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A CAUSAL THEORY OF 'ABOUT'

By ROBERT BOYD SKIPPER

Abstract

Whenever we make a claim about a fictional entity, we seem to embroil ourselves in familiar problems of reference. This appearance is misleading, because what a sentence is about bears a greater resemblance to a Fregean sense than to a reference. All previous attempts to define 'about' consist of two approaches: (1) "metalinguistic" theories of 'about', proposed by Ryle and Carnap, which fail to counterexamples wherein transparent contexts generate paradoxical consequences; and (2) "semantic" theories of 'about' proposed by Putnam and by Goodman, which fail to counterexamples wherein no term refers to that which the sentence is about. An untried alternative is to replace 'S is about k ' with 'S is about k for person p '. Clearly, such a definition need not confine itself to sentences, but may apply to works of art as well. A detailed examination of how one actually goes about arguing to an audience that some work of art W is about some topic, yields a definition that approximates normal usage, yet avoids many problematic notions, such as 'beliefs', 'ideas', and 'intentional states'. Necessary and sufficient truth conditions for 'W is about k for p at time T' turn out to include as major elements (1) a causal chain leading from W to a set of "explicit thoughts" and dispositions, and (2) the lack of an "aesthetic environment" which excludes W

Topics: Philosophy
Year: 1987
OAI identifier: oai:scholarship.rice.edu:1911/16107
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