If we grant that there is a proposition wherein something meaningful is being asserted, does that require us to think of language as essentially representative in some way?

If language didn't contain the proposition, then language could be thought of only as a 'game' to be played, wherein our words do not represent anything beyond themselves and are rather pieces and tokens to be used in the game of our behavior.

But if there is granted the semantic value of the proposition, does that necessitate that at least this aspect of language must be considered representative?

And if so, is it really possible that language not be representative in this regard?

Isn't the proposition, or semantic affirmation/negation, an inescapable fact of our semantic behavior?

  • When you say 'representative' do you mean that propositions represent states of affairs or something of this sort?
    – E...
    Jun 11, 2016 at 16:31
  • @EliranH Not necesarrily. I mean that of our token-sentences, some such sentence signifies at least a mental affirmation (whether this mental affirmation in turn signifies something isn't really necesarry to the discussion at hand, which is concerned with the question of whether or not our words signify something). The point is whether the fact of mental affirmation requires us to consider our words to have meaning (being that no mental affirmation in our case can occur without the use of words).
    – Mos
    Jun 11, 2016 at 18:47
  • What is also assumed is that our words are void of semantic content outside of our injection of such content into them, so that if there is any sort of affirmation involving words, the source of this semantic content isn't the words themselves but our own semantic behavior.
    – Mos
    Jun 11, 2016 at 18:49
  • Propositions do not assert, any more than numbers do. Only utterers of sentences assert.
    – user20153
    Jun 11, 2016 at 19:02
  • 1
    What do you mean with propositions : " the primary bearers of truth-value, the objects of belief and other “propositional attitudes”, the referents of that-clauses, the meanings of sentences" or do you mean "a linguistic entity: statement, etc." ? Jun 12, 2016 at 10:50

1 Answer 1


I think that your second paragraph presents a false dichotomy, and things go awry from there.

The classes and objects in a computer language do represent things and actions, if only via a metaphor involving the programmers. But computing is clearly an abstract rule-based game. So the 'game' model does not remove 'representation'. If the program's output has an intended use, both models are involved.

They are separable, though. Consider a field of math like Group Theory, there the representation can be moved from one field of reference to another at will, as the goal is to isolate the behavior that all potential references share. Or even back off to counting. Abstractly 2 + 2 = 4 is not representational, as there could be two of anything involved, or you could simply be rehearsing empty rules for a future potential employment with referents.

So there are languages that are not representative because the statements made are never bound to specific referents. (Even when the process of the argument establishes potentially important facts about many given, relevant sets of applicable referents.) So, in a narrow sense, we observe exceptions, and your answer is 'no'.

It is tempting to create a place where those things 'live' and invest in logical or mathematical Platonism, but that only adds unnecessary complication. It seems possible, if we go there, that we can completely separate the two, and have the concrete 'participate' in the abstract. But it fails to explain why only a very narrow range of complete abstractions appeal to humans and get involved in our languages.

If there is all that real abstract stuff out there, what is special about Groups or Numbers? Clearly they are special, at least to us. And (I would propose) that is because we intuitively feel we will find referents for them. So are the elements of this mythical domains actually referents to begin with, or are the statements just empty forms seeking referents, to which they will be bound later?

So Platonism nets you a 'yes' answer to your question. But artificial constructions that stretch to cover the data and raise more questions than they answer are bad science, and I would put that 'yes' aside.

We are left with the observation that language may be nonreferential, but it loses meaning if it is truly free of referents, at least in the sense that we intend for abstract reasoning to have future concrete referents.

At the other extreme language is never truly bound to its referents, either: some definition involved always involves abstracting away elements of the concrete -- 'my dog' does not contain exactly the same set of molecules at the start and the end of any given statement about her. She is a furry abstraction.

It is more reasonable to see abstract formalism and real semantics as the opposite ends of a semiotic spectrum between which we interpolate in use according to the specificity of the ideas involved.

Language is an interlocking set of games of varying degrees of referentiality. Different important points along this continuum play different roles in communication and reasoning. Near one end, powerful languages like higher math are non-referential. Near the other deeply referential languages like literary descriptions give no leverage for reasoning but are useful in their own right.

  • I would have expected the considerations of some classical concepts of proposition like Russel, Frege, Austin, etc. and in what sense they have or have not to be referential by their very conception.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 14, 2016 at 13:34
  • @PhilipKlöcking Your expectations are not part of my consideration. If you feel this is an evasive answer, you might want to give a different one. As it is, it is already too long, and adding more examples of misleading answers that are basically either Platonic or Formalist would not add value, since the whole point is that both extremes ignore something important just to get the answer they like.
    – user9166
    Jun 14, 2016 at 14:21

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