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  • Introduction
  • Ileana Paul

This issue addresses questions surrounding predication. Predication is typically defined as making a claim or statement—that is, saying something that is truth-evaluable. The canonical manner of achieving predication would appear to be the sentence, made up of a noun phrase (NP), e.g., [NP Sandy] and a verb phrase (VP), e.g., [VP plays the fiddle].

Two central questions arise concerning this basic view of predication. The first has to do with what varieties predication comes in. The second is about various ways of achieving predication.

It helps to situate these questions if we begin with some (simplified) history of philosophy. Predication, according to Aristotle, is a matter of form. Predication involves a subject, a predicate, and a special way of putting them together, namely conjoining them into a sentence. This connects closely with our initial gloss of predicating as making a claim: Aristotle noted that one cannot make a claim with a name alone (e.g., Sandy) nor with just a predicate (e.g. , plays the fiddle). Nor is it sufficient to have a list of subjects and predicates. Rather, one needs all three just noted ingredients: the subject, the predicate, and their combination within a unitary sentence. The conception of predication also connects closely to the idea that the sentence is the canonical means of expressing predication: in the "old logic", this is true by definition.

The philosopher and mathematician Gottlob Frege introduced a rather more abstract understanding of predication. The traditional view in Aristotle's "old logic" ties predication closely to a particular form: a subject-predicate sentence. In the "new logic" of the 19th century, in contrast, it was recognized that predication is about a certain kind of content. More specifically, the essence of predication, for Frege, is [End Page 173] that it results in content that is capable of being true or false. For example, while combining the name Sandy with the predicate plays the fiddle may create something that expresses a predication, this is not what predication is. More specifically, and still simplifying, for Frege the essence of predication was a matter of a function applying to an argument, yielding a truth-evaluable proposition: for example, the person Sandy being input into the unsaturated function λx.plays-the-fiddle(x). A final historical view, familiar from Strawson (1950), understands predication as a kind of action. Predicating is something that speakers do.

Frege's conception of predication as a kind of content already permits our twin questions to arise. One can ask whether there exists a variety of function-argument applications that yield truth-evaluable contents, and if so what they are. For instance, there is the application of a first-order function to an object; but maybe there is also the application of a second-order function to a first-order one. And so on. One can equally ask whether there is more than one formative that expresses predication: Does it, for example, always require a sentence consisting of a subject and predicate? Strawson's conception opens up still further the range of ways of achieving predication. Maybe, in particular, an agent can predicate without using a formative that is capable of expression predication: for example, pointing at Sandy and saying "fiddler" (see Stainton 2006). Indeed, maybe an agent can predicate without using a formative at all, but rather a gesture, even a raised eyebrow.

Given this brief history, one can situate the recent debates in linguistics. There have been a number of proposals about how predication can be achieved in natural language. Williams (1980, 1983, 1987) argues that predication takes place via thematic role assignment. More precisely, a given head (e.g., V) assigns thematic roles to its arguments, but one role is assigned outside of the maximal projection (e.g., VP). The subject is the external argument of the head, and it is this external thematic role assignment that expresses predication. Rothstein demurs. She notes the existence of pleonastic (non-thematic) subjects: here we seem to have predication but without thematic role assignment (see Rothstein 1983, 1995, 2001). She, however, retains the aim of capturing Frege's content-conception of predication in terms of natural language syntax...


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