Burge, T. (2009): Five theses on de re states and attitudes

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Burge construes representations as abstract entities rather than mental particulars (248), and as basic rather than derived entities (247).

Representations are “ways of thinking or perceiving” (248). He identifies three key points or roles for representation or representational content (he does not distinguish between these two).

Burge also construes representation as necessarily involving some degree of objectification (249, note).

Three Explanatory Roles for Representation (249)

  1. Representations are /about,/ purportedly about, what is represented
  2. Representations mark or help type-identify an individual’s representational states, capacities, events, acts.
  3. Representations serve as ground for the application of representational and epistemic norms

The Five Theses

Thesis 1 – Representation As

Mental representation is always representation as….(249)

Every purported application, reference, and attribution in every content position in all thought and perception is perspectival and is carried through in a perspectival way: it is marked by some representational content, which constitutes a perspectival way of thinking or perceiving. (250)

Representations constitute perspectives on objects or properties insofar as they (i) are distinguishable from the entity represented; (ii) they constitute one of many ways of representing that entity; (iii) they admit of correctness conditions; (iv) their application is fallible (250-1)

Representation type identifies abilities not referents (251).


  1. One can agree with Burge that there is no representation neat without obviously agreeing to the suite of claims that constitutes his notion of representation-as.
  2. I do not see why acquaintance theorists are committed to a notion of “representation neat
  3. Is the notion of a “perspective” limited to the personal level, or can there be sub-personal perspectives? Burge’s remarks on p.252 suggest that there are no sub-personal perspectives simpliciter at least insofar as this would require admitting that the “use of representations by perceptual subsystems” could “be separated in empirical theory from the end-product perceptual representations attributed to the whole animal or person”

Thesis 2 – Attribution

The main intuitive idea of the second thesis is that singular, context-bound, perceptually based purported reference must be guided by a general representational content that is attributive. (252)

Laying aside egocentric indexing elements, each context-bound (ability-particular), semantically singular, syntactically singular, perceptually based representational element in every autonomous propositional thought, and in every perception, perceptual memory, perceptually guided actional state, and perceptually grounded intermodal state must be associated with a nonschematic attributive that is ability general and semantically general, and that guides the singular representation (275)


  • Attribution

    Attributive : a representational content that constitutes a particular way of representing and attributing a kind of individual, a property, or a relation to particulars or to other entities (253).

    Attributives are general.

    Attributives can take two forms, intellectual and perceptual (253). Intellectual attributives are (i) predicative concepts and are (ii) always components of propositional structures. Perceptual attributives are not predicative, nor are the components of propositional structures. They are:

    general elements in perceptual representational content that type purportedly perceived particulars as being of kinds, or as being or having properties, or as being or entering into relations. Perceptual attributives are what allow perception to be perception as, or as of. Perceptual attributives are general elements in representational content that help discriminate purportedly perceived particulars by characterizing purported aspects of them. Every perception contains some perceptual attributive or attributives.

  • Singularity & Application

    Just as attributives take intellectual or perceptual form, so too do singular elements of representations.

    The singular element in a perceptual or perceptually based representation (which includes basic empirical thought) is what Burge calls an “application.”

    Perceptually based representation : a perceptual representation, or a perceptual memory, or a perceptually guided actional state, or an intermodal non-propositional perceptually grounded state, or an empirical propositional thought (or component of such a thought), or any other psychological state or event that purports to represent a specific particular through perceptual resources (255)

    Applications of perceptually based representations : context-bound representational contents that are individuated in terms of specific occurrences in time (255)

  • Four Sorts of Generality

    1. Ability Generality (259)

      • Ability Generality: pertains to types of representational content that mark general, freely repeatable representational abilities (259)

      Burge emphasizes that

      There is no particular, specific application or representational event, or any particular, specific set of applications or representational events, to which the relevant abilities, and the representational contents that mark them, are essentially tied for their individuation, or their relation to what they (purportedly or actually) represent.

      All perceptual attributives are ability general. The abilities marked by such representational contents are “freely repeatable” (for instances of this kind of talk see p. 277).

      • Free repeatability: There are no specific, particular token exercises or applications by reference to which the standing representational ability is individuated (259)

      Burge emphasizes that applications of at least some (perceptual) representational contents and the abilities that they mark are not freely repeatable. For example, an application of a demonstrative in thought is not freely repeatable. Such applications are thus not ability general (259-60).

      Burge is “tempted by” the view that all concepts are ability general (261, note 10). Certainly it seems like folks who construe the Generality Constraint as a mark of conceptuality are going to think that all concepts are ability general.

      Note that the notion of ability generality seems to involve a temporal conception of a particular condition – repeatability. That is why it is compatible with being semantically singular (264), which makes no reference to time or (un)repeatability, but rather only singularity of referent or satisfier. One question is whether ‘repeatability’ could also be thought of simply in terms of alternate possible worlds or scenarios (e.g. same time but different circumstances).

    2. Semantic Generality (261)

      • Semantic generality: representations that are capable, according to their form and content, of referring to, being true of, or being accurate of, an indefinite number of entities

      • Semantic singularity: a representation whose form and content require that it have exactly one referent or satisfier, if it has any (262)

      • “Broad sense” of “semantic”: includes not only relations between signs and what they represent but relations between any representations (including representational contents) and what they represent

    3. Syntactic Generality (262)

      • Syntactic singularity: representation that functions to refer to one entity, if to amy, when used in a complete sentence, thought, or perception

      • Syntactic generality: representations that function (usually fallibly) to be veridical of one or more entities

      syntactically general representations are representations whose roles are predicative in thought and attributive in perception or perceptual memory. (263)

      Burge construes perceptual attributives to be all and only syntactically general (263, note 12). The category extends more widely than attributives amongst thought contents.

    4. (Context-Dependent) Schematic Generality (263)

      • Schematic generality: a representational content that needs a completing content bound application to have a definite referent or satisfier, and to occur in a perception or in a complete thought

      Any representation containing demonstrative or indexical elements is going to exhibit schematic generality when unapplied.

  • Guidance

    the specific sort of attributive that I believe is necessary to guide singular, context-bound, perceptually based reference is nonschematic, ability general, and semantically general. (269)

    • Do we need guidance for picking out properties too? Doesn’t this generate a regress?
  • Association & Accompaniment

    Accompaniment : A semantically general representation accompanies a context-bound singular representation if (a) the singular and general representations are contained in a single complex representation and (b) according to the representational content of the complex representation, the referent of the singular representation is a satisfier of the general representation. (272)

Argument for a Restricted Version of the Second Thesis (275)

  • Restricted 2nd Thesis ::. Any perceptual, context-bound, semantically singular representation that is not an application in an egocentric indexing element must be accompanied by and guided by a nonschematic, attributive, ability general, semantically general representation.

  • representation or complex of representations that type-identifies a general pattern of perceptual response

  • The argument(s)

    1. Arguments for ability general status of G (276-77)

    2. Argument for semantic generality of G (277)

    3. Argument that G is attributive (277-78)

    4. Argument that G accompanies S (278)

    5. Argument that G is non-schematic (278-79)


  1. What is the difference between the content as perceptual attributive and as an intellectual attributive (other than the latter is a concept, and constitutes a predicate element in a whole proposition)?
  2. What relates the attributive in perception to in intellection?
  3. Why can’t attribution of a property type guide reference to an individual (257)?
  4. What is it for a representational system to “accord” a functional importance to a general representation (258)?
  5. To what extent does Burge’s conception of singular applications rely on a conception of mental particulars (and especially something like a mental file)?
  6. Why are schematically general representations still representations? Cf. Evans’s discussion of M-thinking (1982, pp. 202-3)
  7. What is the difference between these types of generality and quantificational generality?
  8. Burge construes “containment” as a “logical-grammatical notion” (272) but also talks about representations being contained within larger topographic structures. But then it sounds like a spatial notion is being appealed to. But on the one hand such spatial containment doesn’t seem compatible with containment of, e.g., semantic generality, and on the other hand non-spatial containment doesn’t seem to connect with the “topographical” nature of such representations.

Rachel worries that Burge begs a question against people like Campbell and Plyshyn in moving from sensitivity to aspects of one’s environment to representing one’s environment as a particular way. The kind of thing that is at issue is what Campbell talks about when he’s describing picking out numerals via sensitivity to color.

Thesis 3 – Veridicality

Laying aside applications of egocentric indexes, if an autonomously used, perceptually based, context-bound singular representation is to have a referent in perception, perceptual memory, perceptually guided actional state, perceptually grounded intermodal state, or propositional thought, the singular representation must be guided by some empirically committal, nonschematic, attributive, semantically general, ability general representation that is in fact veridical of the referent. (289)

A restricted argument for thesis 3 (concerning perception)

perceptual, context-bound, singular representation
a particular perceived entity
set of properties relevant to the production of a general repeatable pattern of proximal stimulations

In order to count as perceiving some entity E, a subject must be able to perceptually discriminate E from other things

Any perceptual discrimination of E is going to be via P

Perceptual discrimination of E via P must be explicable by a perceptual response type-identified by a nonschematic, attributive, semantically general, ability general representation that guides S [by thesis two]

Perceptual discrimination of E via general representation as in (3) just is veridical representation of E

The argument implies that even if salient perceptual representations fail to be veridical of a perceived entity, some guiding representation must be veridical of it if there is to be a psychological explanation of how the perceiver or his system discriminates that entity in the context. (295)

Thesis 4 – A priority

Some of our perceptually based de re states and attitudes, involving contextbound singular representations, can yield apriori warranted beliefs that are not parasitic on purely logical or mathematical truths. (298)

Such a priori warrants depend on the “nature of perceptual representation” (298)

Burge construes a priori warrants as fallible (note 56, p. 305) and as derived from principles concerning perceptual representation. These principles themselves are (for us anyway) only available via empirical investigation. However, Burge argues that availability is not to be confused with the source of one’s warrant (303-4).

Thesis 5 – The Non-Empirical De Re

A mental state or attitude is autonomously (and proleptically) de re with respect to a representational position in its representational content if and only if the representational position contains a representational content that represents (purports to refer) nondescriptively and is backed by an epistemic competence to make noninferential, immediate, nondiscursive attributions to the re. (316)

  author = {Burge, Tyler},
  title = {Five Theses on De Re States and Attitudes},
  booktitle = {},
  shorttitle = {Five Theses on De Re States and Attitudes},
  editor = {Almog, Joseph and Leonardi, Paolo},
  publisher = {Oxford University Press},
  address = {New York},
  pages = {246-316},
  year = {2009},
  file = {~/Library/Mobile Documents/iCloud~com~sonnysoftware~bot/Documents/be-library/burge2009a_five_theses_on_de_re_states_and_attitudes.pdf},
  doi = {},
  url = {},
  langid = {},
  abstract = {},
  keywords = {content; perception; Intentionality; propositional attitudes; propositions; demonstratives; de re; Kant_content; reference; meaning; representation},

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