Logical interpretation of subjects, the utterer and the utterance situation


I earlier wrote of the logical interpretation of subjects.1 There I suggested, following Russell, that the subject of a descriptive, active, meaningful (DAM) sentence should be interpreted as an existential quantifier (∃x) but I now believe that that this seems to depend on who made the utterance and in which situation. Suppose for instance that a positive atheist2 makes this utterance:

E1. God is omnipotent.

Do we really want to interpret this as:

E1′. (∃x)(Gx∧Ox)3

If we did, then the atheist would have contradicted himself since from (E1′) the existence of God follows. From this I conclude that this interpretation is implausible.

The utterer and the situation

One idea is to let (E1) represent a conditional when uttered by an atheist:

E1”. (∀x)(Gx→Ox)

Such a conditional is consistent with an atheistic position; It is not possible to deduce that God exists from (E1”). How should we think of sentences that are like (E1)? Should they always be interpreted as existential claims, should they always be interpreted as conditional claims or should the interpretation depend on the utterer and the circumstances in which it was uttered? The first option has already been dealt with and found implausible. Let’s consider the second option.

Consider this everyday sentence:

E2. The door is open.

If I said this to my roommate while we were both out in the garden, I think that he would think that I was silly or talking about some door far away. He would never interpret this sentence as a conditional which in that case is true. Is it true not because there is a door and it is open but it is true because there is no door at all in the garden. I imagine that it is like this in many other everyday situations. Suppose that is true, that is, everyday sentences like (E2) are most often best interpret as existential claims. We may allow that sentences involving non-everyday terms like “God” are often best interpret as conditionals.

These considerations indicate that the same sentence form Subject – sentence verb – subject predicate may yield different logical forms depending on which words are used. So, there is a disconnection between language form and logic form. This is undesirable.

Return to the first example. Suppose that a theist said the same sentence. Should it be interpreted as an existential claim or a conditional? I suppose that it is best to interpret it as an existential claim. But for the theist it would not make much of a difference since he also believes that God exists, and from that God exists, and the conditional, it follows that God is omnipotent.4

But even an atheist’s utterance of (E1) may best be interpreted as an existential claim. Suppose that the current american president is a closet atheist, that he is making a public speech and that the public believes that he is a theist. In that case it would be best for the public to interpret his words as an existential claim and not a conditional.


2One who believes that there is no God or no gods.

3Where “Gx” means x is God, and “Ox” means x is omnipotent.

4In symbols: From (∃x)(Gx) and (∀x)(Gx→Ox), (∃x)(Gx∧Ox) follows.

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