Language and Reality





Language and Reality



Consider the following thesis: objects are essentially nameable and properties are essentially predicable. That is, objects can only be named not predicated, while properties can only be predicated not named. To put it differently, objects can only be denoted from subject position, while properties can only be denoted from predicate position. This thesis asserts a strong connection between language and reality: namely, that an ontological distinction maps rigidly onto a linguistic distinction. It might be called “the mapping thesis”.

            Is the mapping thesis true? It is difficult to see how it could fail to be true for objects and names: how could an object be predicated of another object, or of a property? What would a predicate for an object be like? You might think that “is Aristotle” is such a predicate, but in fact it does not denote Aristotle but rather the property of identity with Aristotle. An invented Quinean predicate like “Aristotle-izes” likewise really means (if it means anything) something like “has the individual essence of Aristotle”, which stands for the property of having a certain individual essence. There are no predicates that denote particular objects, because there is no sense in the idea that an object could be ascribed to another object. Objects are not predicable things—any more than they are things that can be instantiated. We predicate properties of objects, but objects are not themselves predicable. This is why we don’t have sentences of the form “Plato(Aristotle)”.

            But the mapping thesis is not so obviously true for predicates and properties: for what is to stop us from naming a property and then predicating something of that property? Don’t we have sentences like “redness is a color” or “democracy is good” or “the property of being soluble is commonly instantiated”? These look every inch like subject-predicate sentences in which the subject term denotes a property, which is then made a subject of predication. So properties can be named, even if objects cannot be predicated: properties are not essentiallypredicable–they can be predicated or named.

One way to resist this breakdown of the mapping thesis would be to claim that all such sentences can be analyzed into sentences that do not name properties but only predicate them, as in “objects that are red are colored” or “it’s good for countries to be democratic” or “there are many soluble objects”. The ease of such paraphrases confirms the thesis that properties are always denoted by grammatical predicates in logical form. But still, there are sentences that contain nominative terms for properties, while there are none that contain predicative terms for objects. It is not then nonsense to form a sentence that names a property.

            A further response is to note that these alleged names contain predicates for the property in question, which occur in their usual ascriptive mode. Thus “redness is a color” means “the property of being red is a color”. Sometimes we produce a name for a property simply by using italics, as in “red is a color”, but this is just a conventional way to abbreviate the definite description “the property of being red” or “the property an object has in as much as it is red”. In these locutions “red” is functioning predicatively, not as a name. What we have are grammatically nominative expressions for properties that contain predicates that ascribe those properties in the usual predicative style. It is just that we seem to be able to name properties by using embedded predicates for those properties that are functioning predicatively. But these are really very odd names, being entirely derivative on predicative ways of denoting properties; they are not direct names of properties, capable of semantic independence from predicates used in the standard predicative way. They are not proper names of properties, and they cannot be understood without reference to the predicates from which they are built. They are actually descriptions, and hence akin to quantifiers: if we apply Russell’s theory, they are second-order quantifiers ranging over properties. Thus “the property of being red” means something like “there is a unique property P such that P is being red”.  That is an odd construction, with its peculiar use of “being red”: for what is being red except an object’s having the property of being red? We can’t get rid of the predicate from the putative name (description)—we can’t refer to the property without predicating it in some way. We can only name it by predicating it. The property resists being named in such a way that it breaks free from being predicated. So we might reformulate the mapping thesis as follows: properties are essentially predicable in the sense that there is no way to specify a property except by predicating it at some point. Properties can only be specified by at some point using expressions in predicate position, even if these occur inside syntactic singular terms, i.e. descriptions. There are no names for properties that work like ordinary names or descriptions, by referring to things without simultaneously predicating those things. It is as if the singular term is admitting: “Predication is really the only proper way to refer to a property—I am cheating by relying on that way”.  [1]

            The mapping thesis is therefore fundamentally correct: there is a tight correspondence between the ontological categories of object and property (particular and universal), on the one hand, and the logico-grammatical categories of subject and predicate, on the other. Objects must be named not predicated, and properties must be predicated not named (that is, the basic mode of reference to properties is via predicates). The link between language and reality is thus not arbitrary: the nature of reality (its metaphysical structure) is reflected in the nature of language (and thought). There could not be a language that named properties (primitively) and predicated objects. A property is the kind of thing that in its nature calls for expression by means of a predicate (it is essentially ascribable), while an object is the kind of thing that in its nature calls for expression by means of a name (it is essentially nameable). The way we speak of reality is dictated by reality in this basic respect. Grammar recapitulates ontology.


  [1] Someone might suggest that we can use a description like “the color of that cup” to name redness, and hence avoid using the predicate “red”. But that is not a rigid designator of the color red (unlike “the property of being red”) and can be understood without knowing that the color referred to is red. Only descriptions like “the property of being red” succeed in identifying their referent, and they employ a predicate of red. What there could not be is a language that contains rigidly designating directly referential identifying names for properties that are not parasitic on predicates for those properties.

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