T h e S t o i c s o n L a n g u a g e a n d R e a l i t y
The Ancient Greek philosophers are preoccupied with the question of the relationship between language and reality, and whether language is an adequate tool for understanding the world. At the heart of the Stoic responses to these puzzles are the peculiar entities called lekta, or ‘what can be said’. Distinct from the sentences that express them, lekta are roughly the meanings or contents of our speech. Since they represent the world as being a certain way, they are also the contents of our thoughts, including our action-guiding thoughts. Lekta are therefore considered by the Stoics to be a fundamental dimension of learning how to live well. My research focuses on how the Stoics conceived of the relation between language and reality as mediated by lekta. Despite the importance of these entities within the Stoic system, basic features of the account, such as their structure and representational powers, remain a mystery. In The Stoics on Language and Reality, I develop a new reconstruction of the Stoic theory of lekta, offering novel solutions to these puzzles.
Much of what survives of the Stoic theory of signification concerns one type of lekton: the assertible (axiōma). Since assertibles are complete lekta, or lekta corresponding to complete expressions, I begin by focusing on the most fundamental division of complete lekta. Against accounts which reduce complete lekta to the sentences that express them, I argue that the Stoics adhere to what I call a functionalprinciple for type-differentiation, according to which the differentiation of the types of complete lekta is governed not by the surface grammar of the sentences that express them, but by the notion of illocutionary force, or what the speaker intends to do in expressing a particular lekton. According to the functional principle, assertibles are capable of representing the world because of their unique function of asserting, which turns out to be a matter of expressing something that can be either true or false. This functional analysis then explains other puzzling features of the Stoic theory, such as what accounts for the completeness of complete lekta, why lekta are said to have a psychological dimension, and why other types of complete lekta which seem similar to assertibles, such as quasi-assertibles and suppositions, do not count as assertibles. With these features of assertibles explained, I then focus on reconstructing a new account of the structure of assertibles. On a dominant interpretation of the theory, since assertibles have two primary constituents that correspond roughly to the parts of the sentences that express them—a predicate and a subject term—it is assumed that the Stoics embrace what we now recognize as a Fregean theory of meaning. According to this, meanings are constituted purely by abstract semantic entities at the level of what is expressed, distinct from the objects in the world to which they refer. Against this interpretation, I reconstruct a semantics of assertibles, in which assertibles are at least partially constituted by the objects in the world to which they refer. This new interpretation is based on a closer examination of assertibles containing a demonstrative reference in the subject term. I argue that a study of the subsistence conditions and the epistemically privileged status of these assertibles challenges the Fregean interpretation. I show that these features are explained by the fact that these assertibles contain their referents, or objects in the world as a constituent. I then show that this analysis of the structure of assertibles does indeed extend to all types of assertibles—even those without a demonstrative reference—by developing an account of the Stoic notion of the case (ptōsis) not as a quality or a word form, but as a particularizing event that is a feature of a particular item. As such, my reconstruction shows that Stoic assertibles are structured similar to Russellian propositions, insofar as they are not constituted by abstract senses, but by objects in the world and their features. The relation between language and the world, then, is not mediated by a mysterious, wholly abstract entity. Rather, language represents the world because the world is a part of language, rendering language an adequate tool for understanding reality.
I am developing projects related to three clusters of questions that are raised by this reconstruction of the Stoic theory.
The first cluster asks what this reconstruction implies for the category of items in Stoic ontology to which lekta belong. Stoic ontology divides all items in the world into bodies and incorporeals. While the hallmark of bodily existence is the capacity to act or be acted upon, there is a long-standing puzzle in the scholarship on Stoic metaphysics about what, apart from causal impotence, unites lekta, time, void, and place into the class of incorporeals.
The second cluster of questions asks what light this new conception of lekta sheds on historical motivations behind the Stoic theory of signification. With few surviving testimonia directly addressing this, scholars often look to philosophers before the Stoics, such as Plato and Aristotle, in order to construct a narrative about what the Stoic motivations behind the theory of lekta might have been. A fresher interpretation of complete lekta as (at least partially) constituted by the items to which their subject terms refer, along with a re-emergence of interest in Aristotle's theory of signification, both challenge the popular view that lekta are a reaction to Aristotle's failure to account for empty names, or distinguish between sense and reference. In addition, reviving the theories of "minor" figures in ancient and Hellenistic philosophy can help develop a more sophisticated and historically-informed story about the influences leading to the Stoic theory.
Finally, the Stoic theory is sometimes revered by contemporary philosophers of language for its resemblance to proposition theory. The third cluster of questions asks how the Stoic theory can inform ongoing debates about meaning in contemporary metaphysics and philosophers of language, not only as it pertains to the proposition, but also related to puzzles about the meanings of questions and imperatives, and the distinction between content and force. The Stoic interest in these problems shows that the Stoic theory has much to offer contemporary philosophy of language.