According to my understanding, language is an attempt to describe the properties of objects. A sentence can only succeed so far as to be able to list the properties or characteristics.

There are words which have only denotation and by themselves have no meaning. For example 'aeroplane'. It only serves the purpose of denoting a class of objects called aeroplanes. If I were to define 'aeroplane', do I have to list all properties?

But properties can be derived from other properties. Which properties are sufficient to constitute definition?

Is it always guaranteed that properties can be fully substituted for the denotation? Does anything lies beyond properties? That is, if sentences are descriptions, and they can only list properties, are there some 'inherent meanings' language (or properties) can never capture?

  • I wonder if you're asking about the 'problem of attributes'. We can describe properties but not that to which properties belong. Is that it? Properties are enough to define an object in order to distinguish it, but do not refer to that part of the object that is not a property. This is what led Kant to the 'thing in itself', But I'm unsure whether this is what you're asking about. . . ,
    – user20253
    Jan 18, 2019 at 12:57
  • @PeterJ : I cannot conclude if this answers if listed properties can be fully substituted for denotation? It makes sense to settle if properties are able to distinguish; that is the aim of research. But the 'thing in itself' -is this just a mental construct or has any sort of denotational reality? All that exists are just properties?
    – Ajax
    Jan 18, 2019 at 13:06
  • 1
    See Theories of Meaning. Jan 18, 2019 at 13:36
  • "If I were to define 'aeroplane', do I have to list all properties?" We cannot obviously define everything. Jan 18, 2019 at 13:37
  • 1
    @Ajax - I can't respond fully here, but your comment to me above raises all the right questions. Your question leads naturally into the the 'problem of attributes', which is what led Kant to the thing-in-itself as a logical necessity. The alternative, as you say, is that all that exists are properties. A solution for this problem requires exploring beyond the fundamental dualism of Kant and his tradition.
    – user20253
    Jan 21, 2019 at 14:57

2 Answers 2


According to my understanding language is an attempt to describe the properties of objects

Language is primarily, fundamentally and essentially an I & thou relation and not an I & it relation. That language does describe the properties of objects occurs as a by product of this essential purpose of language and not primarily so.

It seems from your question you are more concerned with understanding how it is that language distinguishes objects rather than characterises them; for example, an aeroplane from a lamppost. One need not define or characterise an aeroplane or a lamp-post to do this. One needs only a single property to distinguish between the two.

Were you distinguishing a larger class of objects then you would require many more distinguishing properties, and generally it's simpler to group together properties then.

Is it always guaranteed that one can always substitute properties for denotations?


  • 1
    If one cannot always substitute properties for denotations, then what? What is the implication of this fact?
    – Ajax
    Jan 18, 2019 at 15:45

I think if I may say so that you are a tad narrow in your characterisation of language.

Properties and language

Language must be used to refer to objects if it is to describe the properties of objects, so at least that extension is required. And since there can be no description of objects without reference to those objects, I should have thought that if anything it is the reference to objects that is logically prior in our characterisation of language.

'A sentence can only succeed so far as to be able to list the properties or characteristics.' 'The' properties ? All the properties or only those relevant to the point or purpose of the sentence ?

Among properties do you count negative properties as real or genuine ?

Do you allow emergent properties ? Disjunctive properties ?

(1) Are properties universals or tropes? (2) Are properties attributes of particulars, or are particulars just bundles of properties? (3) Are properties categorical (qualitative) in nature, or are they powers? (4) If a property attaches to a particular, is this predication contingent, or is it necessary? (David M. Armstrong, 'Four Disputes about Properties', Synthese, Vol. 144, No. 3, Dispositions and Laws of Nature (Apr., 2005), pp. 309-320: 309.)

Properties and definition

In a definition, X = Y, the properties included in Y can be (a) only necessary, (b) only sufficient (as in Wittgenstein's family resemblance concepts), or (c) necessary and sufficient, to press the matter no further. Any of these, (a) - (c), may be sufficient to constitute definition?

Language and communication

Aside from this tangle of issues about properties, I'd stress the communicative function of language:

We can use [language] to convey wishes and commands, to tell truths and to tell lies, to influence our hearers and to vent our emotions, and to formulate ideas which could probably never arise if we had no language in which to embody them. We can even use language to communicate with ourselves; in fact, such self communication seems to constitute much of what we call "thinking." (William G. Moulton, 'The Nature of Language', Daedalus, Vol. 102, No. 3, Language as a Human Problem (Summer, 1973), pp. 17-35: 17.)

Not all of these functions involve, so far as I can see, the description of properties of objects; and all of them, I venture, at least do far more than this as part of their essential purpose.

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