De dicto and de re

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De dicto and de re are two phrases used to mark a distinction in intentional statements, associated with the intentional operators in many such statements. The distinction is used regularly in metaphysics and in philosophy of language.[1]

The literal translation of the phrase "de dicto" is "about what is said",[2] whereas de re translates as "about the thing".[3] The original meaning of the Latin locutions may help to elucidate the living meaning of the phrases, in the distinctions they mark. The distinction can be understood by examples of intentional contexts of which three are considered here: a context of thought, a context of desire, and a context of modality.

Context of thought[edit]

There are two possible interpretations of the sentence “Peter believes someone is out to get him”. On one interpretation, ‘someone’ is unspecific and Peter suffers a general paranoia; he believes that it is true that a person is out to get him, but does not necessarily have any beliefs about who this person may be. What Peter believes is that the predicate ‘is out to get Peter’ is satisfied. This is the de dicto interpretation.

On the de re interpretation, ‘someone’ is specific, picking out some particular individual. There is some person Peter has in mind, and Peter believes that person is out to get him.

In the context of thought, the distinction helps us explain how people can hold seemingly self-contradictory beliefs. Say Lois Lane believes Clark Kent is weaker than Superman. Since Clark Kent is Superman, taken de re, Lois’s belief is untenable; the names ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ pick out an individual in the world, and a person (or super-person) cannot be stronger than himself. Understood de dicto, however, this may be a perfectly reasonable belief, since Lois is not aware that Clark and Superman are one and the same.

Context of desire[edit]

Consider the sentence "Jana wants to marry the tallest man in Fulsom County". It could be read either de dicto or de re; the meanings would be different. One interpretation is that Jana wants to marry the tallest man in Fulsom County, whoever he might be. On this interpretation, what the statement tells us is that Jana has a certain unspecific desire; what she desires is that a certain situation should obtain, namely, Jana's marrying the tallest man in Fulsom County. The desire is directed at that situation, regardless of how it is to be achieved. The other interpretation is that Jana wants to marry a certain man, who in fact happens to be the tallest man in Fulsom County. Her desire is for that man, and she desires herself to marry him. Again, the first interpretation, "Jana desires that she marry the tallest man in Fulsom County", is the de dicto interpretation. The second interpretation, "Of the tallest man in Fulsom County, Jana desires that she marry him", is the de re interpretation.

Another way to understand the distinction is to ask what Jana would want if the man who was the tallest man in Fulsom County, at the time the original statement was made, were to lose his accolade to a 9 foot tall immigrant, such that he was no longer the tallest man in Fulsom County. If she continued to want to marry that man – and, importantly, perceived this as representing no change in her desires – then she could be taken to have meant the original statement in a de re sense. If she no longer wanted to marry that man but instead wanted to marry the new tallest man in Fulsom County, and saw this as a continuation of her earlier desire, then she meant the original statement in a de dicto sense.

Context of modality[edit]

The number of discovered chemical elements is 118. Take the sentence "The number of chemical elements is necessarily greater than 100". Again, there are two interpretations as per the de dicto / de re distinction. According to the de dicto interpretation, even if the inner workings of the atom could differ, there could not be fewer than 100 elements. The second interpretation, de re, is that things could not have gone differently with the number 118 turning out to be fewer than 100. Intuitively, this claim is true. Of all the ways the world could have turned out, presumably there are no possibilities wherein 118 is fewer than 100. That 118 is greater than 100 is a necessary fact. The de dicto interpretation seems to yield a false statement. The de re interpretation seems to yield a true statement.

Another example: "The President of the USA in 2001 could not have been Al Gore". This claim seems false on a de dicto reading. Presumably, things could have gone differently, with the Supreme Court not claiming that Bush had won the election. But it looks more plausible on a de re reading. After all, we might skeptically wonder of George W. Bush whether he could have been Al Gore. Indeed, assuming that being George Bush is an essential feature of George Bush and that this feature is incompatible with being Al Gore, a de re reading of the statement is true.

Representing de dicto and de re in modal logic[edit]

In modal logic the distinction between de dicto and de re is one of scope. In de dicto claims, any existential quantifiers are within the scope of the modal operator, whereas in de re claims the modal operator falls within the scope of the existential quantifier. For example:

De dicto: Necessarily, some x is such that it is A
De re: Some x is such that it is necessarily A

See also[edit]



  • Burge, Tyler. 1977. Belief de re. Journal of Philosophy 74, 338-362.
  • Donnellan, Keith S. 1966. Reference and definite descriptions. Philosophical Review 75, 281-304.
  • Frege, Gottlob. 1892. Über Sinn und Bedeutung. Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik 100, 25-50. Translated as On sense and reference by Peter Geach & Max Black, 1970, in Translations from the philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege. Oxford, Blackwell, 56-78.
  • Kaplan, David. 1978. Dthat. In Peter Cole, ed., Syntax and Semantics, vol. 9: Pragmatics. New York: Academic Press, 221-243
  • Kripke, Saul. 1977. Speaker’s reference and semantic reference. In Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling, Jr., and Howard K. Wettstein, eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy vol. II: Studies in the philosophy of language. Morris, MN: University of Minnesota, 255-276.
  • Larson, Richard & Gabriel Segal. 1995. Definite descriptions. In Knowledge of meaning: An introduction to semantic theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 319-359.
  • Ludlow, Peter & Stephen Neale. 1991. Indefinite descriptions: In defense of Russell. Linguistics and Philosophy 14, 171-202.
  • Ostertag, Gary. 1998. Introduction. In Gary Ostertag, ed., Definite descriptions: a reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1-34.
  • Russell, Bertrand. 1905. On denoting. Mind 14, 479-493.
  • Wettstein, Howard. 1981. Demonstrative reference and definite descriptions. Philosophical Studies 40, 241-257.
  • Wilson, George M. 1991. Reference and pronominal descriptions. Journal of Philosophy 88, 359-387.

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