Indexicals and Demonstratives

When you use "I," you refer to yourself. When I use it, I refer to myself. We use the same linguistic expression with the same conventional meaning. It is a matter of who uses it that determines who is the referent. Moreover, when Jon, pointing to Sue, says "she" or "you," he refers to Sue, whereas Sue can neither use "she" nor "you" to refer to herself, unless she is addressing an image of herself. If we change the context -- the speaker, time, place, addressee, or audience -- in which these expressions occur, we may end up with a different referent. Among the expressions that may switch reference with a change in context are personal pronouns (my, you, she, his, we, . . .), demonstrative pronouns (this, that), compound demonstratives (this table, that woman near the window, . . .), adverbs (today, yesterday, now, here, . . .), adjectives (actual and present), possessive adjectives (my pen, their house, . . .). The reference of other words (e.g., local, Monday, . . .) seems also to depend on the context in which they occur. These words capture the interest of those working within the boundaries of cognitive science for several reasons: they play crucial roles when dealing with such puzzling notions as the nature of the SELF, the nature of perception, the nature of time, and so forth.

Reichenbach (1947) characterized this class of expressions token reflexive and argued that they can be defined in terms of the locution "this token," where the latter (reflexively) self-refers to the very token used. So, "I" can be defined in terms of "the person who utters this token," "now" in terms of "the time at which this token is uttered," "this table" in terms of "the table pointed to by a gesture accompanying this token," and so on.

One of the major features of token reflexive expressions -- also called indexical expressions -- that differentiates them from other referential expressions (e.g., proper names: "Socrates," "Paris"; mass terms: "gold," "water"; terms for species: "tiger," "rose"; and so on) is that they are usually used to make reference in praesentia. That is, a use of a token reflexive expression exploits the presence of the referent. In a usual communicative interaction the referent is in the perceptual field of the speaker and some contextual clues are used to make the referent salient.

When token reflexive expressions are not used to make reference in praesentia they exploit a previously fixed reference. "That man" in "That man we saw last night is handsome" does not refer to a present man. The use of token reflexive expressions to make reference in absentia forces the distinction between the context of utterance and the context of reference fixing. In our example, to fix the reference the speaker and the hearer appeal to a past context. The gap between the two contexts is bridged by memory.

The general moral seems to be that the paradigmatic use of a token reflexive expression cannot be deferential. Although one often relies on the so-called division of linguistic labor when using nontoken reflexive expressions, one cannot appeal to the same phenomenon when using a token reflexive expression: for example, one can competently use "Spiro Agnew" or "roadrunner" even if one does not know who Spiro Agnew is or is unable to tell a roadrunner from a rabbit. This parallels the fact that when using proper names, mass terms, and the like, context is in play before the name is used: we first fix the context and then use the name, whereas with token reflexive expressions context is at work the very moment we use them. As Perry (1997) suggests, we often use context to disambiguate a mark or noise (e.g., "bank;" "Aristotle" used either as a tag for the philosopher or for Onassis). These are presemantic uses of context. With token reflexive expressions, though, context is used semantically. It remains relevant after the language, words, and meaning are all known; the meaning directs us to certain aspects of context. This distinction reflects on the fact that proper names, mass terms, and so on, unlike token reflexive expressions, contribute to building context-free (eternal) sentences, that is, sentences that are true or false independently of the context in which they are used.

These general features of token reflexive expressions depend on their particular linguistic meaning: "the utterer of this token" is the linguistic meaning (the character, Kaplan 1977, or role, Perry 1977) of "I," whereas "the day in which this token is uttered" is the linguistic meaning of "today," and so on. As such, their linguistic meaning can be viewed as a function taking as argument the context and giving as value the referent (Kaplan 1977).

It is often the case, though, that the linguistic MEANING of expressions like "this," "that," "she," and so on, together with context, is not enough to select a referent. These expressions are often accompanied by a pointing gesture or demonstration and the referent will be what the demonstration demonstrates. Kaplan (1977) distinguishes between pure indexicals ("I," "now," "today,". . .) and demonstratives ("this," "she," . . .). The former, unlike the latter, do not need a demonstration to secure the refererence.

Another way to understand the distinction between pure indexicals and demonstratives is to argue that the latter, unlike pure indexicals, are perception based. When one says "I" or "today," one does not have to perceive oneself or the relevant day to be able to use and understand these expressions competently. To use and understand "this," "she," and the like competently, one ought to perceive the referent or demonstratum. For this very reason, when a pure indexical is involved, the context of reference fixing and the context of utterance cannot diverge: the reference of a pure indexical, unlike the reference of a demonstrative, cannot be fixed by a past perception.

Moreover, a demonstrative, unlike a pure indexical, can be a vacuous term. "Today," "I," and so on never miss the referent. Even if I do not know whether today is Monday or Tuesday and I am amnesiac, if I say "Today I am tired," I refer to the relevant day and myself. By contrast, if hallucinating one says "She is funny," or pointing to a man, "This car is green," "she" and "this car" are vacuous.

Besides, pure indexicals cannot be coupled with sortal predicates, whereas "this" and "that" are often accompanied by sortal predicates to form compound demonstratives like "this book" and "that water." Sortal predicates can be considered to be universe narrowers which, coupled with other contextual clues, help us fix the reference. If when pointing to a bottle one says "This liquid is green," the sortal "liquid" helps us to fix the liquid and not the bottle as referent. Moreover, personal pronouns that work like demonstratives (e.g., "she," "he," "we," . . .) have a built-in or hidden sortal. "She," unlike "he," refers to a female, whereas "we" refers to a plurality of people among whom is the speaker.

See also

Additional links

-- Eros Corazza


Biro, J. (1982). Intention, demonstration, and reference. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research XLIII(1): 35-41.

Castañeda, H. (1966). "He": a study in the logic of self-consciousness. Ratio 8(2):130-157.

Castañeda, H. (1967). Indicators and quasi-indicators. American Philosophical Quarterly 4(2):85-100.

Evans, G. (1981). Understanding demonstratives. In G. Evans (1985), Collected Papers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 291-321.

Frege, G. (1918/1988). Thoughts. In N. Salmon and S. Soaemes, Eds., Propositions and Attitudes. Original work published 1918. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 33-55.

Kaplan, D. (1977/1989). Demonstratives. In J. Almog et al., Eds., Themes from Kaplan. Original work published 1977. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 481-563.

Kaplan, D. (1989). Afterthoughts. In J. Almog et al., Eds., Themes from Kaplan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 565-614.

Lewis, D. (1979). Attitudes de dicto and de se. The Philosophical Review 88:513-543. Reprinted in D. Lewis (1983), Philosophical Papers: vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Perry, J. (1977). Frege on demonstratives. The Philosophical Review 86(4):476-497. Reprinted in J. Perry (1993), The Problem of the Essential Indexical and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Perry, J. (1979). The problem of the essential indexical. Nous 13(1):3-21. Reprinted in J. Perry (1993), The Problem of the Essential Indexical and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Perry, J. (1997). Indexicals and demonstratives. In R. Hale and C. Wright, Eds., Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 586-612.

Reichenbach, H. (1947). Elements of Symbolic Logics. New York: Free Press, pp. 284-286.

Yourgrau, P., Ed. (1990). Demonstratives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further Readings

Austin, D. (1990). What's the Meaning of This? Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bach, K. (1987). Thought and Reference. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Boër, S. E., and W. G. Lycan. (1980). Who, me? The Philosophical Review 89(3):427-466.

Burks, A. W. (1949). Icon, index, and symbol. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 10:673-689.

Castañeda, H-N. (1989). Thinking, Language, and Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chisholm, R. (1981). The First Person. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Corazza, E. (1995). Référence, Contexte et Attitudes. Montréal and Paris: Bellarmin/Vrin.

Evans, G. (1982). The Varieties of Reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mellor, D. H. (1989). I and now. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 89:79-84. Reprinted in D. H. Mellor (1991), Matters of Metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Numberg, G. (1993). Indexicality and deixis. Linguistics and Philosophy 16:1-43.

Perry, J. (1986). Thoughts without representation. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 60:137-152. Reprinted in J. Perry, (1993), The problem of the Essential Indexical and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Récanati, F. (1993). Direct Reference. London: Blackwell.

Vallée, R. (1996). Who are we? Canadian Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 26, no. 2:211-230.

Wettstein, H. (1981). Demonstrative reference and definite descriptions. Philosophical Studies 40:241-257. Reprinted in H. Wettstein (1991), Has Semantics Rested on a Mistake? and Other Essays. Stanford: Stanford University Press .