Expressivism, normative content, and propositions
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date30/11/2021
Brown, James Lindsey David
The thesis of this thesis is that expressivists can and should develop a theory of normative propositions that can play an explanatory role in their theory of normative thought and discourse. It has been widely assumed that expressivists cannot make explanatory appeal to normative propositions because propositional content is representational in the following sense: a proposition is or determines a way that reality must be when that proposition is true. If a normative proposition is or determines a way reality must be when that proposition is true, and believing a proposition involves taking that proposition to be true, it follows that believing a normative proposition involves taking reality to be some particular way. But expressivists deny that normative thought represents reality in this way. Rather, normative thought is best explained as having some distinctive nonrepresentational function, such as motivating our actions and coordinating our attitudes. As such, almost all expressivists have rejected the existence of normative propositions, except in a deflationary and hence non-explanatory sense. However, by rejecting the existence of normative propositions, expressivists face a number of serious problems in relation to explaining normative thought and discourse. By positing propositions as the objects of our attitudes and speech acts, we can provide a straightforward and systematic characterisation of our thought and talk in terms of the things we are related to in believing, desiring, asserting, denying, and so on. For example, logically complex attitudes can be explained in terms of the logical complexity of their propositional content. Rational connections between attitudes, such as inconsistency and entailment relations between beliefs, can be explained in terms of the properties of their propositional objects. Different attitude types with the same content can be explained in terms of a subject’s standing in different relations to the same proposition. And quantification over attitude contents can be explained in terms of a domain of propositional objects over which such quantification occurs. By rejecting normative propositions, expressivists must provide alternative explanations of these features of normative thought and discourse. Although a number of philosophers have attempted to provide such an alternative, such attempts face a number of serious difficulties. Moreover, even supposing some adequate alternative is forthcoming, there is a remaining problem of explaining why it is that both normative and non-normative thought possess many of the same features but for completely different reasons. Problems such as these have more recently led some to suggest that expressivists should embrace the existence of normative propositions within their theory of normative thought and discourse. This thesis takes up this idea and examines a number of different frameworks in which expressivists might develop a theory of normative propositions. How could an expressivist ever fully embrace the existence of normative propositions? My simple answer is that expressivists should reject the assumption that normative propositions are representational. If a normative proposition is not or does not determine a way reality must be when it is true, then believing that proposition need not involve representing reality as being some particular way or other. I explore several different views about propositions and argue that they each admit of generalisation such that some but not all propositions are representational. I argue that some of these views are better than others for the purposes of expressivism. My discussion of propositions is also meant to contribute to theorising in the philosophy of mind and language about what propositions are. For if you think there might be something right about the expressivist idea that normative thought is not representational like descriptive thought, then you should think that some views of propositions are better than others in light of my arguments about why expressivists can and should embrace a nonrepresentational view about normative propositions.