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Sentences, Propositions and Statements March 10, 2007

Posted by Ninja Clement in Philosophy.
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Sentences are linguistic entities. They obtain only in a natural language, such as English or Hebrew, or an artificial language, like Pascal or Fortran. The following is an English sentence.

     Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun.

“Sentence” has two senses in the philosophy of language: sentence token and sentence type. Sentence tokens are concrete objects. They consist of ink marks on paper, sequences of sounds, or highlighted pixels on a screen. Sentence types are abstract objects, not located in space and time (assume, for the sake of argument, that abstract objects exist). They do not consist of written or spoken units. Rather, a type is the form of which a sentence is a particular of. How many sentence types and how many sentence tokens can you count among the following?

     Snow is white.
     Snow is white.
     Coal is black.
     Snow is white.

If you counted four tokens and two types, then you answered correctly. There are four instances of sentences and two kinds of sentences above. Think of the type as the instance (particular) and the token as the kind (form).

Sentences are typically bearers of propositions. Roughly speaking, the proposition is the meaning of the sentence, not the sentence itself. Sentences in different languages convey the same proposition only if they have the same meaning. Among the following, you can count four sentences (both type and token), but only one proposition.

     Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun. [English]
     Saturn je šestá planeta od slunce. [Czech]
     Saturne est la sixième planète la plus éloignée du soleil. [French]
     Saturn er den sjette planeten fra solen. [Norwegian]

Each sentence presents the same proposition, which, expressed in English, is Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun. Think of a proposition as the thought or belief the sentence conveys. The same thought or belief may be communicated through more than one language. These things are not linguistic entities, however (if anything, they are mental entities or abstract objects).

Now suppose you utter the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat’ (‘p‘ for short). Not only have you uttered the sentence ‘p‘, you have expressed the proposition that p, which is in turn related to the thought or belief that p. You may have also made the statement that p. Yet you do not always make this statement by uttering the sentence. Thus, if you simply repeat the sentence over and over for amusement, you are not telling anyone that the cat actually is on the mat (Contrast this with your answer to a friend’s question about the cat’s whereabouts).

So there are at least four things picked out by ‘p‘: 1) the sentence is a unit of language, 2) the proposition is what is meant by the sentence, 3) the statement is what is done with the sentence, and 4) the thought or belief is the mental state presented by the sentence.

Bibliography: Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, by Roger Scruton (London: Penguin Books, 1994)

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