Evidential Constraints on Singular Thought


  • I am very grateful to Tim Crane, Mark Crimmins, Nick Kroll, Krista Lawlor, Michael Raven, and Barry C. Smith for helpful conversations about the ideas discussed in this essay, to Anil Gomes and Rory Madden for questions and feedback during a presentation at the Institute of Philosophy in London, and especially to John Campbell, Krista Lawlor, Mike Martin, and two anonymous referees for invaluable feedback on previous drafts.


In this article, I argue that in typical cases of singular thought, a thinker stands in an evidential relation to the object of thought suitable for providing knowledge of the object's existence. Furthermore, a thinker may generate representations that purport to refer to particular objects in response to appropriate, though defeasible, evidence of the existence of such an object. I motivate these constraints by considering a number of examples introduced by Robin Jeshion in support of a view she calls ‘cognitivism’ (Jeshion, 2010b). Although I agree with Jeshion that acquaintance is not required for all cases of singular thought, I argue that her account doesn't go far enough in rejecting semantic instrumentalism, the view that we can generate singular thoughts arbitrarily, by manipulating the mechanisms of direct reference.