Notes on Singular Thoughts


 Singular Thoughts:

These refer to how ordinary, middle sized objects themselves, and can figure in thoughts that are among the contents of the mind.

 According to Anthony Brueckner, John McDowell argues that the appearance of singular thoughts destroys the Cartesian philosophy of mind. Contrary to McDowell’s claim however, the existence of singular thoughts, according to Anthony Brueckner, is compatible with the idea that our representations of the world are completely unfaithful to it. Russell argues when I entertain a singular proposition (For example, ‘This Toy’), I assert that there are objects of my acquaintance within the statement. This acquaintance for Russell, comes from the sense-data that is derived from external sources. In McDowell’s neo-Russelian view, an image of an object such as ‘cats’ is immediately present in the mind. When I think ‘there is a cat on the mat’, the thought is immediately present in my mind. Thus, we are lead to believe that the inner and outer realms are interpenetrating, not separated by the charistically Cartesian divide. A further anti-Cartesian concept about singular thoughts, is that they can be individualized. In order for two distinct singular thoughts to count as sharing common content, the same object (or objects) must figure in the thoughts. A Cartesian conception meanwhile, would argue that the two distinct thoughts in ‘the cat on the mat’ share a common content, even if they occur in different external circumstances. This allows us to separate the problematic elements of Cartesianism, with McDowell less offensive picture of mind. For McDowell, it seems to be an ‘infallibly knowable fact’ that ‘its seeming to one that things are thus and so’.

Russell’s Theory of Descriptions

Russell refuses that there can be an illusion of understanding singular propositions, involving the illusion of entraining a singular proposition expressed by it. Without a suitably related object, no such proposition available to be entertained. For example:

The King of France is Bald.

For Russell, since there is no king of France, by extension of this he cannot be bald. There is no suitably related object (e.g. the king of France), which is needed to entertain the proposition. McDowell questions why we should disallow the illusion of entertaining a singular proposition. Why must we be content with Russell’s non-singular propositions that would be associated with all alike? Although someone who understands a sentence in which a definite description occurs may be acquainted with an appropriate object, since we can understand an object through independently intelligible vocabulary makes it absurd that we must necessarily be acquainted with an object. This appeal to acquaintance seems out of place. An acquaintance with the object holds the idea that we are acquainted with the object in the mind in Russell’s view.

John McDowell’s view


Acquaintance is thus perception between mind and object which operates egocentrically, whereby the perceiver is able to locate himself through the means of an object. Objects are immediately present in the mind. By mind however, it is important to remember that McDowell does not argue that the mind is in the head or a purely subjective phenomenon. It can either refer to the back and forth process of coming to understand yourself through an object, or consciousness which expands into the outside world. McDowell faces some problems however. A guy having a LSD trip may be under the illusion of standing in relation to an object that would count as an acquaintance. There is thus the possibility that the subject may be wrong about his own thought, if he believes that he is experiencing sense-data that was derived from the external world. This calls into question how we are meaningfully meant to distinguish actual external acquaintance and pseudo external acquaintance. In having pseudo-singular thoughts, though I think this thing is thus and so. It merely seems thus and so. If I had LSD, ‘there’s a cat on the mat’, would not share the same source content as a singular thought derived from the external world ‘there’s a cat on the mat.’ A thinker’s mental life, cannot be derived completely from mere seemings. They must be derived from an actual singular thought somewhere down the line. Yet this is a view held by Descartes in his Analysis of dreams also, so as Brueckner argues, the gap between Cartesian theory and McDowell’s own view is not as wide as McDowell would have us believe.


It is useful to pursue a less constricted conception of object-dependant propositions for their anti-Cartesian implications. Inner life in a fully Cartesian picture takes place in an autonomous realm, transparent to the introspective awareness of its subject. Russell credits Descartes with showing us that subjective things are the most certain. Even in this inward region of reality however where we can halt scepticism, we still involves admitting we have no knowledge of the outside world. But why should this encourage us to defeatism? Why must infallible knowledge be necessary for us having a grasp on the world? For McDowell, could we not construct a conception of fallible outer knowledge which could peacefully exist with a conception of infallibly acquired inner knowledge? Hence, his extension of the realm of mind into the outside world. Descartes offers a vision of subjectivity as a region of reality which is transparent – assessable through and through – to the capacity for knowledge that is newly recognized when appearances are bought within the range of truth and knowledge. For McDowell, there are no facts about the inner realm besides what is infallibly assessable to the newly recognized capacity to acquire knowledge. Difference does not exist in the inner realm, but is wholly located in the outer realm. Difference seems to be wholly located in the outside world, yet we also seem out of touch with the world altogether. The Cartesian problem posits for McDowell how our experience can reveal things in the world we live in.

Ancient Scepticism

Ancient scepticism did not call into question our possession of the world, it was rather to drive a wedge between living in the world and knowing about it. We might have some sort of possession or conception of the world, but how would we know about it? Descartes seemed to call into question not just if we can know about the world, but are we actually living in it? How would we know if we were dreaming or not? Yet McDowell argues why, if our senses may not be adequate in gaining knowledge of the world, must there be a loss of it? The ancient sceptics did not thing to know of the world was necessary in order to possess it. In ancient scepticism, the notion of truth is restricted to how things (unknowably) are in the world about us, so how things appear to us is not envisaged as something that would have truth value. Descartes extends the range of truth and knowledge to the appearances on the basis of which we naively think we know of the ordinary world. While Descartes plays with the idea that things which appear to us are things as they actually are, the ancient sceptics argue that appearances are not open to question in regard to the infallibility of facts knowable to the subject.