Monday, September 17, 2018

Non-propositional conveyance

One sometimes hears claims like:

  1. There are things that can be conveyed through X (poetry, novels, film, art, music, etc.) that cannot be conveyed propositionally.

But what kind of a thing are those things? Facts? Not quite. For while some of the “things that can be conveyed … that cannot be conveyed propositionally” are in fact real and true, some are not. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Fritz Lang’s M are both good candidates for conveying “things … that cannot be conveyed propositionally”. But Triumph in doing so conveys falsehoods about the Nazi Party while M conveys truths about the human condition. But facts just are. So, the “things” are not just facts.

What I said about Triumph and M is very natural. But if we take it literally, the “things” must then be the sorts of things that can be true or false. But the primary bearers of truth are propositions. So when we dig deeper, (1) is undermined. For surely we don’t want to say that Triumph and M convey propositions that cannot be conveyed propositionally.

Perhaps, though, this was too quick. While I did talk of truth and falsehood initially, perhaps I could have talked of obtaining and not obtaining. If I did that, then maybe the “things” would have turned out to be states of affairs (technically, of the abstract Plantinga sort, not of the Armstrong sort). But I think there is good reason to prefer propositions to states of affairs here. First, it is dubious whether there are impossible states of affairs. But not only can X convey things that aren’t so, it can also convey things that couldn’t be so. A novel or film might convey ethical stuff that not only is wrong, but couldn’t be right. Second, what is conveyed is very fine-grained, and it seems unlikely to me that states of affairs are fine-grained enough. The right candidate seems to be not only propositions, but Fregean propositions.

But (1) still seems to be getting at something true. I think (1) is confusing “propositionally” with “by means of literalistic fact-stating affirmative sentences”. Indeed:

  1. There are things that can be conveyed through X (poetry, novels, film, art, music, etc.) that cannot be conveyed by means of literalistic fact-stating affirmative sentences.

(Note the importance of the word “conveyed”. If we had “expressed”, that might be false, because for any of the “things”, we could stipulate a zero-place predicate, say “xyzzies”, and then express it with “It xyzzies.” But while that sentence manages to express the proposition, it doesn’t convey it.)


Heath White said...

I agree that "propositionally" or "proposition" is sometimes ambiguous between "bearer of a truth value" and "abstract correlate of a linguistic sentence." It is connected with the typical analytic assumption that any fact about the world can be represented linguistically. But there are lot that cannot, at least not without lots of stipulation or predicate-invention.

For example, suppose you want to communicate the exact shade of paint in a room. You may not be able to communicate it linguistically, but it's easy with a paint swatch. Or the exact shape of the island of Manhattan: a picture works better than a linguistic predicate. Or (trickier) a particular emotion may be communicated better via art or music or poetry than with words.

I actually think this matters for philosophy of mind, in particular what is a belief. I see no reason that mental represenations couldn't be the equivalent of paint swatches or pictures rather than words.

It also matters for the metaphysics of truth. It is much more tempting to say that a linguistic representation has a binary true/false truth value than that a picture or sound representation has a binary true/false truth value.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I agree about the ambiguity, and while my point was about propositions in the truth bearer sense, I am also inclined to say something similar about propositions in the sentence sense.

I don't see why a paint swatch can't be a part of a sentence. Everyone understands an inscription that says: "I painted the room [insert mauve rectangle]." Likewise, everyone understands: "I came across a rock that looks like [insert weird shape]." Or someone could say: "I feel [insert moody whistling]."

A Lagadonian or partly Lagadonian language is still a language. So is Heptapod B. ( ). I expect that so is painting.