# Richard Gaskin on the Unity of the Proposition The following is my contribution to a symposium on Richard Gaskin's The Unity of the

question of the unity of a proposition, whether at the level of sense or reference is: "what distinguishes propositions from mere aggregates of their components, and enables them to be true or false?" (18) What makes a proposition a unity capable of being either true or false, when neither the aggregate nor any member of the aggregate is capable of being true or false? The problem of unity is prior to the problem of truth since "false propositions are just as unified as true ones." (viii) This holds both for propositions at the level of sense (Fregean propositions) and at the level of reference (Russellian propositions). To save ink we can refer to these as Fpropositions and R-propositions. Gaskin is committed to both types of proposition and maintains that one cannot countenance one type without countenancing the other. (115) There are true and false tokens of both types. It follows that there are false propositions at the level of reference. Whether this is a problem we will consider below in section 5. A principle of compositionality holds for sentences, F-propositions, and Rpropositions: they all have subsentential/subpropositional components. (66) If sentences and propositions were absolutely simple entities, the unity problem could not arise. But it arises for Gaskin in an acute form not only because sentences and propositions have constituents but also because he cannot accept a Frege-style solution in terms of the unsaturatedness of concept-expressions and concepts given his contention that all subsentential/subpropositional components are unsaturated. It is a central claim of Gaskin’s book that Frege’s context principle implies "that there is no warrant for Frege’s differential treatment of names and conceptexpressions." (191) According to the context principle, words have meaning only in the context of a sentence: there is nothing more to the meaning of a word than its contribution to the meaning of a sentence in which it occurs. (188-189) Sentences are conceptually prior to words in that "words are a theoretical abstraction from sentences . . . ." (189) If this is right, then names and concept-expressions are on a par in respect of saturatedness/unsaturatedness. Either both are saturated or both are unsaturated. Gaskin maintains that both names and concept-expressions are unsaturated. Both are such by contrast with the saturatedness of the sentence. Sentences are saturated in that they, unlike their subsentential parts, can be used to say something either true or false. (192) Given the unsaturatedness of all subsentential and subpropositional components, Gaskin cannot avail himself of a Frege-style solution to the unity problem. He cannot say that names (objects) complete or saturate incomplete concept-expressions (concepts) and in so doing achieve the sort of unity that enables a sentence (proposition) to be either true or false. If Gaskin is

sentences? If sentences are primary, and taken as given, then unity is not something to be achieved or effected by a combining of pre-given subsentential parts, but something presupposed. Why then is there a problem about unity? If the context principle is interpreted as Gaskin interprets it, in a manner to show that all subsentential components are on a par as unsaturated, then it would seem that the context principle so interpreted would also show that there is no problem about unity. For if words and their referents are abstractions from sentences and propositions respectively, then there is no problem about how words and their referents combine to form sentences and propositions respectively, for the simple reason that, had no such unproblematic combinations been available, then there would have been no sentential/propositional unities from which to abstract words and their meanings in the first place. Nevertheless, Gaskin, well aware of the objection just raised, persists in thinking that there is a unity problem: "what distinguishes a proposition – an entity composed in the right way of conceptualized objects – from a mere aggregate of such objects? The sheer fact that all objects are unsaturated, and that they are, in appropriate combinations, of the right shapes to form propositions is not of itself enough to effect their being fitted together into propositions." (314) But why not, given that words are abstractions from sentences and their meanings abstractions from propositions? Why is there need for an effecting of unity when sentential and propositional components are abstractions from pre-given propositional unities? Talk of effecting unity presupposes that words and their referents are antecedently available as semantic building-blocks; but then words and their referents cannot be viewed as "theoretical abstractions."(189) Could Gaskin be waffling between two different models of the relation between a proposition and its components? 3. Two Construals of the Unity Problem Let us now delve a bit deeper into the tension just uncovered. Everyone will agree that there cannot be a problem about the unity of a proposition if propositions are simple: they must be composite entities composed of components. In the simple monadic case, the proposition that a is F has at least two components, a and F-ness. But which is ontologically prior, the proposition or its components? And what is the nature of the composition: is it ‘real’ or ‘conceptual’? Borrowing some terminology from Gaskin, should we think of the components as "antecedently available" or as "ex post facto parts abstracted from wholes"? (408) Depending on how we

answer this question, we get two different views of how a proposition is related to its components and two different construals of the unity problem. To say that a and F-ness are antecedently available is to say that they can exist in reality without forming the proposition that a is F. But if a and Fness are ex post facto parts abstracted from the whole that is the proposition, then a and F-ness cannot exist in reality without forming the proposition that a is F. The exact formulation of the unity problem depends on whether one thinks it possible for there to be such mere aggregates as a + F-ness in reality as opposed to merely in our thought. I take the ‘ontological’ view that such aggregates can and do exist in reality apart from our thought, while Gaskin takes the ‘conceptual’ view that they exist only as abstracta in our thinking. So, for Gaskin, the unity problem is "the distinctively theoretical question what differentiates a proposition from a mere aggregate – what constitutes the moment of propositional unity when we move in thought from a mere aggregate to a proposition." (386, emphasis added) Gaskin goes on to say that "from a conceptual point of view," the propositional unity is not simply given. (386) This is because one can make a conceptual distinction between propositional constituents and the "moment" of their unity. To which my response will be: indeed, but only because the propositional unity is taken to be ontologically given. For Gaskin, however, there is no distinction between propositional components and their moment of unity in reality: propositional unity is given ontologically as a sort of brute fact. For me, however, it is not: propositional unity at the level of reference requires an explanation, and it had better not be circular. So for me, the unity problem is the problem of locating the ontological, not merely conceptual, ground of the difference between the mere aggregate a + F-ness and the corresponding Russellian proposition. This ontological ground is an entity that explains the peculiar togetherness of a and F-ness, the togetherness that enables the resulting proposition to be either true or false. I am not assuming for the purposes of this criticism that there is what Gaskin says there isn’t, namely, "pre-propositional reality" (386) if this is taken to mean that there are objects bare of properties, or first-level properties that are not instantiated. But I am assuming that there is "prepropositional reality" (386) if this is taken to mean that a and F-ness can exist in reality at the level of reference without a instantiating F-ness. (If an object cannot exist without instantiating some property, it doesn’t follow that it must instantiate F-ness; and if a first-level property cannot exist without being instantiated by some object, it does not follow that it must be

everything that is the case and everything that is not the case," (118) also has its difficulties. One of them is the idea that there are false Russellian propositions. 5. The Incoherence of False Russellian Propositions As noted above, Gaskin maintains that there are true and false propositions at the level of reference. They serve as the referents of true and false declarative sentences respectively. These Russellian propositions are abstract objects that "contain as literal constituents the worldly entities . . . introduced by the semantically significant parts of those sentences" that refer to them. (57) Thus ‘Venus is uninhabited’ (my example) refers to a true R-proposition that contains Venus itself, that massive chunk of physical reality, along with the property of being uninhabited. "Venus is less massive than Mercury’ (my example) refers to the false R-proposition having as literal constituents Venus, Mercury, and the relation less massive than. One might wonder how abstracta could have concreta among their constituents. Gaskin’s counters this worry with the observation that most philosophers find it unproblematic that sets, which are abstract objects, often include concrete items. So why balk at propositional abstracta harboring concreta? (59) This is a plausible, if not absolutely compelling, response to the worry. More troublesome than the abstractness of Gaskin’s propositions in re (as he also calls them) is the claim that some of them are false. It is easy to see how there can be false propositions, false Fregean Gedanken, at the level of sense. A false Fregean proposition is just the sense of a false declarative sentence. But it is difficult to see how there could be false propositions at the level of reference. Sentences and the Fregean Thoughts they express are representational in a straightforward sense: they represent the disposition of the world of concreta. They either represent it as it is or as it is not. Thus the Fregean proposition that Socrates is wise represents Socrates as wise. It is a unity of sense that says that Socrates is wise whether or not he actually is wise. A proposition at the level of reference, however, is arguably not representative of anything: such propositions ‘on the ground’ are what get represented without representing anything in their turn. They just are dispositions or arrangements of concreta. From this it would seem to follow that all Russellian propositions are true, albeit in a sense of ‘true’ different from though analogous to the sense of ‘true’ as a predicate of propositions. On one picture, the correspondence picture that Gaskin rejects, (115) true Fregean propositions are ‘verified’ (made true) by truth-making facts all of