The Unity of Declarative Sentence



The problem of the unity of the sentence is to explain how a sentence manages to say something, to ‘make a move in the language-game’. In the particular case of the declarative sentence, which is characterized essentially by its ability to say something true or false (cf. Aristotle De Int. ch. 4), the challenge is to explain how the sentence as a whole manages to attract this property, given that its components do not have it. In his book Language, Thought and Falsehood in Ancient Greek Thought, Nicholas Denyer implicitly commits himself to two conflicting accounts of what this unity consists in. The conflict is illuminating because it can be seen as giving expression to two attractive but apparently opposed thoughts on the nature of the sentence: the thought that all significant components of a sentence must have reference, or semantic role (a position which in the writings of Donald Davidson and Michael Dummett is truistic), and the thought that the semantically significant components of the sentence cannot all be names, since then the sentence would lose its peculiar unity — its ability to say something (true or false) — and degenerate into a mere list. In this paper I shall try, using Denyer's text as my point of departure, to resolve the conflict by suggesting how a unified sentence can, after all, be composed of names.

The first account which Denyer gives of the unity of the sentence is not offered as such, but it emerges from his discussion of the differences between three primitive kinds of language, which he calls Agglomerative (A), Orthographic (O) and Sentential (S). The three languages have in common that their basic ‘sentences’ all consist of linear strings of unambiguous names of primary elements, themselves arranged linearly. Thereafter they diverge in the following respects. In A and O, these basic ‘sentences’ are, according to Denyer, only by courtesy so called, for they are really complex names; but whereas in A the order in which the names are listed is insignificant, in O it is significant. Thus ‘ab’, for example, would in A merely designate a complex object composed of the simple objects designated by ‘a’ and ‘b’, and is not semantically distinguishable from ‘ba’; in O, on the other hand, these two composite names additionally signify two different ways in which the complex consisting of a and b may be composed, for example, that a is to the left of b, and that b is to the left of a, respectively. In S, by contrast with both A and O, the basic ‘sentences’ are said to be genuine sentences: they are not merely lists of names, but are suitable for the making of assertions. In S, a symbol such as ‘ab’ says that (for example) a is to the left of b.