaning can be learned independently from any particular use of the expression. This feature is represented in the specification of the linguistic meaning, where no singular reference is made to an utterance, but only an existential quantification on utterances. Second, knowing the created proposition (which is nothing other than knowing a particularization of the linguistic meaning referring to the utterance) is not sufficient in order to know the proposition expressed. As Perry often claims, every competent speaker can interpret a particular utterance of "You are spilling coffee" but, in order to understand it, he has to know the relevant contextual factors, that is, he has to be able to identify the addressee. Hence, different levels have to be distinguished:

    (1) (2)

    (3) (4)


    the expression (as a type) the utterance of the expression (which involves a token of (1)) the linguistic meaning associated with (1) the pure truth-conditions of (2) (a particularization of (3), which corresponds to the created proposition) the proposition expressed (the incremental truth-conditions)

    How can all this theoretical machinery deal with Wettstein's exam- ples? Perry's solution is to base the difference of cognitive values found in Wettstein's examples in the difference between the propositions created by the utterances. For instance, the two utterances of "Here is a nice place" have slightly different pure truth-conditions. The proposi- tion created the first time contains the first utterance of the sentence as a constituent, while the proposition created the second time contains a different utterance of the same sentence as a constituent.

    Let us consider Wettstein's (1986: p. 195) original example involving


    a demonstrative reference. Imagine two utterances of "He is about to be attacked," where the same individual is being referred to twice. How- ever, the speaker and the hearer do not take both tokens of "he" to be co-referential. Hence, the cognitive significances of these two utterances are distinct, while the linguistic meaning is ex hypothesi the same. Here is what Perry (1988: p. 11) says about this example:

    The cognitive significance of the two utterances of "He is about to be attacked" would be different. Basically, to accept the first utterance as true, the linguistically competent listener has to believe that the speaker is then referring to someone who is about to be attacked. To accept the second utterance as true, the linguistically competent listener has to believe that the speaker is referring, at the second time, to such a person. Even if the speaker is referring to the same person on both occasions, neither the linguistically competent listener nor the linguistically competent speaker need to believe that she is.

    In conclusion, Perry's solution to examples similar to Wettstein's is that cognitive significance, since it is not fully determined by general linguistic rules, should be partly determined by applied linguistic rules, i.e. to the pure truth-conditions associated with particular utterances. Such a solution may be considered "meta-linguistic" in the sense that a reference to a token utterance is used to explain part of the cognitive value associated with an act of reference using precisely this same utterance. In order to know the proposition created, a subject has to know which token utterance has been expressed (be careful: not just which expression as a type has been used).


    As far as we can see, there are at least two problems with Perry's solution to Wettstein's puzzle. From one point of view, the notion of proposition created can be seen to be too fine-grained to deal with the possible range of cognitive values of utterances, and from another point of view, it seems too coarse-grained. Let us examine each worry in its turn.

    It could be said that Perry has saved one half of the orthodox schema, for while linguistic meaning does not directly determine cogni- tive significance, it seems to do so when applied. In other words, the following relation holds:


    determines S': Applied Linguistic . . . . . . . Cognitive

    Meaning Significance

    What about the other half of the original schema (i.e. the fact that cognitive significance classifies mental states)? If applied linguistic meaning determines the cognitive significance of utterances, it should be the case that mental states are identified by pure truth-conditions, in Perry's sense. We, however, think that this is rather implausible, for this cuts belief states all too finely, as finely as the utterances themselves. 6 How could such a fine-grained classification reflect the epistemic possibilities available to a rational believer? In particular, it is worth noting that this account implies than a believer can never twice manifest the same belief state when indexical utterances are involved. In this view, no utterance of the form "Here = here" is trivial, at least relative to its conditions of truth. Of course, the fact that an utterance of the form "Here = here," or of the form "He = he," may be trivial, is just the other side of Wettstein's puzzle]

    It may be objected that we are looking for triviality at the wrong place, for it could be argued that an utterance like "Here = here" is trivial if and only if our subject is disposed to put in the same mental file the information he could have received from the places he was in at the times of his two utterances of "Here. ''s Mental files are cognitive particulars identified in a relational way. The relation used to identity them, in Perry's view, is still partly determined by linguistic meaning.

    This objection, though, concedes that the notion of proposition created is not sufficient to deal with every variant of Wettstein-style examples. Using only the notion of proposition created, we cannot differentiate the case where an utterance like "Here = here" is trivial from the case where another utterance of the same form is informative. True, Perry would claim that cognitive significance is itself a "vectorial concept," in the sense that different aspects of mental states are classi- fied by different kinds of cognitive significance, and ultimately explain different facets of behaviour. We have no objection, at this point, to this account. We are merely convinced that there is a more economical and natural way to deal with Wettstein's puzzle, as we shall see in the next section.


    Let us now turn to our second worry concerning the notion of proposition created. This is due to the fact that the propositions created are themselves singular propositions. Thus, it is ex hypothesi possible for a subject to have two distinct epistemic attitudes toward the con- stituents of a given proposition created. What is the relevance of this to Perry's view, given his insistence that a proposition created by an utterance is no part of what it expresses?

    Note that in order to put forth a counterexample to that view, it is not sufficient to find out a case where different attitudes are possible toward the same token sentence (or symbol), for a token sentence, as Perry himself is aware of, can be involved in more than one token utterance. Propositions created have token utterances, not token sen- tences, as constituents? Hence, an example like the following poses no trouble to Perry's view. Suppose that the same token symbol, say a post sign with the message "I'll be back in 5," has been left on a door between 2 pm and 5 pm. If a subject reads the sign once at 3 pm, and once again at 4.15 pro, and believes that the referent of 'T' is different in each case, he wilt adopt different attitudes toward the same token symbol. If different times are involved, though, Perry would claim that different propositions are created each time the subject reads the sign.

    Token utterances, unlike most token symbols, are un-repeatable events. Token symbols are objects with spatial or temporal parts. Thus, utterances are identified at least by their time of occurence. But maybe it is possible to raise a puzzle to Perry's account of cognitive signifi- cance in terms of propositions created. Imagine someone, say John, making an utterance and hearing it at the same ti...


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