VJ_Dissertation_2020.12.11.pdf (1.69 MB)

A Nominalist Theory of Content

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posted on 14.12.2020, 18:22 by Vincent D Jacobson
Philosophers who affirm the existence of propositions contend that the contents of declarative sentences, beliefs, doubts, and so on are entities (the things picked out by the term “propositions”), and that these entities have truth-values. Unsurprisingly, there’s rampant disagreement among those philosophers about sorts of things are called “propositions”. Propositions have been identified with sui generis abstract objects, interpreted facts, properties, and types of cognitive acts (this is not an exhaustive list). Despite this debate, most agree that propositions are representations (this is how they come to have truth-values), and that propositions are not to be identified with token mental representations. I agree that propositions are representations, but argue that propositions are mental representation tokens. The view I defend has sparse contemporary support, but has an impressive pedigree—ancestral views were widely popular in the late medieval, and early modern periods. In this dissertation I argue at length against contemporary criticisms that this view is still credible.
In chapter one, I defend a mentalist semantics; that is, I argue that linguistic representation is parasitic on mental representation: for a sentence to mean that p is for it to express (or be conventionally used to express) the thought that p. Once this is established, I argue in chapter two that mental representations (as opposed to non-mental ones) are ideal candidates to serve as the contents of sentences and propositional attitudes. I compare my preferred view, that propositions are token mental representations, against rival views (sorted into two groups) and show that a cost benefit analysis of each favors my position. In chapter three, I start exploring what these mental representations might be like. I argue that they’re structured entities whose constituents are modes of presentation of the things represented. I decline to analyze the relation which unites these modes of presentation, but argue (contra some contemporary philosophers) that this relation is not predication. Finally, in chapter four, I argue against the widely popular view that propositions have the things they’re about as constituents. I show that such a view cannot accommodate thoughts about nonexistent entities. I propose that the modes of presentation which are constituents of propositions are non-descriptive, but criticize the mental file conception of non-descriptive modes of presentation.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy



Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Rodney Bertolet

Additional Committee Member 2

Michael Bergmann

Additional Committee Member 3

Jeff Brower

Additional Committee Member 4

Gregory P. Schulz