Towards a theory of singular thought about abstract mathematical objects

Synthese 196 (10):4113-4136 (2019)
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This essay uses a mental files theory of singular thought—a theory saying that singular thought about and reference to a particular object requires possession of a mental store of information taken to be about that object—to explain how we could have such thoughts about abstract mathematical objects. After showing why we should want an explanation of this I argue that none of three main contemporary mental files theories of singular thought—acquaintance theory, semantic instrumentalism, and semantic cognitivism—can give it. I argue for two claims intended to advance our understanding of singular thought about mathematical abstracta. First, that the conditions for possession of a file for an abstract mathematical object are the same as the conditions for possessing a file for an object perceived in the past—namely, that the agent retains information about the object. Thus insofar as we are able to have memory-based files for objects perceived in the past, we ought to be able to have files for abstract mathematical objects too. Second, at least one recently articulated condition on a file’s being a device for singular thought—that it be capable of surviving a certain kind of change in the information it contains—can be satisfied by files for abstract mathematical objects.
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