Propositions and Statements

On Wednesday, I said that sentences express thoughts and paragraphs represent beliefs. Today, I want to argue that the sentence is to the proposition as the paragraph is to the statement (or, better, that the proposition is to the statement as the sentence to the paragraph). I take the words “proposition” and “statement” from the standard translations of Wittgenstein’s “Satz” and Foucault’s “énoncé” respectively, and it’s important to keep in mind that “Satz” just is the German word for “sentence” (though it has a meaning that goes beyond grammar) and “énoncé” is etymologically more closely related to “announcement” (though in the older sense of a “making known”). I want to relate our familiar units of prose composition (sentences, paragraphs) to these somewhat more sublime entities of epistemological analysis. I want to show how our prose relates to our thoughts and beliefs, our intelligence and our knowledge.

In Foucault’s “archaelogy of knowledge” a statement is a contribution to a discourse, or, as he sometimes puts it, a discursive formation is a distribution of statements. To participate in a discourse is to make statements that are recognized as such within it. A statement doesn’t have to be true to be part of a discourse and this is why some philosophers complain that Foucault isn’t sufficiently interested in Truth. He doesn’t think that the truth of a statement explains its role in our system of knowledge. For Foucault, it was much more important to understand the emergence of statements in history and the authority one needs to make a statement. He was trying analyze the competence, if you will, to speak for things, to represent reality.

A proposition as Wittgenstein understood it is, by contrast, essentially true or false. Its meaning (to use the spin that logical positivists like A. J. Ayer would put on it) is simply the fact in the world that makes it true (or false). Wittgenstein was influenced by Frege to think of popositions as functions whose values were “true” and “false” (rather than numerical values). It is a contribution to a larger argument and logical analysis allows us to trace the “truth functionality”, if you will, of the argument by considering the effects of the truth and falsity of the individual propositions on each other.

The meaning of a proposition is independent of who considers it. When we analyse an argument into the propositions it adduces, we are trying to establish a very “objective” view of the matter. We want each analytical unit (each proposition) to be true or false on its own terms — not on the basis of some ad hoc interpretation) so that, at least for as long as we’re thinking about the argument, the meaning of the terms (the words) in all the propositions is “invariant” from proposition to proposition. (If the words change their meaning as we go, we can’t keep track of the truth functions.) Not only do the meanings of the words remain stable, they mean the same thing to anyone who might say or hear, write or read them. In fact, properly speaking, there is no speaker and no listener. There’s just the proposition and its truth functionality, its meaning. The proposition is “disembodied”, if you will.

A statement, by contrast, must have an author and an audience. When we interpret a proposition we identify its objective content, whereas a statement must be interpreted with its subjective position in mind. A statement is always embodied in a speaker who is embedded in a situation. If understanding a proposition is all about grasping its “logic”, understanding a statement requires some “rhetorical” sensibilities. We must not just consider what the speaker is trying to say (what is meant and whether it’s true) but what the speaker is trying to do (why it is being said and in this way).

All this might make it seem like propositions and statements are utterly at odds with each other, but I think it’s far more interesting to consider how they complement each other. And I think this happens mainly in the act of composition, putting propositions together into statements by way of arranging sentences into paragraphs. A proposition is a mental event while a statement is a social event (it is the function of a belief). The sentence expresses the propisition (it is the content of a thought) while the paragraph represents the statement (it announces the belief).

I realise this has been a somewhat philosophical post. How does it relate to the everday business of scholarly writing? How does it help you in your work? I will obviously need to return to these issues, but let me conclude with something like an aphorism that I will promise to unpack in the future: A sentence is the work of a writer; a paragraph is the work of an author. Indeed, we are writers insofar as we compose sentences that say what we think. But we become authors when we put these sentences together to make statements in a discourse, when we write paragraphs that have a determined rhetorical posture.


Some notes for another post: There’s the beginnings of an analysis of the difference between “continental” and “analytic” philosophy in this post. The relationship between logical form and social function has been studied by Pierre Bourdieu. If a proposition merely has “logical form”; a statement has what Foucault calls an “enunciative modality” (style, subjectivity), and this resonates with everything from Barthes’ “morality of form” to Deleuze & Guattari’s “region of intensities” (plateaus) — and, indeed, Heidegger’s “place of forms”. In all this, it seems natural to think of the “analytic” philosophers as focused on what sentences do, while the “continentals” where operating at the level of paragraphs. Too much to unpack now, but I wanted to note it down for future reference.

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