Skill-based acquaintance
: a non-causal account of reference

  • Jean Gové

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis provides an account of acquaintance with abstract objects. The notion of acquaintance is integral to theorising on reference and singular thought, since it is generally taken to be the relation that must exist between a subject and an object, in order for the subject to refer to, and entertain singular thoughts about the object. The most common way of understanding acquaintance is as a form of causal connection.

However, this implies a problem. We seem to be able to refer and have singular thoughts about abstract objects. But given that abstract objects are causally inert, this would mean that we are unable to become acquainted with them. This problem shall be the focus of this thesis.

I first argue that these traditional causal interpretations of acquaintance are lacking. Instead, I show that acquaintance is dependent to some degree on factors internal to the subject, namely the skills that they possess. From doctors to sommeliers to mathematicians (and possibly even philosophers!) – these subjects seem to succeed in becoming acquainted with certain objects precisely in virtue of their respective skills. Thus, building off from Evans’ The Varieties of Reference, I present a novel account of acquaintance, which I term as Skill-based Acquaintance (SBA). On SBA, a subject is said to be acquainted with an object when they possess discriminating knowledge of that object, gained through the use of their capacities and skills.
The SBA account is applied to virtual (Ch.3), fictional (Ch.4), and mathematical objects (Ch.5), as well as God (Ch.6). SBA is successful in explaining how subjects can indeed become acquainted with these problematic categories of objects - some of which are abstract – thus being able to refer and entertain singular thoughts about them. Overall, then, SBA is shown to have greater explanatory power than competing accounts and should thus be preferred.
Date of Award4 Dec 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorDerek Nelson Ball (Supervisor) & Simon James Prosser (Supervisor)


  • Reference
  • Acquaintance
  • Singular thought
  • Gareth Evans
  • Abstract objects

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