Strawson, Geach and Dummett on singular terms and predicates

Synthese 42 (2):275 - 295 (1979)
In the opening chapter of Subject and Predicate in Logic and Grammar, [1] Professor Strawson develops an explanation of the subjectpredicate distinction on the basis of a supposedly more fundamental distinction or contrast between, on the one hand, spatio-temporal particulars and, on the other, general concepts applicable to such particulars. At a basic level, he argues, these contrasted items occupy a central position in our thought about the world. They form the constituents of a fundamental type of judgment about the worldcomprising judgments to the effect that a certain spatio-temporal particular (pair, triple, etc., of such particulars) exemplifies a certain general concept. The basic class of subject-predicate sentences-the class for which the explanation is initially presented-comprises, Strawson claims, those sentences which are apt for the expression of judgments of this fundamental type. With respect to sentences of this basic class, a subject is, in effect, defined to be an expression which serves to specify the spatio-temporal particular (or one of the spatiotemporal particulars) in question in whatever judgment the sentence expresses, and a predicate is defined to be an expression which serves to specify the general concept in question. This explanation is subsequently generalized to cover subject-predicate sentences outside the basic class, such as sentences expressing judgments about abstract entities. I shall not be concerned with this part of Strawson's explanation. One advantage Strawson claims for this explanation is that it brings out that, and how, the subject-predicate distinction reflects certain fundamental features of our thought about the world. Another, not unconnected, advantage he claims for it is that it enables us to explain certain 'purely formal or syntactical' differences between subjects and predicates-such differences as that a predicate has always a fixed number of argument-places, whereas there is nothing analogous to this with singular terms (subject-expressions), and that predicates take the form of verb-phrases, subjects the form of noun phrases. Such purely formal or syntactical differences, he claims, themselves stand in need of explanation, and so cannot provide the materials for an adequate explanation of the subject-predicate distinction. Perhaps Strawson does not explicitly assert that no purely formal or syntactical characterization of the subject-predicate distinction could constitute an adequate explanation of it; but he leaves us in little doubt that this is his view of the matter
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