In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Singular Thought

  • Introduction

Philosophy Singular Thought
Michael Murez, François Recanati, Felipe Carvalho
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0163


In February 2013, an inhabitant of Chelyabinsk, Russia, looks up and sees a meteor hurtling through the sky. He thinks, “That is dangerous!” Miles away, after months of careful calculations, a scientist has come to expect the incident in Chelyabinsk. She thinks, “The meteor visible in Chelyabinsk on February 15 is dangerous.” Pre-theoretically, there is a sense in which the two thoughts just reported are similar. What makes both of them true is that a certain object, the meteor, has a certain property, dangerousness. However, there is also an intuitive sense in which both thoughts are importantly different. The terrified inhabitant is thinking about the very object he stands in perceptual contact with—in some sense, directly. By contrast, the scientist represents the meteor more indirectly, merely as whatever uniquely satisfies a certain description. The inhabitant’s thought is sometimes called a perceptual demonstrative thought. It is a paradigmatic example of a kind of thought that philosophers have taken a particular interest in. Such thought is variously known as de re, non-descriptive, or, most often, singular thought. The second kind of thought is often known as descriptive or general. The distinction between singular and general thought is widely held to be crucial to our understanding of the mind and intentionality. Many philosophers think that singular thought is somehow fundamental or basic, and that understanding it is an important step toward understanding how we think about external reality at all. Though there is a wide consensus on the importance of the distinction between singular and general thought, there is at present a lively debate on how best to account for it. Traditionally, the topic of singular thought has been intertwined with central issues in philosophy of language concerning the nature of reference and the semantics and pragmatics of propositional attitude reports. The problem of singular thought also connects with important problems, in philosophy, of perception and epistemology. Additionally, in recent years, the philosophical literature on singular thought has drawn increasingly on relevant empirical work in the cognitive sciences, making the study of singular thought an important issue in philosophy of psychology.

General References

General reference works on singular thought include classics that set the stage for contemporary discussions of the topic (see Classical Sources and Historical Background), collections and surveys that offer a snapshot of current debates (see Collections and Surveys), as well as a number of influential monographs (see Monographs).

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