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        Actions, Products, and Truth-Bearers: A Critique of Twardowskian Accounts
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Friederike Moltmann has recently proposed an account of truth-bearers that draws on Kazimierz Twardowski’s action/product distinction. Her account is meant to provide a third way between the dominant view of primary truth-bearers as mind-independent entities and the recently revived construal of them as mental or linguistic acts. This paper argues that there is no room for Twardowskian accounts because they are based on a notion of “nonenduring product” that defies comprehension, and no need for them because the linguistic data that Twardowskians take to refute the act-theoretic approach can, in fact, be handled by that approach.

1. Three approaches to truth-bearers

What is true or false in a primitive, nonderivative way? As documented in a recent collection (Moltmann and Textor 2017), this was a central question in early analytic philosophy and phenomenology, and after a time of relative neglect, it is once again an intensely debated issue. An interesting player in the contemporary scene is Friederike Moltmann. In a number of recent works (2014; 2017a; 2018), she has proposed an account that draws on the views developed at the beginning of the twentieth century by the Polish philosopher Kazimierz Twardowski (1911).1 Her proposal seeks to make room for a third option between two competing approaches.

On the one hand, there is the approach that has been dominant in analytic philosophy since Frege and Russell. According to this approach, the primary truth-bearers are mind-independent entities, such as Fregean “thoughts” or Russellian “propositions.” When one thinks or claims that something is the case, one comes to stand in a certain dual relation to one of these mind-independent entities. Propositional attitude verbs such as “thinking,” “judging,” and “claiming” express such dual relations. We can think or claim the same thing on different occasions, or the same thing that other people think or claim, because we can stand in the same relation to the same mind-independent entity. Acts of thinking, claiming, and the like can only be said to be true or false—if at all—in a derivative sense, in so far as they involve appropriate relations to those mind-independent entities.

In recent years, some have challenged this dominant approach, arguing that the primary truth-bearers are mental and linguistic acts—such as acts of thinking, judging, and asserting. The most prominent contemporary advocates of this second approach are Scott Soames (2010, 2015, King, Soames, and Speaks 2014) and Peter Hanks (2011, 2015). In their view, the primitive truth-bearers are “propositional acts,” which can take place in speech or merely in thought. To think or claim the same thing on different occasions, or the same thing that other people think or claim, is to perform actions that are tokens of the same type. Even though this is a minority approach today, it has significant anticipations in a tradition that used to be very influential before the advent of the Frege-Russell orthodoxy (see, for instance, the excerpts from Husserl’s Logical Investigations in Moltmann and Textor 2017).

In agreement with Soames and Hanks, Moltmann holds that the primary truth-bearers are not mind-independent entities. But she does not think that they are mental or linguistic acts either. The primary truth-bearers, she argues, are not items such as acts of judging, acts of claiming, and states of believing, but items such as judgments, claims, and beliefs. Moltmann calls such items “attitudinal objects.” Some attitudinal objects, such as beliefs, are mental states (2017a, 255, 266–67; 2017b; 2018, 2, 7). The relevant notion of state should be distinguished from the one that is mobilized when we speak, for example, of states of believing, but Moltmann leaves open exactly how this difference should be construed, giving only some tentative suggestions (2017a, 266n21, 284n39). The most developed part of her account—which is also the part that draws on Twardowski—concerns the remaining sort of attitudinal objects. These are, for Moltmann, the “(spatiotemporally coincident) products” of the correspondent activities (2014, 679). A claim, for instance, is the spatiotemporally coincident product of an act of claiming. In spite of their spatiotemporal coincidence, there is an “ontological distinction” between the products and the acts that produce them (686). To think the same thought or to make the same claim is to produce “exactly similar” thoughts or claims, i.e., attitudinal objects that are qualitatively identical but numerically distinct (691). Unlike Fregean thoughts and Russellian propositions, attitudinal objects are mind-dependent, because they depend for their existence on the acts or states of thinkers and speakers. Moltmann presents the distinction between mental and linguistic acts and the attitudinal objects that they produce as a version of a special case of Twardowski’s action/product distinction. More specifically, the notion of a product that is spatiotemporally coincident with the action that brings it about is supposed to be a version of Twardowski’s notion of “nonenduring product.”

Partly drawing on Twardowski, Moltmann offers a whole battery of arguments against the act-theoretic approach. The arguments are based on linguistic data that are, for the most part, very compelling. The main contention is that actions are not the right kind of thing for bearing truth, falsity, and other content-related properties. We speak for example of John’s claim as being true or false, but not of John’s (act of) claiming as being true or false. In general, expressions such as “John’s claim” and “John’s (act of) claiming” appear to combine with different predicates: predicates applicable to one sort of expression may not make sense at all when applied to the other or express quite different ideas. These differences, for Moltmann, refute the act-theoretic approach and support her Twardowskian account.

The aim of this paper is twofold. First, I will raise doubts about the intelligibility of Twardowski’s notion of a “nonenduring product” and of Moltmann’s elaborations of it. The impression that the notion makes sense, I shall argue, is mainly due to linguistic analogies that, upon reflection, should be discarded as misleading. Secondly, I will maintain that the arguments mounted by Twardowski and Moltmann against the act-theoretic approach are not conclusive: the linguistic data on which they are based—in so far as they are compelling—can, in fact, be accounted for by the act-theoretic approach. So this paper is at the same time a critique of Twardowski and of the Twardowskian elements in Moltmann’s account and a defense of the act-theoretic approach from Twardowskian objections.

Part of the difficulty in evaluating Moltmann’s proposal is to keep track of the extent to which it relies on Twardowski’s original framework or departs from it. Moltmann’s starting point is Twardowski’s notion of nonenduring product. But she modifies it in several respects, and proposes to understand it in terms of Amie Thomasson’s notion of “abstract artifact,” in the context of a more general distinction between artifacts and acts of creation. I hope to show that it pays off to slow things down. I will consider first Twardowski’s original proposal, which is based on the notion of nonenduring product (section 2). I will discuss next Moltmann’s elaborations of that proposal (section 3). And then I will respond to her arguments against the act-theoretic approach, which include and expand the linguistic arguments offered by Twardowski (section 4).

2. Twardowski on “nonenduring products”

Consider these phrases: “eating a cake,” “making a cake,” and “thinking a thought.” Each phrase includes, grammatically, a direct object. If English were more inflected, the words “cake” and “thought” would go in the accusative case. But how seriously should we take these analogies? The difference between the Frege-Russell approach to truth-bearers and Twardowski’s can be seen as a difference about which linguistic analogies should be taken seriously. Frege and early Russell construe thinking a thought on the model of eating a cake: the thought is out there, in something like the way the cake is out there, and you think it (or grasp it, or judge it, or assert it). Twardowski, on the other hand, construes thinking a thought (or passing a judgment, or making a claim) on the model of making a cake: the thought (or judgment, or claim) is something that you make (“produce”), in something like the way you make a cake.

Grammarians had long been reflecting on the differences between the various sorts of direct object or accusative that appear in examples like those given above. Twardowski (1911, sec. 26n37) mentions as one of his sources the classification presented in Brugmann (1900), the third edition of an authoritative grammar of ancient Greek. Brugmann distinguishes between the “accusative of the object” (Akkusativ des Objekts), the “accusative of the result” (Akk. des Resultats), and the “accusative of the content” (Akk. des Inhalts). The former is used with “verbs of affection” (Verba des Affizierens); the term in the accusative indicates the pre-existing object that is affected by the action expressed by the verb. The use of “cake” in “eating the cake” corresponds to this sort of accusative. The other two sorts of accusative are both used, for Brugmann, with “verbs of production” (Verba des Hervorbringens). The accusative of the result indicates the object that is brought about by the activity of production, which “outlasts the action as its enduring result” (bleibendes Ergebnis). Our second example, “making a cake,” belongs here. The accusative of the content, on the other hand, is semantically closely related to the verb and expresses something that “exists only during the verbal activity and disappears with it, which is possible only if the noun designates a phenomenon or a process, e.g., μάχην μάχεσθαι [to fight a battle], νικᾶν νίκην [to win a victory], […] ὅρκον ὄμνυσθαι [to swear an oath], θεῖν δρόμον [to run a race] […]” (Brugmann 1900, sec. 439; my emphasis, my translation).

Twardowski proposes a very similar classification, even though his terminology is different. First, he invokes the distinction, also common among the grammarians of his time, between external objects and internal objects. External objects are “things that already exist before the activity that impacts on them initiated” (Twardowski 1911, sec. 25). These correspond to Brugmann’s accusative of the object. An internal object, by contrast, is “something that emerges only owing to—that is, as the result of—a corresponding action, by means of that action” (sec. 24). All internal objects are “products,” since “that which arises owing to, as the result of, some action, i.e., by means of that action, may be termed its product” (sec. 9). Then Twardowsky divides internal objects or products into enduring products and nonenduring products. This division tracks Brugmann’s distinction between accusative of the result and accusative of the content. Here are Twardowski’s definitions and illustrations:

[Enduring products] are those that can endure, and ordinarily do endure, longer than the actions owing to which they arise. Examples of such actions and products include: “to inscribe/the inscription,” “to braid/the braid,” “to imprint/the imprint,” “to paint/the painting,” “to sculpt/the sculpture,” “to build/the building,” etc.

(Twardowski 1911, sec. 24)

[Nonenduring products] are products that exist only for as long as the activity that yields them. A shout exists as long as the action of shouting does; a song, as long as the activity of singing; a thought, for as long as someone is thinking; a judgment exists whenever someone judges.

(Twardowski 1911, sec. 23)

Other examples of action/nonenduring product pairs offered by Twardowski include to jump/the jump, to walk/the walk, to race/the race, to fight/the fight, to speak/the speech, to issue a command/the command, to ask/the question. As in Brugmann, the principle of distinction is whether the product may endure longer than the activity that brings it about. Among nonenduring products, some have truth-conditions (e.g., judgments and claims), others have other kinds of satisfaction conditions (e.g., questions and orders), and others have no satisfaction conditions (e.g., in normal circumstances, jumps and fights). The question now is: Can we really make sense of the notion of a nonenduring product?

Twardowski concedes that the action/product distinction is more intuitive (“self-imposing”) in the case of enduring products (sec. 23, sec. 27). This is where the notion of a product has its original home, and I will refer to it as the primary application of the action/product distinction. The need to introduce the notion of a nonenduring product, Twardowski acknowledges, is something that we must argue for; we come to it in response to certain theoretical pressures (secs. 21–22). I will discuss below Twardowski’s articulation of these pressures, as further elaborated by Moltmann (section 4). For now, let’s focus on the relation between the primary and the extended application of the action/product distinction. We are asked to project the notion of a product from its primary application to a new one. Let’s observe how radical the projection is supposed to be. Taking as our working example the pair building a house/the house, we may single out the following features of the primary application of the act/product distinction:

  1. (a) The product owes its existence to the activity that produced it. The house wouldn’t be there if nobody had built it.

  2. (b) The product and the act that produces it belong to different ontological categories: the building of a house is an event, something that does or does not take place, whereas the house thus built is an object or thing, which does not exist in the sense of taking place.

  3. (c) The product, other things being equal, continues to exist after the activity is over. A tornado may destroy the house as soon as it is completed, but this is only a contingency: it is certainly possible, and indeed standardly the case, that the house continues to exist for some time after it has been finished.

  4. (d) The product begins to exist, in its completed state, only when the activity is over. The finished house begins to exist, by definition, only when the building activity is over.

  5. (e) In this sense of product, only some activities are productive. Building a house, writing a book, and drawing a portrait are productive. But other activities—such as walking, dancing, and screaming, as well grabbing a bottle or eating a cake—are not.

How much of this are we supposed to retain when we come to nonenduring products? Almost nothing, as it turns out. One of the main constraints of the projection, of course, is that we should give up (c): nonenduring products are supposed to vanish as soon as the producing activity is over. But much else is supposed to go as well.

On the face of it, it seems clear that we must preserve some version of (a). If nonenduring products did not owe their existence to an activity, it would make no sense to think of them as products. The alleged projection would merely introduce a case of homonymy: enduring products and nonenduring products would be kinds of product as little as riverbanks and investment banks are kinds of bank. But even with respect to this basic feature, there cannot be complete identity between enduring and nonenduring products because there is an issue concerning what it is for enduring and nonenduring products to “exist.” This is related to the fact that we are supposed give up (b).

Arguably, there is a categorical distinction between the way an event “exists” and the way a thing “exists.” Events exist in the sense that they take place, but it makes no sense to speak of a thing as taking place. As we saw, enduring products belong to the category of things. But Twardowsky holds explicitly that nonenduring products should be understood as events. This emerges in his discussion of the difference between actions and their nonenduring products. The difference, he maintains, is one between aspects of the same reality.2 After contrasting names such as “the race” and “the jump,” which refer for him to products, with verbs such as “to race” and “to jump,” which refer for him to actions, he writes:

[A]dmittedly, one could call “the race” or “the jump” an activity, but at the same time there is no denying that these nouns—precisely because they are nouns—do not bring into relief the aspect of action as distinctly as the verbs “to race” or “to jump”; instead, they bring to the fore a different aspect, one that might be termed the “phenomenal” [or “event-like”3] or “static” aspect. In speaking of a race or a jump, we might have in mind not so much the action carried out by someone, as some fact, some phenomenon, something that happens or occurs.

(Twardowski 1911, sec. 2; my emphasis)

The contrast between the action-like or, as he puts it later on in the same essay, the “dynamic” aspect of actions on the one hand, and their “event-like” or “phenomenal” or “static” aspect on the other, remains rather mysterious. What Twardowsky seems to have in mind is that when we refer to the latter aspect, we want to speak of the action in abstraction from the fact that it is an action done by somebody, and consider it instead as a mere event, the way the fall of a tree due to a storm is a mere event:

[E]ven though we know that without the activity called shouting there would be no shout, in speaking of the shout we do in fact abstract from that activity, treating the shout as an acoustical phenomenon on a par with a roar, a rustle, etc.

(Twardowski 1911, sec. 3)

The nonenduring product of an act of shouting, namely a shout, is a “phenomenon” or event, “something that happens or occurs.” As Twardowski emphasizes, nonenduring products differ in this respect from enduring products, which “present themselves not so much as phenomena or events, but as things” (sec. 27). In these passages, Twardowski uses the term “event” in contrast with the term “action”: an event, in his sense, is what we may also call a “mere event.” In a more general sense of the term, however, actions and their nonenduring products are both events, namely something that happens or occurs, as opposed to things, which may only be involved in the occurrence of some event. We see therefore that when we come to nonenduring products, we are supposed to give up (b). And by giving up (b), we can hold on to (a) only in so far as we take it to involve a very general, transcategorical notion of existence (if there is such an animal) that applies indifferently to things and events.

Nonenduring products are supposed to exist “only for as long as the activity that yields them” (sec. 23). This suggests not only that they vanish as soon as the activity is over, but also that they come into being as soon as the activity begins, which means that they are temporally coincident with the activity that produces them. Thus, the notion of a nonenduring product involves also the rejection of (d).

Another remarkable feature of nonenduring products is that (e) does not apply to them. All activities turn out to be productive in Twardowski’s new sense of the term. Thus, taking a jump, which is not productive in the primary sense of the term, is productive in the new sense. And building a house is actually going to have two products: it has a product in the primary sense of the term, namely the house; and in addition to that, it has a product in the newfangled sense of the term, namely “the construction of the house.”

In summary, the only feature of the primary application of the action/product distinction that we are supposed to retain for nonenduring products is the idea that they somehow “owe their existence” to an action. Yet, nonenduring products are supposed to be events, and thus to exist in the sense of taking place, so that actions “produce” them in the sense of making it the case that the “products” take place. We also need to think of nonenduring products as aspects of the actions that produce them, and this means that we need to make sense of the idea that an action “produces” one of its own aspects. Moreover, nonenduring products, unlike houses and cakes, are supposed to vanish as soon as the actions that produce them are over and are supposed to exist as soon as those actions begin. Finally, a nonenduring product is supposed to be produced anytime we act. (Our lives turn out to be extremely productive, even though most of what we produce is also, alas, extremely ephemeral!) These are the constraints that the notion of a nonenduring product is meant to satisfy. But it is far from clear that we have any idea of what could possibly satisfy them—and especially, of what could satisfy them and yet intelligibly count as a product.

The difficulty can be spelled out as follows. The main guidance we are given for making sense of the notion of a nonenduring product is that it is a product. Our starting point, in thinking about products, is the primary application of the action/product distinction, which is illustrated by examples such a building a house and the house thus built. The characterization of the notion of a nonenduring product includes a series of additional constraints that are supposed to extend the action/product contrast beyond its primary application. But these additional constraints gradually shave off almost all of the distinctive features of the primary application of the contrast. Even if we assume that the additional constraints are mutually consistent, we are left wondering how a product could possibly satisfied them.

My claim here is not that that there are necessary and sufficient conditions for the extension of the meaning of word and that Twardowski’s attempt to extend the meaning of “product” by introducing the notion of a “nonenduring product” does not satisfy them. There may very well be no such conditions. My claim is that when we are asked to extend the meaning of a word, we need to look and see whether we are actually able to do so. In Twardowski’s case, I submit, it is very unclear that we are.

Skepticism about the intelligibility of the notion of a nonenduring product may be reinforced by the following considerations. On the face of it, a murder is an action. If one has committed a murder, that is one of his actions—one of the things he has done. But if we stick to Twardowski’s account, the murder one has committed is not at all an action, but the product of one’s acting: the action consisted only in doing the murder—or, more idiomatically, in committing the murder. So it turns out, rather strangely, that actions, conceived as what one does, are not really actions: genuine actions consist in the doing of what one does. This is already quite surprising. But the account implies something even stranger. For “the doing of what one does” is itself one of the things one does: in fact, something one does whenever one does something. If I commit a murder, a murder is what I have done; but if I have committed a murder, I have also accomplished the committing of a murder. So my real action must have consisted in the doing of the doing of a murder. The reasoning can of course be iterated, and with each iteration, the “real” action recedes further and further away from anything we can clearly make sense of.

While I question the intelligibility of Twardowski’s distinction between actions and their nonenduring products, I do not wish to suggest that its source is mere whimsicality. The distinction, I propose, is partly motivated by the need of capturing a quite different distinction—i.e., the distinction between actions in progress and completed actions. This is not a distinction between actions and something else, but between actions at different points of their career. It is expressed in language through a difference in verbal aspects and, in English, it is typically conveyed by the difference between progressive and perfective verbal forms. Suppose I am taking a jump. When I am finished—namely, when I have jumped—there is something I have done: a jump. But my jump is not something other than my jumping which I have produced through my jumping, as Twardowski would have it. It is my act of jumping brought to completion. There is a single item here—the act of jumping—which is first in progress and then completed. Similarly, when I am finished building a house, I have done something—namely, an action of house construction. But this is not something other than my action which gets “produced” through my action. What I have produced is the house, not the house construction! To have done an action of house construction is simply to have completed the action of building a house. In general, to have done an action is to have completed it, not to have brought about a fancy kind of product—one of the “nonenduring” sort. There is an analogy between working toward the completion of an action and working toward the completion of a product or artifact—an analogy that is strengthened by the fact that in the case of genuinely productive activities, the progress of the action may correspond by and large to the progress of the product. (As my building activity progresses toward completion, so the house I am building progresses from the foundations to the roof.) But the difficulties that we encounter in figuring out what a nonenduring product could possibly be should convince us that this analogy is not worth pursuing.

There is another genuine distinction that contributes to confer some prima facie plausibility to Twardowski’s view—namely, a distinction between different sorts of description of the same action. In section 4, I will argue that a distinction of this kind can be used to account for the linguistic data that Twardowski—and Moltmann after him—take to refute the act-theoretic approach. But before that, I will discuss Moltmann’s elaboration of Twardowski’s notion of nonenduring product.

3. Moltmann’s version of Twardowski’s account

As already mentioned, Moltmann’s account of primary truth-bearers (and, more generally, of primary bearers of satisfaction conditions) is based on Twardowski’s notion of nonenduring product. However, Moltmann modifies Twardowski’s notion in several respects, and proposes to understand nonenduring products as “abstract artifacts” in Thomasson’s sense, in the context of a more general distinction between artifacts and acts of creation. We need to evaluate whether these modifications and elaborations improve the intelligibility of the notion of nonenduring product.

For Moltmann (2017a, 260; 2018, 5n4), the primary truth-bearers are a subset of attitudinal objects, which can be mental or linguistic and come in three kinds: those with truth-conditions (e.g., judgments, thoughts, claims, beliefs), those with other satisfaction conditions (e.g., desires, orders, questions), and “expressive” ones lacking satisfaction conditions (e.g., amazements, appreciations, sights, and complaints). Attitudinal objects that are not mental states should be construed as products of mental or linguistic activities. Such products are like Twardowski’s nonenduring products because (a) they are products brought about by some activity and (b) they don’t last longer than the activities that produce them. There are three major differences between Moltmann’s version of the notion of nonenduring product and Twardowski’s. None of them, I am going to argue, renders the notion more easily intelligible.

  1. (1) Moltmann explicitly construes the distinction between actions and their nonenduring products as an “ontological distinction,” where this is meant to deny that it is “merely a distinction in the way one and the same object may be viewed” (2014, 686; see also 2017a, 284). The nonenduring products of cognitive and linguistic acts are “entities of their own” (2017a, 281). By contrast, as we have seen, Twardowski construes actions and their nonenduring products as different aspects of the same phenomenon. As for the ontological category of nonenduring products, Moltmann explicitly denies that they are actions or events (2014, 680; 2017a, 281). Presumably, they belong to the category of things, which do not exist in the sense of taking place. These differences remove some of the puzzles of Twardowski’s characterization of nonenduring products and preserve more features of the primary application of the action/product distinction. Moltmann’s nonenduring products, like the familiar enduring products of activities such as baking and building, are separate entities which differ from the actions that produce them. Thus, if we follow Moltmann, we don’t have to make sense of the idea of an action that “produces” one of its own aspects, or of the idea of a production that consists in making something happen. But this is little progress since we are still left in the dark about what the postulated self-standing entities could possibly be.

  2. (2) At some points, Moltmann presents actions and their nonenduring products as “spatiotemporally coincident” (2014, 679). This accords with Twardowski’s characterization of nonenduring products as existing only “as long as” the corresponding activities take place. Moltmann notices that the spatiotemporal coincidence of actions and their nonenduring products, when coupled with the view that the distinction is ontological (in the sense we have just discussed), “requires recognizing distinct spatiotemporally coincident entities” (2013, 139). Yet, she gives no indication of how this requirement can be satisfied in the case of actions and their nonenduring products. At other points, Moltmann departs from Twardowski’s in two respects with regard to the spatiotemporal relation between actions and their nonenduring products. First, she notices that it doesn’t seem appropriate to say that as soon as one begins to make an assertion, an assertion exists. The assertion will only exist when the asserting is over; before that point, there will be only an incomplete assertion (or an incomplete attempt at making an assertion). In general, she suggests, the nonenduring products of accomplishments, of which the act of making an assertion is an example, do not exist prior to the completion of the actions that bring them about (Moltmann 2017a, 258n6). An “accomplishment,” here, is an action that has a natural culmination and for which it is not the case that, if one is Φ-ing, one has Φ-ed (Vendler 1957). The nonenduring products of accomplishments should then be regarded as temporally punctiform entities that exist only at the culmination of the corresponding actions. This may be a necessary emendation of Twardowski’s account. But it hardly helps to clear the fog around the nature of nonenduring products, since it leaves us wondering what the postulated temporally punctiform entities could possibly be, and how they could be intelligibly described as products. Secondly, sometimes Moltmann claims that nonenduring products “may” be spatiotemporally coincident with the corresponding actions (2014, 680; 2017a, 262). The coincidence is not necessary, she explains, because the same product may have existed at a different time, whereas the time of occurrence is essential to actions and events more generally: John’s act of claiming may not have occurred earlier or later than it did, but the claim he made might have existed at a different time (2017a, 262). Whether or not this view is well grounded, it does not introduce any significant change into Twardowski’s notion of a nonenduring product. The existence of the product, I take it, remains spatiotemporally coincident with some action or other (or its culmination), and necessarily ceases to exist when the action that happens to bring it about is over.

  3. (3) Moltmann voices some skepticism toward Twardowski’s application of the distinction between actions and their nonenduring products to (what Moltmann calls) “physical actions” (2017a, 282–83). These include acts of walking, jumping, and screaming, and are contrasted with “cognitive” and “illocutionary” actions, such as acts of judging and asserting. Moltmann, as we are going to see, interprets Twardowski’s action/product distinction as a distinction between “artifacts” and creative actions, and holds that jumps or walks can hardly be regarded as artifacts. This claim is qualified, for she is inclined to accept the characterization of jumps and screams as artifacts in some circumstances. For instance, if the jump “is performed at a competitive sport event”—as opposed to a jump that is merely the “byproduct of an act of escaping”—or if the scream is “explicitly intended”—as opposed to “a scream that is the byproduct of an event of shock or agitation” (2017a, 282). The distinction is not further elaborated, but appears to have to do with whether the action is deliberate or intentional. Here there seems to be a genuine disagreement with Twardowski, who posits nonenduring products even for unintentional bodily actions such as a scream performed “in a reflex-like fashion” (Twardowski 1911, sec. 11) and “an infant’s instinctive grasping of an object” (sec. 12n17). Now, denying the status of an artifact to what is not produced deliberately or intentionally is sensible enough, in so far as we want to latch onto our familiar notion of an artifact. But this does not help to make sense of judgments, claims, and the like as artifacts brought about by the corresponding actions and only existing as long as those actions (or their culminations) take place.

Moltmann (2014, 696; 2018, 7) makes two positive moves, each of which is meant to go beyond Twardowski, in order to render the notion of the nonenduring product of a cognitive or illocutionary activity more intuitive. First she claims that such products are “abstract artifacts” in Thomasson’s sense. Secondly, she subsumes Twardowski’s action/product distinction (and her elaboration of it) under the more general distinction between acts of creation and created artifacts, where the artifacts can be either concrete or abstract. Once we see cognitive and illocutionary products side by side with other artifacts whose status is uncontroversial, she maintains, the air of mystery that surrounds them will tend to dissolve:

Recognizing that cognitive and illocutionary products fall under the more general category of (abstract or physically realized) artifacts, which are an indisputable part of common sense ontology, makes cognitive and illocutionary products much easier to accept.

(Moltmann 2017a, 264)

Neither move, I am going to argue, succeeds. Moltmann’s cognitive and illocutionary products differ in some crucial respects from Thomasson’s “abstract artifacts”; even if such abstract artifacts were acceptable, their acceptability would not carry over to the entities that Moltmann wants to vindicate. Moreover, Moltmann’s category of “artifact” is, in fact, a mixed bag. The bag certainly contains some completely uncontroversial items, but placing the problematic items in the same bag with the unproblematic ones does not make them any less puzzling. I’ll spell out these two points in turn.

Thomasson’s “abstract artifacts” (Thomasson 1999, 131–32, 141–43; 2004) lack a “particular spatiotemporal location,” which makes them “abstract,” but at the same time, they come into existence through creative intentional acts and may cease to exist. In this second respect, they differ from abstract entities such as types and kinds, which are normally thought to exist eternally and independently of human activities. Examples of abstract artifacts, for Thomasson, include certain works of art, such as literary works and musical compositions, in contrast to paintings and noncast sculptures, which have unique physical realizations. A novel, Thomasson argues, is not identical to any of its physical copies, yet it is not an abstract, eternal type or structure because it is created (rather than discovered) by some author at a certain historical moment, and may cease to exist if all copies and memories of it are lost. Fictional characters and juridical laws, Thomasson maintains, are other examples of abstract artifacts. Whether or not Thomasson’s ontological category is sound, and whether or not she is right about the items that fall under it, it clearly does not comprise—pace Moltmann—Twardowski’s nonenduring products and Moltmann’s own cognitive and illocutionary products. Thomasson’s abstract artifacts are enduring; in this respect, they are like paintings and buildings. Her notion of an abstract artifact preserves, accordingly, a central feature of the primary application of the act/product distinction. The products posited by Twardowski and Moltmann, by contrast, are nonenduring, and this is precisely the feature that, more than anything else, makes it difficult for us to make sense of them as products of any sort.

A further difficulty with Moltmann’s subsumption of cognitive and illocutionary products under Thomasson’s category of abstract artifacts is that it is not clear why they should count as abstract in Thomasson’s sense. Moltmann’s products are supposed to be spatiotemporally coincident with the actions that produce them (or their culminations); these are particular historical events and, thus, presumably spatiotemporally located; hence, Moltmann’s products should also be spatiotemporally located. But what makes abstract artifacts abstract, for Thomasson, is that they lack such a location; hence, Moltmann’s products should not count as abstract in Thomasson’s sense. In fact, it is not obvious why they should count as abstract in any sense of the term. In this respect, it is worth noticing that Moltmann sometimes characterizes such products as “concrete”—“as concrete as the corresponding mental events or speech acts” (2014, 696; 2017a, 281; see also 2014, 680).

Moltmann argues that Thomasson’s category of abstract artifacts includes not only cognitive and illocutionary products, but also what she calls “modal products,” or (equivalently) “deontic modal objects,” namely items such as commitments, obligations, and permissions (2017a; 2018). An act of promising, for Moltmann, produces not only a promise, which is a nonenduring illocutionary product, but also a commitment, which is a modal object (2017a, 267). Modal objects are abstract, in the sense of lacking a physical realization, and enduring: the commitment to act in a certain manner typically lasts longer than the act of promising to do so. In this respect, they are much closer to Thomasson’s abstract artifacts that cognitive and illocutionary products. Table 1 summarizes the kinds of items that Moltmann subsumes under the general heading of “artifact.”

Table 1 Moltmann’s artifacts.

There is no difficulty in applying the notion of an artifact to the items belonging to the first group: indeed, they constitute the very paradigm of an artifact. The items belonging to the second group are more problematic. We certainly speak of novels, symphonies, and laws in ways that resemble to some extent the ways we talk about buildings and paintings. For instance, we have singular terms for both novels and paintings, and we say that they are “works created by their authors.” But whether this talk should be taken at face value is not undisputable. More importantly, even if we accepted Thomasson’s notion of an abstract artifact, we would still face the question of whether we can make sense of the notion of a cognitive or illocutionary product. It takes a first conceptual leap to get from concrete enduring products (i) to abstract enduring products (ii). If we manage to take such a leap, we are probably in a better position to make sense of deontic modal products (iii), which are also supposed to be abstract and enduring. But it takes a further leap to get from enduring products, whether concrete or abstract, to nonenduring ones (iv). It should be uncontroversial that the mere determination to call the latter “artifacts” on a par with the items belonging to (i), (ii), and (iii), leaves the second leap as difficult and puzzling as ever.

I conclude that in spite of the various ways in which Moltmann modifies Twardowski’s original theory, she does not render the notion of nonenduring product any more intelligible. In the next section, I discuss the considerations that led Twardowski and Moltmann to debunk the act-theoretic approach and to believe that the notion of a nonenduring product must somehow be intelligible.

4. Defense of the act-theoretic approach

If we consider the primary application of the action/product distinction, we can observe that predicates applicable to products may not make sense when applied to the corresponding activities and vice versa, or call for different interpretations. Building a house may be quick, but it is not clear what it would mean to say that a house is quick. A house has a door, but it is not clear what it would mean to say that building a house has a door. And while both the house and the act of building it may be comfortable, they are so in different ways (Table 2).

Table 2 Actions and concrete enduring products.

Twardowski and Moltmann take these features of the primary application of the action/product distinction to provide the model for explaining another range of linguistic phenomena. They observe that expressions such as “John’s (act of) claiming/judging/thinking” on the one hand, and expressions such as “John’s claim/judgment/thought” on the other hand, take different predicates: predicates applicable to expressions of the first kind may not make sense when applied to expressions of the second kind and vice versa, or call for different interpretations. These linguistic data, for Twardowski and Moltmann, are explained by the fact that we are dealing with a contrast between actions and products—even though the relevant products are now of the nonenduring sort (Twardowski 1911, sec. 22; Moltmann 2014, 687–94; 2017a, 259–62). Of course, if what I have argued is correct and the notion of nonenduring product makes no sense, no genuine explanation is in the offing. But the data adduced by Twardowski and Moltmann (or at least a significant part of them) are genuine and must be accounted for. I’ll first rehearse a representative selection of those data and then show how they can be handled by the act-theoretic approach.

Moltmann systematizes and expands considerably the linguistic observations collected by Twardowski. She divides the data in six groups (Table 3). First, we attribute truth and other forms of satisfaction (such as being executed or fulfilled) to claims, judgments, and commands, but it seems inappropriate to speak in the same way of acts of claiming, judging, or commanding. Secondly, claims, judgments, and the like are correct if and only if they are true, but the correctness of acts of claiming, judging, and the like may depend on a variety of other contextual considerations. Thus, we can say that John’s claim was correct (because true), but that his making that claim was definitely wrong (because, say, the claim shouldn’t have come from him or because that wasn’t the right time). Thirdly, we speak of claims, judgments, etc. as being the same if and only if they have the same content, but for acts of claiming, judging, etc. to be the same, they may have to share additional or different features. So John’s claim might be the same as Mary’s claim because they both claim that p, but John’s claiming that p may differ from Mary’s claiming that p because the former is slow and hesitant, whereas the latter is quick and confident. Fourthly, claims, judgments, etc. are comprehensible or incomprehensible on the basis of their contents, whereas acts of claiming, judging, etc. are so on the basis of other considerations—for instance, on the basis of the extent to which they are epistemically or pragmatically justified. Similarly, claims, judgments, etc. are surprising, delightful, or interesting on the basis of their content, whereas acts of claiming, judging, etc. are so for quite different reasons. So we may say that John’s statement was unsurprising, indeed trivial, but that his making such a statement was quite surprising because he usually says interesting things. Next, when we speak of the part of a claim or judgment, we speak of a content-part, but when we speak of the part of an act of claiming or asserting (and perhaps also of the part of an act of judging or thinking4) we refer to the temporal part of an event extended in time. Finally, as already mentioned, Moltmann claims that “there is a strong intuition” that claims, judgments, etc. are not essentially tied to a particular time (John’s statement might have occurred earlier or later than it did), whereas acts of claiming, judging, etc. bear a time of occurrence essentially (so that John’s act of stating would not have been the same act if it had occurred at a different time). This last observation strikes me as less obvious than the others, and I’ll discuss it separately in a moment.

Table 3 Summary of Moltmann’s linguistic data.

My alternative proposal for handling the first five sets of data is the following.5 Expressions such as “John’s claim” and “John’s (act of) claiming”—unlike expressions such as “John’s house” and “John’s building a house”—do not refer to different items, i.e., an action and a product respectively. They both refer to an action, but under different descriptions. The same action can be described in various ways and depending on the description, becomes the appropriate subject of different sorts of predication, bears different relations of exact similarity (i.e., qualitative but not numerical identity), and becomes liable to different forms of evaluation. The first five groups of linguistic data collected by Moltmann articulate the relevant difference in description. When we speak of John’s claim that p, we speak of something that he has done (a speech act), but we focus only on the fact that what he did is a claim with a certain content, abstracting from other features of the act. Thus, we speak of what he had done as something (1) truth evaluable, (2) having truth as its norm of correctness, (3) bearing exact similarity relations that depend only on its content and its being a claim, (4) subject to content-based evaluations, and (5) having content-based part/whole structure. By contrast, when we speak about John’s claiming that p, we speak of what he has done from a different perspective, focusing on the fact that it was an event occurring at a certain time, in a certain context, involving a specific agent, and (at least in the case of linguistic acts) unfolding over time. Thus, what we are talking about is now liable to forms of evaluation that do not apply only (or at all) to its content, but to other contextually dependent features of the act, such as its tactfulness or recklessness or its being out of character (1 and 4); the correctness of the act does not depend anymore only on its truth (2); it is now inappropriate to speak of the act as being qualitatively identical to another act simply because it is an act of claiming with a certain content (3); and by “the parts” of the act, we now mean its temporal parts, if it has any (5).

Concerning the last set of putative data, it seems to me that in so far as we can say that John’s claim that p might have occurred at a different time (I actually doubt that anybody outside philosophy would naturally speak this way), we can also say that John’s claiming that p might have occurred at a different time—meaning in both cases that John might have made the same claim at a different time, which can be understood as performing a different token of the same relevant type of act.

According to the present proposal, truth is a dimension of evaluation of linguistic and mental acts.6 In particular, it is the characteristic dimension of assessment of those linguistic and mental acts that purport to represent the world. Truth is their proprietary goal; if they achieve it, they are true. It is indeed the case that we wouldn’t say, for instance, that an act of stating is true. But this is not because what is true is not an act. It is because the form of expression “an act of stating” and, more generally, “(an act of) Φ-ing,” where “Φ” stands for a mental or linguistic act that aims to represent the world, is designed precisely to focus on the aspects of the act that do not depend or are not exhausted by its truth-evaluable character. If we wanted to focus on the truth-evaluable aspect of the act, we would speak of the statement instead of the act of stating. There seems to be an inconsistency in saying that (i) a statement is true or false, (ii) a statement is an act, but (iii) an act of stating cannot be meaningfully said to be true or false. But the appearance of inconsistency dissolves if we adopt the proposed account of the different functions of the two forms of expression.

There has been a discussion among proponents and opponents of act-theoretic accounts of truth-bearers about the significance of the use of the adverb “truly” in English. It is in order to say that John stated/judged truly that p. Here “truly” is an adverb that qualifies an action. This has been read as evidence that truth can be meaningfully ascribed to acts (Aune 1962; Hanks 2017, 239–42). Moltmann has challenged the appeal to this linguistic evidence. She points out first that in some other European languages there is no expression that behaves like “truly” in English, so English is in this respect “exceptional.” Secondly, she points out that the meaning of “truly” is “derivative,” because if it genuinely qualified an action, then it would be appropriate to speak of John’s true act of stating or of John’s act of stating being true (Moltmann 2014, 698n10; 2017a, 259–60).

There is a question about what these arguments are supposed to establish. If they are meant to refute the act-theoretic approach, then they are ineffectual. Assuming that the “exceptional” character of English is a matter of brute numbers (and there is no indication that it could be anything else), it is not clear how such a matter could be established through a handful of anecdotal typological considerations such as those provided by Moltmann. But more importantly, even if English were exceptional in that brutally numerical sense, why should it matter? The question is whether English should be considered perspicuous or misleading in its use of “truly,” and this is not a question that can be answered by counting heads. It is a question whose resolution depends on our best overall way of making sense of the relevant range of phenomena, which include the nature of truth, of truth-bearers, and of their relation to linguistic and mental acts. Similar considerations apply to Moltmann’s second argument. The argument points out a contrast between the permissibility of expressions such as “John judges truly that p” and the impermissibility of expressions such as “John’s act of judging is true,” but it does not prove that the latter sort of expression should be treated as perspicuous and the former as misleading. (I take it that the only relevant construal of the primary/derivative contrast invoked by Moltmann is the contrast between perspicuous and misleading expressions.) This issue can only be settled, once again, on the basis of our best way of making sense of the whole range of relevant phenomena.

Moltmann’s arguments would have some force only if they were directed against somebody who claimed that the English use of “truly” suffices, all by itself, to prove that it makes sense to ascribe truth and falsity to actions. Pointing out conflicting cross-linguistic and intralinguistic data, as Moltmann does, would undermine that sort of blind reliance on linguistic facts. (On the other hand, in order to achieve that purpose, there would be no need of maintaining, as Moltmann also does, that one set of data should be privileged over the other; noticing the mixed character of the data would be enough.) But advocates of the act-theoretic approach need not be culpable of that questionable appeal to linguistic facts. On the contrary, they may emphasize the English use of “truly” simply in order to counter the view that the impermissibility of constructions such as “John’s act of acting is true” suffices, all by itself, to prove that it makes no sense to speak of acts as the bearers of truth and falsity.

The act-theoretic approach does not stand or fall with the use of “truly” in English. This use is neither sufficient nor necessary for establishing the tenability of the approach. It is not sufficient, because critics of the approach may argue that such a use should not be taken at face value on the grounds that it conflicts with our best way of making overall sense of the relevant range of phenomena. And it is not necessary, because the approach may be defensible on the same sort of holistic grounds, even if no known natural language had an adverb that behaves like the English “truly.” It would still be possible to maintain that natural languages are, in this respect, systematically misleading. Claims of this sort are not uncommon in the history of philosophy. Consider, for example, Frege’s introduction of the variable-and-quantifier notation for generality. The fact that no natural language he knew of employed such a notation did not count for him as an objection to his view; he simply took that fact—rightly or wrongly—as a sign of the imperfection of natural languages. This does not imply that philosophical reflection can or should proceed in splendid isolation from considerations about natural language. On the contrary, one can maintain that even though philosophy may question the perspicuity of natural language, it can only start from natural language. Frege, for one, held such view: “Work in logic just is, to a large extent, a struggle with the logical defects of language, and yet language remains for us an indispensable tool” (Frege 1979, 252).7

5. Conclusion

I have argued that Twardowski’s notion of a nonenduring product is not really intelligible and that Moltmann’s elaborations of it bring no substantial improvement. The impression that there is an intelligible notion answering Twardowski’s and Moltmann’s descriptions is mainly due to linguistic analogies that, when consistently followed through, turn out to lead nowhere. We have the analogy between expressions such as “making a cake” and “making an assertion,” which feature nouns in direct object position, suggesting that we are dealing in both cases with some sort of thing. We have the fact that an assertion, like a cake, wouldn’t “exist” if somebody hadn’t “made” it, which suggests that the assertion, like the cake, is something that gets “produced.” We have the fact that an assertion, like a cake, can be “completed,” which suggests that making an assertion is working toward the completion of some sort of product. And we have the analogy between the different behavior of pairs of expressions such as “making the cake”/“the cake” and “making the assertion”/“the assertion,” which suggests that we are dealing in both cases with the same general sort of distinction. In Moltmann’s case, the impression that the notion of a nonenduring product makes sense is strengthened by the fact that she lumps together under the general rubric of “artifact” both enduring and nonenduring products and proceeds to exploit the uncontroversial intelligibility of concrete enduring products to support the intelligibility of nonenduring products—a procedure that, when spelled out, is evidently fallacious. I have further argued that there is no need to invoke the puzzling distinction between actions and their nonenduring products. We can account for the relevant phenomena by means of two other distinctions, both of which are drawn within the framework of the act-theoretic approach. First, the distinction between an action in progress and a completed action, which enables us to vindicate the difference between performing an action and producing something. And secondly, the distinction between different descriptions of the same action, which enables us to explain the linguistic data that Twardowski and Moltmann take to refute the act-theoretic approach. If all of this is correct, there is neither room nor need for a Twardowskian third way between the dominant account of primary truth-bearers as mind-independent entities and the act-theoretic approach.


I am grateful to Indrek Reiland and two anonymous referees for comments on previous versions of this paper.

Silver Bronzo is assistant professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2015 and, before moving to Moscow, taught for two years at Auburn University, Alabama.

1 Alternative versions of Moltmann’s view appeared in her earlier work (2003; 2013, chap. 4). As Moltmann explains (2017a, 283–86), there are major differences between those earlier versions of her view and her post-2014 account. In this paper, I address only the latter.

2 Compare van der Schaar (2006, 40): “[I]t seems clear that [for Twardowski] there is not some extra entity, say the dream, besides the activity of dreaming … The two terms, “my dreaming” and “my dream,” illuminate different aspects of the activity of dreaming.”

3 As explained by the translator (Twardowski 2011, sec. 2n4), the Polish term rendered as “phenomenal” is the adjectival form of a word that means event or occurrence.

4 It is disputed that mental acts such as acts of judging and thinking should be construed as events that unfold over time and have temporal parts (Geach 1957, sec. 23; Soteriou 2007).

5 The following proposal draws in part on suggestions offered in Hanks (2015, 66-71).

6 For a clear expression of the part of this view that applies to linguistic acts, see Austin (1962, 139, 148), where truth is characterized as a “dimension of assessment” or “dimension of criticism” of utterances.

7 For similar passages that refer explicitly or implicitly to work in philosophy (rather than “work in logic”), see Frege (1979, 266, 270).


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