Understanding complex demonstratives: The ground of reference in sensory signals

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Philip L. Peterson


Complex demonstratives, Ground of reference, Sensory signals

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Philosophy


A singular complex demonstrative is a noun phrase consisting of a token of 'this' or 'that' followed by descriptive text. Gareth Evans notes that a person must utilize sensory information, i.e. signals, to understand tokens of these demonstratives. On the basis of Evans's insight, I develop a theory of complex demonstrative understanding. Our recognition that a specific item is relevant to the evaluation of a demonstrative utterance across all circumstances of evaluation is also crucial to the theory. I explain this by importing David Kaplan's idea of a 'dthat' operation into the realm of thought. Initially, we utilize descriptive content to make a complex demonstrative referent an object of thought, but we proceed to think the item free of this descriptive content.

Since the theory focuses on the thoughts we employ to understand complex demonstratives and, thereby, their embedding utterances, it is primarily about reference in thought. However, it would be incomplete if it did not address complex demonstrative reference. At the end I argue that enduring sub-sentential linguistic conventions are surrounded by satellite practices. One family of such practices is labeled linguistic instrumentalism . We assign reference to demonstratives in such as way as to maintain expectation of communicative success with them.

Because complex demonstratives are used in a family of complicated ways, I concentrate on the most basic kind, referent-grounded complex demonstratives . These singular demonstratives are understood directly on the basis of sensory signals, with direct sensory information-based thoughts . As a present tense example, a person sees a car, points, and says, "That car is beautiful." As a past tense example, the next day the person says, "That car was beautiful." According to my theory, we make the referents of these demonstratives objects of thought by thinking of them as standing in a specific position relative to sensory signals received from them. Although I realize that this idea is dismissed by most, and that acceptance of it hinges on developments in functionalist theories of thought organization, I claim that it saves the main appearances better than any other available.


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