A Fact is a Propositional State

My title is the somewhat overconfident answer to the question I posed in a previous post. If you are reading this on an electronic device, it is a fact that the device is turned on. It is also a fact that this post is being displayed on your screen. You can, presumably, turn off just the screen. The first fact (that your device is on) will remain the case while second (that it is displaying this post) will cease to be. Or you can simply close the browser. What’s interesting here is that you will now again have destroyed the fact that the post is being displayed, but you will have done it by a different means. The screen is still on, after all.

I know this sort of philosophizing can seem tedious. I was very careful not to say that the fact is “true” or “false”. Truth is not a virtue of facts–they simply are or are not, they “obtain”, we sometimes say, or don’t–while statements of fact may be true or false. But statements may also be many other things, like long or short, articulate or muddled, obnoxious or boring, controversial or conventional. Their truth value is only one of their many features. My point is that propositions are the sorts of things that are only true or false. Or rather, they have something else too: a meaning. And what they “mean” is the very state of things that makes them (or would make them) true.

A proposition is true or false of a fact.  A fact is the truth or falsity of a proposition. That’s the sense which I want to claim that facts, like beliefs about them, are “propositional states”. They are states of affairs with “propositional content”. The belief and the fact (and the approximating statement of that fact, for that matter) have the proposition common. If I believe something and tell you, and if you believe me, then there are two beliefs, a statement (made by me to you) and a fact, but only one proposition, which is the common logical structure of them all.

A prose paragraph is usually a statement of fact along with reasons to believe it. It can be very useful to you as a writer to clarify the propositional content for yourself. Isolate it from the rhetorical flourish, if you will. Imagine the fact and it’s simplest statement. If I’m right about this, what you will now have in mind is the proposition. And it belongs as much to the fact as to the statement and the belief.

2 thoughts on “A Fact is a Propositional State

  1. Hey Thomas. Thank for inviting to me to comment. My comments, however, are dry and boring:

    I think the commonality bit is slighly fishy. Rather than speaking of some commonality, we need only to say the following: ‘That spring has begun’ is simultanously the sort of thing which can be believed and the sort of thing which can be the case. Of course, the same goes for ‘that the screen is turned off’ or ‘that the month August is named after a Roman emperor’ etc. etc.

    Also: it is a confusion to say that “there are TWO beliefs”, because two people believe the SAME thing. Two chairs which are exactly alike are qualitatively identical, but numerically distinct: One grey Eames chair might be in your department and another one exactly like it might be in my apartment. Beliefs too can be qualitatively identical if they are exactly alike, but beliefs are not the sort of thing which can be numerically distinct or numerically identical. If you believe something and I believe it too, then we believe the same thing.

    1. I believe that, even when we believe the same thing, you and I hold two different beliefs. You believe not just that we believe the same thing but that we hold the same belief. That’s an interesting and important disagreement. My suggestion that your belief and mine have a (n indivisible) proposition in common is an attempt to grant your point while insisting that we are only of like minds, not one mind.

      The reason I want to distinguish our beliefs is like my reason to distinguish between the style of statements. Two statements may be true for the same reason: because the same fact obtains (because the same proposition is true). But one statement may be more elegant than another. Likewise, you and I may believe the same thing. But I may believe it more strongly than you. That alone, tells us that the beliefs can be different.

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