Structured propositions and Benacerraf

I’ve recently been reading Jeff King’s book on structured propositions. It’s really good, as you would expect. There’s one thing that’s bothering me though: I can’t quite get my head around what’s wrong with the simplest, most naïve account of the nature of propositions. (Disclaimer: this might all turn out to be very simple-minded to those in the know. I’d be happy to get pointers to the literature (hey, maybe it’ll be to bits of Jeff’s book I haven’t got to yet…)

The first thing you encounter when people start talking about structured propositions is notation like [Dummett, being a philosopher]. This is supposed to stand for the proposition that Dummett is a philosopher, and highlights the fact that (on the Russellian view) Dummett and the property of being a philosopher are components of the proposition. The big question is supposed to be: what do the brackets and comma represent? What sort of compound object is the proposition? In what sense does it have Dummett and being a philosopher as components? (If you prefer a structured intension view, so be it: then you’ll have a similar beast with the individual concept of Dummett and the worlds-intension associated with “is a philosopher” as ‘constituents’. I’ll stick with the Russellian view for illustrative purposes.)

For purposes of modelling propositions, people often interpret the commas as brackets as the ordered n-tuples of standard set theory. The simplest, most naïve interpretation of what structured propositions are, is simply to identify them as n-tuples. What’s the structured proposition itself? It’s a certain kind of set. What sense are Dummett and the property of being a philosopher constituents of the structured proposition that Dummett is a philosopher? They’re elements of the transitive closure of the relevant set.

So all that is nice and familiar. So what’s the problem? In his ch 1. (and, in passing, in the SEP article here) King mentions two concerns. In this post, I’ll just set the scene by talking about the first. It’s a version of a famous Benacerraf worry, which anyone with some familiarity with the philosophy of maths will have come across (King explicitly makes the comparison). The original Benacerraf puzzle is something like this: suppose that the only abstract things are set like, and whatever else they may be, the referents of arithmetical terms should be abstract. Then numerals will stand for some set or other. But there are all sorts of things that behave like the natural numbers within set theory: the constructions known as the (finite) Zermelo ordinals (null, {null}, {{null}}, {{{null}}}…) and the (finite) von Neumann ordinals (null, {null}, {null,{null}}…) are just two. So there’s no non-arbitrary theory of which sets the natural numbers are.

The phenomenon crops up all over the place. Think of ordered n-tuples themselves. Famously, within an ontology of unordered sets, you can define up things that behave like ordered pairs: either [a,b]={{a},{a,b}} or {{{a},null},{{b}}}. (For details see It appears there’s no non-arbitrary reason to prefer a theory that ‘reduces’ ordered to unordered pairs one way or the other.

Likewise, says King, there looks to be no non-arbitrary choice of set-theoretic representation of structured propositions (not even if we spot ourselves ordered sets as primitive to avoid the familiar ordered-pair worries). Sure, we *could* associate the words “the proposition that Dummett is a philosopher” with the ordered pair [Dummett, being a philosopher]. But we could also associate it with the set [being a philosopher, Dummett] (and choices multiply when we get to more complex structured propositions).

One reaction to the Benacerrafian challenge is to take it to be a decisive objection to an ontological story about numbers, ordered pairs or whatever that allows only unordered sets as a basic mathematical ontology. My own feeling is (and this is not uncommon, I think) that this would be an overreaction. More strongly: no argument that I’ve seen from the Benacerraf phenomenon to this ontological conclusion seems to me to be terribly persuasive.

What we should admit, rather, is that if natural numbers or ordered pairs are sets, it’ll be indefinite which sets they are. So, for example, [a,b]={{a},{a,b}} will be neither definitely true nor definitely false (unless we simply stipulatively define the [,] notation one way or another rather than treating it as pre-theoretically understood). Indefiniteness is pervasive in natural language—everyone needs a story about how it works. And the idea is that whatever that story should be, it should be applied here. Maybe some theories of indefiniteness will make these sort of identifications problematic. But prominent theories like Supervaluationism and Epistemicism have neat and apparently smooth theories of what it we’re saying when we call that identity indefinite: for the supervaluationist, it (may) mean that “[a,b]” refers to {{a},{a,b}} on one but not all precisifications of our set-theoretic language. For the epistemicist, it means that (for certain specific principled reasons) we can’t know that the identity claim is false. The epistemicist will also maintains there’s a fact of the matter about which identity statement connecting ordered and unordered sets is true. And there’ll be some residual arbitrariness here (though we’ll probably have to semantically ascend to find it)—but if there is arbitriness, it’s the sort of thing we’re independently committed to to deal with the indefiniteness rife throughout our language. If you’re a supervaluationist, then you won’t admit there’s any arbitriness: (standardly) the identity statement is neither true nor false, so our theory won’t be committed to “making the choice”.

If that’s the right way to respond to the general Benacerraf challenge, it’s the obvious thing to say in response to the version of that puzzle that arises for the Benacerraf case. And this sort of generalization of the indefiniteness maneuver to philosophical analysis is pretty familiar, it’s part of the standard machinery of the Lewisian hoardes. Very roughly, the programme goes: figure out what you want the Fs to do, Ramsify away terms for Fs and you get a way to fix where the Fs are amidst the things you believe in: they are whatever satisfy the open sentence that you’re left with. Where there are multiple, equally good satisfiers, then deploy the indefiniteness maneuver.

I’m not so worried on this front, for what I take to be pretty routine reasons. But there’s a second challenge King raises for the simple, naïve theory of structured propositions, which I think is trickier. More on this anon.

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