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Propositions

Propositions

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Published by Raleigh Miller

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Published by: Raleigh Miller on Dec 07, 2011
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11/19/2014

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Propositions: On Their Modal and Temporal Properties
Raleigh Miller Jeff King has argued ((2003) and (2008, ch. 5)) that tense expressions have quantifiersas their semantic values.
1
King thus problematizes traditional tense semantics, credited to A.N.Prior,
2
according to which tense expressions have sentence operators as their semantic values.King's argument allows for modal expressions, unlike tense expressions, to have sentenceoperators as their semantic values. King makes it clear that he leaves open this possibilitybecause he thinks it is correct; King thinks that modal expressions contribute modal operators tothe propositions expressed by the sentences in which they appear. Thus, King’s full viewincludes a commitment to the thesis that modal and tense expressions have formally,categorially different semantic values. Call this the
Asymmetry Thesis
or 
Asymmetry.
Someof King’s reasons for endorsing asymmetry are linguistic. Operator and quantifiers have welldefined formal features. The linguist’s choice between quantificational or operational semanticsfor tense and modal expressions yields predictions that can be empirically tested. If naturallanguage patterns are more accurately predicted by a theory of tense and modal expressionsaccording to which they are formally, categorially different, this amounts to a
linguistic 
case for 
Asymmetry.
Much of King's research is dedicated to making this case. But, as King argues inhis (2008),
Asymmetry
is motivated by metaphysical considerations as well. Speculativemetaphysicians have claimed that there are differences between the temporal and modalproperties of propositions that justify
Asymmetry
. It is these latter metaphysical considerationsthat I take aim at. I will argue that metaphysical arguments for 
Asymmetry
are unpersuasive.Though I will have to say a few things about language, I will try to avoid making controversial,empirical claims that are the proper purview of the linguist; I am in no position to assess King’sarguments for conclusions about the best way to model the semantic value of tense and modal
1
I focus almost exclusively on King’s 2008, since the views expressed therein have gone through some revisionssince the reception of his 2003.
2
See, e.g. (Prior 1957)
 
expressions.
3
 The objects of interest in this paper are the modal and temporal properties of propositions, and the argument of this paper is that reflection on these properties will not lendsupport to the case for 
Asymmetry
.Let me slow down a bit, and say a few things about propositions. Propositions aretheoretical entities. They are functionally defined. Propositions, as traditionally conceived, playthree theoretical roles. First, propositions are the objects of our intentional attitudes, such asbelief or doubt. When I believe that p I stand in the belief relation to the proposition
that p
.Second, propositions are the semantic values of sentences. According to
compositionality
, apopular (though not unanimously endorsed) methodological assumption in linguistics, thesemantic value of a sentence is composed of the semantic values of its parts. Some sentencesare composed of smaller sentences. For instance, according to
compositionality
, a sentenceof the form “x is F and y is G” is composed of the respective semantic values of the sentences“x is F” and “y is G” (and the semantic value of ‘and’, conjunction). Accordingly, the propositionexpressed by a sentence
s
should be the contribution that
s
makes to a larger sentence inwhich
s
appears.
4
Third, propositions are the bearers of alethic, modal, and temporalproperties. Alethic properties include true and false. Modal properties include possible, actual,necessary, etc. Temporal properties include past, present, future, etc. All else being equal, thebest theory of propositions would be one according to which it is plausible that propositions playall three roles.Much of the following discussion depends upon the difference between sentenceoperators and quantifiers. I’ll now dedicate some discussion to this distinction. A proposition,
 p
,is the contribution that a sentence
s
makes to the semantic value of a larger sentence
s
’ if 
s
expresses
 p
and
s
appears in
s
‘.
s
’ may also include an expression whose semantic value is a
3
Though my colleague, Eric Snyder, thinks that the linguistic case for 
Asymmetry
is also unpersuasive. He [iswriting/has written] separately in defense of that claim. This may be an appropriate time to remark that I have benefitted immensely from conversations with Mr. Snyder on subjects relevant to this paper.
4
This is not meant to include sentences where the words ‘x’ ‘is’ and ‘F’ appear in that order, but where the sentence‘x is F’ is not plausibly a part of the larger sentence. For instance, the sentence ‘Snow is white’ is not plausibly partof ‘In arctic environments, the color that increases one’s ability to survive while walking in the snow is white.”.
 
sentence operator. Sentence operators embed sentences, and they affect the context in whichthe proposition expressed by the embedded sentence is to be evaluated. For instance, wemight introduce a sentence operator, B( )
,
where the sentence B(
 p
) is true just in case
 p
is truein Bahrain.
5
By contrast, quantifiers do not operate upon otherwise independent sentences.Instead, a quantifier binds variables in a sentence whose semantic value is otherwiseindeterminate. In a quantified sentence, if all variables are replaced with expressions whosesemantic value(s) are entities, the resulting sentence would express a proposition with adeterminate semantic value. A quantifier has as its semantic value the second order propertybeing such that if σ were substituted for the variable the result would be a true proposition,where different quantifiers would correspond to different ranges that would appear as σ. For astandard weak quantifier, one would substitute ‘at least one thing in the domain’ for σ. For astandard strong quantifier, one would substitute ‘anything in the domain’ for σ.One way of understanding the scope of King’s investigation is as concerning
 perspectival 
propositions. A perspectival proposition is a proposition true from someperspective. A perspective is something from which some propositions are true. It is unclear whether a more substantive, non-circular definition of perspective is available, but at least thismay serve rhetorically to gesture at the sorts of things we’re trying to talk about.
6
Threeexamples of perspectives are
times
,
worlds
, and
locations
.
that Miller is sitting 
is true at thepresent time, but false at some other times.
that Miller lives in Ohio
is true in the actual world,but it’s false on some merely possible worlds.
that it’s snowing 
is true here (Ohio) but falseelsewhere. If we’re trying to capture the truth conditions of discourse about what’s true at sometimes, at some places, and on some worlds, quantifiers have more flexible expressive power then sentence operators. Using quantification, it is possible (with the help of such mechanisms
5
Of course, whether or not the semantics of “In Bahrain it’s the case that” is best captured by such an operator is notthe point; nothing stops us from stipulating that there is such an operator.
6
Kit Fine (2005, 261), for instance, writes “We make statements (or form judgments) about how things are from agiven standpoint or perspective…the statement has a certain ‘aspect’ or perspectival character in virtue of which istruth is capable of varying from one standpoint to another”.

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