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  • Propositions and Propositional Acts
  • D.K. Johnston (bio)

Suppose that John asks, 'Is the window open?' and Mary replies, 'The window is open.' Then John and Mary have produced two distinct utterances, and in doing so, they have performed two different kinds of speech act. But clearly there is something that these utterances have in common. According to the standard theory of speech acts, in these utterances different illocutionary forces have been applied to the same propositional content. Similarly, if John and Mary both believe that roses are red, the same propositional content is attributed to their individual mental states.

The propositional contents of utterances and beliefs have traditionally been identified with propositions. In turn, propositions have been characterized as language-independent particulars that can be re-identified in different contexts. In this article, I will argue that various phenomena that have hitherto been explained by propositions are better understood in terms of propositional acts.

I The structure of propositional acts

Propositional acts have long been recognized as components of illocutionary acts.1 But a propositional act has usually been characterized [End Page 435] simply as the act of expressing a proposition. However, propositional acts have components, just as illocutionary acts do. For when Mary asserts that the window is open by uttering the sentence, 'The window is open,' she has: (i) referred to a particular object, namely, the window; (ii) designated a particular property, namely, being open; and (iii) specified a particular time, namely, the time of her utterance.

Clearly these components are themselves speech acts. And it is also clear that these same speech acts are performed when John asks whether the window is open by uttering the sentence, 'Is the window open?' What Mary's assertion and John's question have in common is that they involve the performance of the same type of propositional act. There is nothing to be gained by postulating the existence of an additional propositional entity that is expressed by these utterances.2

I will call the components (i), (ii), and (iii) respectively the demonstrative, descriptive, and temporal components of a propositional act.3 Of course, propositional acts can have much more complicated structures than this. For example, in the propositional act performed by an utterance of the sentence, 'The window is open and the door is closed,' there are two demonstrative components, and two descriptive components; while an utterance of the sentence, 'The window is open if the door is closed,' involves the subordination of one propositional act to another. However, these demonstrative, descriptive, and temporal components do seem to constitute the minimum structure required for a propositional act.4 In any case, they are all that need be noted for the purposes of the discussion to follow.

In addition to the components of a propositional act, we must also distinguish what I will call its demonstrative, descriptive, and temporal correlates. The demonstrative correlate of a propositional act is simply whatever is referred to by its demonstrative component. For example, [End Page 436] when Mary says 'The window is open,' the demonstrative correlate of the propositional act she performs is the window. Similarly, the descriptive correlate will be whatever is associated with the descriptive component. Thus the descriptive correlate of Mary's utterance5 will be the property of being open. Finally, the temporal correlate of a propositional act is the moment or period of time specified by its temporal component. In the case of Mary's utterance, the temporal correlate is the time at which the utterance occurs.

A propositional act is typically performed by the utterance of a sentence. When this is so, the components of the propositional act can often be associated with particular elements of that sentence. Thus when Mary utters the sentence 'The window is open,' the demonstrative correlate is the referent of the subject term 'the window,' the descriptive correlate is designated by the verbal adjective 'open,' and the temporal correlate is specified by the tense inflection of the verb 'be.' I will call these sentence elements the demonstrative, descriptive, and temporal devices of the propositional act.

On the analysis I am advocating here, the propositional content of an utterance is not determined by the...


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