What follows is a paper first published in the journal Ratio, vol. XXIV, 3, Setembro 2011 (footnotes etc. were lost as I transfered the content to this blog and I thank again Manuel Garcia-Carpintero, Wolfgang Spohn and João Branquinho for their helpful advice and support).
Remark: Since the publication I convinced myself that a mixed approach (a causal-descriptivist view) is an unecessary conssession to the causal-historical view. The main reason is that we may have purelly coincidental references, as far as we give a sense to our proper names (chapter 8 of Como expressões referenciais referem?). Because of this the identifying rule for proper names can take the following, easier form:
A proper name N is used to refer to the object x belonging to a certain class C of objects,
(i-a) x satisfies its localizing description for N, and/or
(i-b) x satisfies its characterizing description for N, and
(ii) x satisfies the description(s) sufficiently, and
(iii) x satisfies the description(s) better than any other object belonging to C.
The draft of a corrected and expanded version can be found in this blog under the title "Outline of a Theory of Proper Names". So, instead of the present paper, I suggest you read the new version!
A META-DESCRIPTIVIST THEORY OF PROPER NAMES
Claudio F. Costa
This paper proposes a new, stronger version of the cluster theory of proper names. It introduces a meta-identifying rule that can establish the cluster’s main descriptions and explain how they must be satisfied in order to allow the application of a proper name. This theory also preserves some main insights of the causal-historical view. With the resulting view we can not only give a more detailed reply to the counter-examples to descriptivism, but also explain the informative contents of proper names and why they are rigid designators in contrast with descriptions.
One problem with the traditional cluster theory of proper names is that a cluster has no internal structure. All descriptions belonging to the cluster seem to have the same value and to play the same identifying role. Hypothetically, we could strengthen the cluster theory if we had a meta-descriptive rule that when applied to the relevant descriptions would tell us under what conditions their satisfaction warrants the claim that the proper name has a bearer. But is there an independent way to find the relevant descriptions?
Fundamental and auxiliary descriptions
One way to find the relevant descriptions associated with a word would be to follow J.L. Austin’s advice to look at the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is true that we cannot do this with most proper names, since they are usually not included in dictionaries. Nevertheless, many proper names can be found in encyclopedias. Here is what the entry for the name ‘Aristotle’ in the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy tell us:
Aristotle = (384-322 B.C.) born in Stagira, north of Greece, Aristotle produced the major philosophical system of antiquity…
We are given a spatio-temporal location for Aristotle (born in Stagira in 384 B.C…) followed by the main reasons why we use this name (the system of ideas presented in his philosophical works). This pattern is found at the start of most encyclopedia entries on historical personages.
This brings us to the following proposal: the most important attributive definite descriptions associated with proper names are of two kinds:
(i) a localizing description, which gives the spatio-temporal location and career of the object.
(ii) a characterizing description, which gives what are considered the most relevant properties of the object, those that give us the reason to use the name in referring to it.
These descriptions can be regarded as expressions of cognitive acts necessary to apply rules for the identification of the name’s bearer. In order to show the importance of these description rules, we can give some examples of localizing descriptions for proper names, such as are typically found at the beginning of Wikipedia entries in the internet. They can be summarized as follows:
Localizing description: (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) He was born in Corsica, lived the main part of his life in France, and died on the island of Saint Helena.
Characterizing description: a major military and political figure whose actions shaped the European politics of the 19th century; he conquered most of Europe in the Napoleonic wars, was proclaimed Emperor of France, and established the administrative and juridical foundations of modern Europe.
Localizing description: a large city situated in the North of France, on the banks of the Seine; its emergence as a city dated from the 9th century.
Characterizing description: the capital of France, a city with more than 10 million residents, economic center of the country and one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Localizing description: a well conserved mausoleum built between 1630 and 1652 near the city of Agra, India.
Characterizing description: an impressive marble mausoleum with characteristic architecture built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, empress Mumtaz Mahal.
Localizing description: a river that arises in the Andes mountains of Peru and flows 3,300 miles through northern Brazil and into the Atlantic Ocean. It has existed since time immemorial.
Characterizing description: the largest river in the world by volume. It forms the largest drainage basin in the world and supplies 1/5 of all the water that flows into the world’s oceans.
Notice that the class to which the object belongs (of men, of cities, of buildings, of rivers) should also be included in the localizing description, since we need to know at least the closest kind (the genus) to which the thing belongs in order to locate its spatio-temporally. Moreover, the spatial extension of the object can also be included in the localizing description (e.g. China, the Milky Way).
Even if these descriptions are not essential, they seem undeniably important for the identification of the named object. For this reason I will call them fundamental descriptions. But – what about the others? In order to find them, we need to read the whole encyclopedia entry, or even whole biographies. I will call these auxiliary descriptions, since they seem to connect a name with its bearer in a more or less accidental fashion. Here goes a rough but useful classification:
a) Metaphorical descriptions: Aristotle was ‘the master of those who know’, Napoleon was ‘the man of destiny’, Paris is ‘the City of Light’. These are picturesque and often laudatory mnemonic devices, alluding to salient properties. But these properties do not need to be characterizing. The description ‘the master of those who know’, for example, points to the deep intricacies of Aristotelian philosophy, but we feel that it is not properly identifying.
b) Accidental, but well-known descriptions: Aristotle was ‘the tutor of Alexander’, Moses was ‘the man who as a baby was taken from the waters of the Nile’. Most of us know these descriptions. Nonetheless, they are accidental, since both Aristotle and Moses would continue to be what they were even if these descriptions did not apply. (Descriptions of the form ‘the object named by ‘N’’ are of this kind, since it is accidental that an object is named by a certain word; if Aristotle had been given the name ‘Pitacus’ at birth, he would still be our Aristotle.)
c) Accidental and usually unknown descriptions: consider ‘the grandson of Achaeon’ and ‘the lover of Herphylis’. These definite descriptions are about Aristotle, though only a few people know these facts about his life. Accidental descriptions, which can often be found in biographies, seem to play no role in the identification of the object designated by the name. You will not get very far if all you know about Aristotle is that he was Achaeon’s grandson.
d) Adventitious descriptions: these descriptions associate a name with a certain context of utterance. For example: ‘the philosopher mentioned by the professor in a class’, ‘the woman introduced to us at the party’. These temporary rules allow the speaker to share information with those acquainted with the context, but trusting the knowledge of better informed speakers.
My contention is that it is a weakness of the traditional cluster theory of proper names that its defenders have never distinguished fundamental from auxiliary descriptions, putting both on the same level. Frege, for example, associates the name ‘Aristotle’ with the description ‘the tutor of Alexander’, and Wittgenstein associates the name ‘Moses’ with ‘the man who as a baby was taken from the waters of the Nile by the Pharaoh’s daughter’. Both are accidental descriptions. It is because of this failure that traditional cluster theories, even in the form proposed by John Searle, although not wrong, lack explanatory power. The major importance of fundamental descriptions will be clear after we construct a meta-descriptive rule for proper names and see how it works.
In order to find an adequate meta-descriptive rule, let us consider once again the different kinds of description. Since auxiliary descriptions are highly contingent, we can dispense with them from the start. But one could object that localizing and characterizing descriptions are also at least non-essential. For if they were really essential, a proper name would need to satisfy both the localizing and the characterizing descriptions in order to refer to its reference, which is not the case. We can imagine, for example, a possible world where someone called Aristotle was born in Stagira in 384 B.C., the son of Nicomachus, a physician at Philip’s court, and that at the age of 17 he was sent to Athens to study under Plato. Unfortunately, soon after his arrival he suffered a brain fever that made him unable to do any intellectual work until his death in Chalcis in 322 B.C. This man only satisfies the localizing rule for Aristotle, but not the characterizing rule. Nevertheless, we would certainly identify him with our Aristotle, say, in potentia. On the other hand, imagine a possible world where there was no Aristotle in Greece, but where a medieval Arab scholar with the nickname ‘Aristotle’ wrote the entire Aristotelian opus in classical Greek... We would identify him as our Aristotle in this world, even if he satisfies only the characterizing rule.
Another problem is that there are proper names that simply lack either a localizing or a characterizing description. Suppose, for example, that the center of a circle is referred to as ‘Z’. Although this point satisfies the condition of having a distinctive location, it does not need to have any relevant characteristics of its own. We could say that in this case the localizing description is also the characterizing description, since to localize must be the reason for the name. Consider on the other hand the name ‘Universe’, which is characterized as ‘all that exists’. Since it is all that exists, it cannot be located anywhere, neither in space nor in time, it cannot have a localizing description. The upshot of all this is that a meta-descriptive rule could not demand the satisfaction of the conjunction of localizing and characterizing descriptions for a proper name to have a reference.
Moreover, it is of great importance to see that, although the localizing and the characterizing descriptions do not need to apply jointly, it is impossible for a proper name to retain its reference if neither kind of fundamental description applies. This can be illustrated by an example once given by Searle:
If a classical scholar claimed to have discovered that Aristotle was no philosopher and wrote none of the works attributed to him, but was in fact an obscure Venetian fishmonger of the late Renaissance, then the ‘discovery’ would become a bad joke.
Indeed, it seems impossible to find a reference for a proper name that does not satisfy either the localizing or the characterizing description at least to some degree. From this and the earlier argument it follows that what is required for a proper name to have a bearer is at least an inclusive disjunction of the two fundamental descriptions. So, assuming that we already know the class (e.g. persons, cities, rivers…) to which a proper name belongs, we can state a first meta-identifying condition in the form of what can be called the disjunctive rule:
DR: A proper name N refers to an object x belonging to a class C of objects iff x satisfies its localizing description and/or its characterizing description.
Nonetheless, this condition is still far from sufficient for the application of a proper name. This is apparent when we consider one of Donnellan’s counterexamples to the descriptive view of proper names. All that we know about Thales, he states, is that he held that all is water. But suppose that Aristotle and Herodotus were misinformed and that Thales were only a wise well digger from Miletus who, tired of his profession, once exclaimed: ‘I wish that everything was water so that I wouldn’t have to dig these damned wells.’ A traveler, who did not know the local dialect, understood this utterance as a comment on the nature of reality, and this mistake was passed on by Herodotus, Aristotle and the whole philosophical tradition. Further, imagine that there were a hermit who never promulgated his ideas, but who actually held that all is water. Surely, Donnellan maintains, in the example we refer to the well digger and not the hermit, even though only the latter satisfies the description; and the reason is that what counts here is not the description, but rather the causal-historical chain linking the object to the proper name.
An already noted point about this counterexample is that intuitively we are not sure that the well digger was Thales. The reason is that our real characterizing rule says much more about Thales than only that he was the person who said that all is water. However, for the sake of the example, we can suppose that this is what matters. The really important point, however, is in my view that here, as in nearly all cases, there is an expected causal communicative chain linking the object to our awareness of the application of the fundamental descriptions associated with the name. Although in itself the causal chain might remain inscrutable, it typically involves a recognizable causal path that can be known and descriptively accessed. In the case of the name ‘Thales’, a philosopher remembered by his originating role in the history of philosophy, this causal path (here a causal history) is so important that it is incorporated into the fundamental descriptions as an essential component. Indeed, the characterizing description of Thales does not say just that he was the philosopher who said that all is water. What this description says is that he was ‘the philosopher who (causally) generated the known doxography and quotations of Aristotle and others, according to which the principle of everything is water…’ Moreover, the localizing rule for Thales says that ‘he is the man who probably lived in Miletus from 624 to 548-5 B.C., according to Diogenes Laertius, based on the writings of Apollodorus…’ One important consequence of this assumption is that the hermit thinker could not be Thales, even if he lived near to Miletus at the same time as the well digger and even if he said that the principle of a everything is water, since the causal history satisfied by the well digger inevitably supersedes the hermit’s claim that all is water.
In nearly all cases we can assume a causal chain like the above-mentioned, but it is also well known that there are exceptions. For example: we can assume that the name ‘4th Avenue’ has a referent without having heard anything about this avenue, since we have heard about the famous 5th Avenue. Although we have no information about Ramses VII, we can assume that he existed because we know something about Ramses VI and Ramses VIII. The planet ‘Neptune’ was named before its discovery as the cause of perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, and the name ‘Katherine’ was given to a hurricane some days before its occurrence because of meteorological forecasts. How could something that does not yet exist have causal powers?
Nonetheless, parallelizing Kripke’s view, we can still say that in all these cases we are able to infer a potential causal chain linking objects with our awareness that the fundamental descriptions associated with the proper names are applicable to them. That is: there are causal circumstances that make us infer (with greater or lesser probability) the existence of a named object which could eventually be the source of a causal-chain. In the first two examples, we are also causally aware of respectively a state of affairs (the numeration of the avenues) and a process (the succession of the Pharaohs), and because of this we can infer that a causal chain between objects belonging to them and our application of their names would plainly be possible, even if one has not been realized. Neptune was named because of the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus caused by Neptune’s gravitational force. Consequently, the formation of a causal chain between the planet Neptune and our awareness of the application of the fundamental descriptions was predicted and has in fact been realized, since it is because of this chain, which began with its astronomical observation, that we today use the name Neptune. And the same can be said of the name ‘Katherine’: When the name was given, meteorologists were sure that the hurricane would occur and that a causal link between this object and our use of the proper name would soon be formed, and this was indeed the case. We conclude that it must be assumed that there must be real or at least potentially construable expected causal chains of communication linking the object with our awareness that it satisfies the fundamental descriptions of the proper name in the ways demanded by DR. I wish to summarize this by saying that the object must rightly originate our awareness of its satisfaction of the fundamental descriptions of the proper name in the ways demanded by DR.
With the addition of this last proviso we can state the following improved version of DR:
A proper name N is used to refer to an object x belonging to a class C of objects,
It can be assumed that x is in the origin of our awareness that
(i-a) x satisfies its localizing description, and/or
(i-b) x satisfies its characterizing description.
Applied to Aristotle, this rule would say that the proper name ‘Aristotle’ is used to refer to an object x belonging to the class of human beings, iff x is the origin of our awareness that x was born in Stagira in 384 B.C., lived for many years in Athens… and died in Chalcis in 322 B.C., and/or x was the author of the ideas developed in the Aristotelian opus.
Now one can ask if the role of auxiliary descriptions was not neglected. Suppose that someone satisfies most of the auxiliary descriptions for Aristotle, but that this person does not satisfy any fundamental description. Could this person be Aristotle? I don’t think so. To show this, consider the story of the obscure Venetian fishmonger called ‘Aristotle’. Suppose that this man were the son of a physician called ‘Nicomachus’ whose father was called Achaeon, that he had a love affair with a woman named Herphyllis, that he taught a pupil named Alexander and founded something he called the Lyceum. In this case, the Nicomachus would not be the physician of the Macedonian Court, Herphyllis would not be the Greek concubine, this Alexander could not be the greatest conqueror of all times, and the Lyceum founded by this plain man could have nothing to do with the ancient peripatetic school. Auxiliary descriptions alone would not do the job. It would sound like a collection of curious and strange coincidences, creating an unconvincing persiflage of the real case.
Constructing the Meta-Descriptive Rule
Nevertheless, CDR is still insufficient. It is too narrow because we can imagine cases in which the two disjuncts are only partially satisfied or in which only one disjunct is partially satisfied and the other is not satisfied at all, but in which the name still has a bearer. Thus, imagine a possible world where Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira, and where he died when he was 17, soon after he was sent to Athens. In this world only the localizing rule would be satisfied, and then only partially, but we could still identify our Aristotle. And suppose that in a possible world there were no man called Aristotle born in Stagira in 384 B.C., but where three centuries later in Rome a man called Aristotle wrote the Metaphysics and some other Aristotelian theoretical works, but not a word of his practical philosophy. In this case only the characterizing rule is satisfied, and this only partially. However, we would still be inclined to say that this man was our Aristotle.
We can remedy this situation by proposing that the disjunctive rule must be complemented by a condition that the fundamental description must be sufficiently satisfied, even if not completely. It is true that we cannot give the exact measure of what we call ‘being sufficient’, but this can be attributed to the inevitable vagueness of natural language and the nature of the things it is intended to represent.
Another shortcoming of CDR is that it is also too broad, being satisfied by objects that are not referred to by a proper name. This would be the case if the localizing description were satisfied by one object and the characterizing description by another. This can be illustrated by the paradox of Theseus’ ship. Suppose that Theseus had a ship named ‘Calibdus’ and over time its planks were gradually replaced by new ones, so that in the end there was not one original plank left. Then someone decided to restore all the old planks and use them to build a new ship, identical with the original one. The question then is: which ship is now the Calibdus? (If you think that it must be the first one, you need only speed up the substitution of the planks: if the whole substitution occurs in one week or even in just one day, we would tend to say that the second ship must be the Calibdus.) The paradox arises because there is a split in the application of the fundamental descriptions. One ship satisfies the localizing description concerning the spatio-temporal career of the object, while the other ship satisfies the characterizing description, concerning its material constitution. According to CDR, both could be referred to with the same name, since both satisfy the rule. However, by definition a proper name cannot refer to more than one object, and thus the right answer must be that the Calibdus does not exist anymore.
The way to remedy this last deficiency is to add what we may call a predominance condition to CDR. This condition demands that in cases where more than one object satisfies the disjunctive condition for a proper name, the object that satisfies this rule better than all other objects of the same kind will be the referent of this name. If the two ships satisfy different fundamental descriptions to a similar extent, we cannot say that one of them is the real Calibdus. But if one fundamental description is satisfied better than the other, then we are again able to decide.
The addition of this condition allows us to solve problematic cases like the following. Suppose that in a possible world Nicomachus had twin sons, both called ‘Aristotle’ and born in Stagira in 322 B.C. One of them became a physician like his father and accompanied Alexander during his wars, succumbing to thirst and hunger in the desert while they were returning from India. The second Aristotle went to Athens, studied with Plato and wrote the Aristotelian opus. According to CDR, both brothers could be Aristotle, since both sufficiently satisfy the disjunctive condition. However, it is intuitive to us that the second twin is our Aristotle. The predominance condition explains why, since it gives us a criterion with which to choose the second twin as the best candidate.
The predominance condition also allows us to give a better answer to a problem suggested by Putnam’s twin earth thought experiment. Suppose that there is a twin earth where all events are precisely like those on our earth. On the twin earth there is also a Doppelgänger of our Aristotle. Apparently all the relevant descriptions apply to both Aristotles, since both were born in Stagira in 384 B.C., both of them wrote the Aristotelian opus, etc. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that the bearer of this name is the Aristotle of our earth and not the twin earth Aristotle.
The solution to this problem is given by the predominance condition, which allows us to choose the earth-bound Aristotle as the best candidate. The localizing description specifies that the bearer of the name ‘Aristotle’ was born on our earth in Stagira in the year 384 B.C. and not in a place such as a twin earth located in some far distant region of the universe. But this condition is really satisfied only by the Aristotle of our earth. We could be misled by the fact that the spatial surroundings of the Aristotle on the twin earth are similar to those of Aristotle on our earth. But when we consider that there is only one space, we see that there can be only one proper location.
Adding to CDR the conditions of sufficiency and predominance, we arrive at what I believe to be the best formulation of a meta-descriptive rule for proper names:
A proper name N is used to refer to the object x belonging to a certain class C of objects,
it can be assumed that x is in the origin of our awareness that
(i-a) x satisfies its localizing description for N, and/or
(i-b) x satisfies its characterizing description for N, and
(ii) x satisfies the description(s) sufficiently, and
(iii) x satisfies the description(s) better than any other object belonging to C.
Applying MDR to a proper name, we obtain what may be called its identifying rule. Thus, the identifying rule for the name ‘Thales’ could be that this name is used to refer to an object x belonging to the class of human beings, iff it can be assumed that x is the origin of our awareness that x was born in Miletus, where he lived from 624 to 548-5 B.C., according to Diogenes Laertius… and/or was the philosopher who generated the doxography and quotations of ancient thinkers like Aristotle, centered on the idea that the principle of everything is water… so that x satisfies the(se) description(s) sufficiently, and x satisfies the(se) description(s) better than any other human being (the well digger would surely satisfy this rule better than the hermit.)
Meaning of proper names
The proposed view allows us to give a better explanation for the problem of the meaning of proper names. It is still common to hold that proper names do not have a meaning, because when asked about this meaning we cannot find any simple answer, and because proper names are not usually included in dictionaries. However, this view does not withstand close examination, at least when we think of the meaning in terms of Fregean senses (Sinne), also called cognitive values (Erkenntniswerte) or informational content. Indeed, proper names seem to be the repository of a diffuse conglomeration of informational contents variously accessed by speakers. Consider, for example, the vast amount of information associated with a name like ‘Bertrand Russell’. From this perspective, it is not the case that proper names lack any meaning, but rather that they have too much meaning. This is why the meanings of many proper names, although not included in dictionaries, have found their proper places in encyclopedias and biographies giving detailed presentations of informational content about them.
All this becomes clear when we realize that the informative meaning of a proper name is given by its semantic rules, expressed by the associated descriptions. Some rules are of little or no interest. This is the case with MDR seen as a general identification rule. This rule cannot express the relevant meaning of a proper name, for it applies to all proper names, and what really matters for the meaning of a name is what distinguishes it from others of the same kind. Nor can the meaning be relevantly constituted by the rules expressed in auxiliary descriptions, since they have a contingent role in the identifying function of the proper name. Consequently, the meaning of a proper name must be relevantly constituted through rules expressed by the fundamental descriptions. This is intuitive: when asked what the name ‘Aristotle’ means, our first impulse is to repeat what we know from the name’s localizing and characterizing descriptions. We conclude that a proper name has two elements of informational meaning:
(i) a primary nucleus of meaning, given by its fundamental descriptions, and
(ii) a fringe of meaning, given by its auxiliary descriptions.
So, if we add (i) and (ii) we obtain the total informational meaning (content) of the proper name.
This understanding of informational content explains why proper names with no reference nevertheless can mean something. Take the case of ‘Vulcan’, a planet that Leverrier believed to exist between the sun and Mercury in order to explain irregularities in the latter’s orbit. There was even an identifying rule: the localizing description of a small planet located approximately 21,000,000 km from the sun. However, since there is no planet called Vulcan, the identifying rule could never be applied (except in our imagination). Nevertheless, because there is an (non-applied) identifying rule for ‘Vulcan’, the name still has a meaning.
One important point to be noted is that all these considerations about meaning are taken in abstraction from what is meant by a real user of a name in a concrete situation. If we consider what speakers mean when they use a proper name, we see that most of them have only a partial and changeable grasp of its informational content. This partial grasp is what Russell called a ‘description in our minds’. It is usually expressible by descriptions that, even if not thought, are at least dispositionally present in the speaker’s mind when he uses the name. On many occasions, what a speaker has in mind when using a name is only a general implication of fundamental descriptions, for example, ‘a great philosopher of Antiquity’ for the name Aristotle. However, one can have no knowledge of fundamental descriptions, but only of an auxiliary description like ‘the teacher of Alexander’. With such descriptions in mind one is already said ‘to refer’ to Aristotle. However, it is important to note that in these cases ‘to refer’ has a weaker sense, meaning only that by knowing something about the name and by knowing (which is even more important) that he lacks sufficient knowledge of the proper identifying rule to use the word correctly in a sufficiently undemanding context, trusting that privileged namers (specialists, witnesses, baptizers, etc.) would agree with it and be able to interpret it in ways that allow for the identification of its true reference. In this sense, referring is not an individual act, but rather demands the existence of a linguistic community. We could appeal here to a ‘division of linguistic labor’ (Putnam), interpreted in a descriptivist and internalist way as a division of cognitive linguistic labor, where the meaning, though social, remains internal, since it is partially, diversely and complementarily present in the minds of speakers.
Another advantage of meta-descriptivism is that it explains why proper names are rigid designators, namely, why they apply in all possible worlds where their references exist. The reason is simple: it is because the identifying rules of proper names apply in all possible worlds where their references exist, and in no possible world were these references do not exist. Because of this, any identifying rule for a proper name can be expressed by an analytical, a priori, necessary proposition. In the case of Aristotle, this proposition can be summarized as:
Aristotle is a person assumed to be in the origin of our awareness that it sufficiently satisfies the condition of a man born in Stagira in 384 B.C. who lived most of his life in Athens and died in Chalcis in 322 B.C. and/or the philosopher who developed the ideas presented in the Aristotelian opus, satisfying this disjunction better than any other candidate.
If our approach is correct, something like this is a necessary identity sentence. It must be true in all possible worlds, unlike sentences containing isolated descriptions such as ‘the man born in Stagira in 384 B.C.’ or ‘the greatest disciple of Plato’.
Now, if like Frege we understand the concept of existence as the property of a concept that it is satisfied by at least one object, in other words, that it is applicable to at least one object, then Aristotle’s existence can be rendered as the property of the identifying rule (the concept) for the name ‘Aristotle’ (which constitutes the nucleus of its informational meaning) to be satisfied by, or applicable to, the object. To say that Aristotle exists in a possible world during a certain time is then the same as to say that the identifying rule for this name is applicable during this time. Consequently, it is not possible that Aristotle exists and that simultaneously his identifying rule is not applicable.
Here the objection could be made that there are possible worlds where we do not know whether we can apply the identifying rule or not, for example, a world where Aristotle, the son of Nicomachus, was an anencephalic fetus and died some days after birth. However, we can attribute this to the inevitable vagueness of language. Attending to this, we only need to refine the concept of a rigid designator, defining it in a more flexible way as the property of a referential expression that it refers to the same object in all possible worlds where this object definitely exists. If we do this, then the question of its applicability in uncertain cases will not arise.
Proper names and definite descriptions
Why, unlike proper names, are most attributive definite descriptions only accidental designators? The causal-historical answer is that while proper names refer causally by picking out the object in itself, definite descriptions refer only indirectly, by means of their semantic contents. However, the causal-historical theorist has never explained how the proper name can have such an intimate relation with its bearer without internally relating to any of its properties.
Now, the proposed causal-meta-descriptivist view, in contrast, offers a far more convincing explanation. Definite descriptions usually belong to the cluster of descriptions associated with proper names. This means that they are in a sense semantically subordinated to the proper names they are associated with, for they help us to identify their owners. But this semantic subordination is not a necessary feature of these descriptions: it is only something that we assume to be the case in our world and not something that must be the case in all other possible worlds where the name applies to its owner. Because of this possible mismatch between the reference of the descriptions in other worlds and the reference of the proper names to which they are subordinated in our world, the descriptions are said to pick out different objects or even no object in other possible worlds, what makes them only accidental designators of these objects. For example: when we consider a description like ‘the inventor of bifocals’, we have in mind a component of the sense of the proper name ‘Benjamin Franklin’ through which we, using the identifying rule for its name, pick out the same object in all possible worlds where this object exists. But imagine a possible world where bifocals were not invented by ‘Benjamin Franklin’, but instead by a Russian optician named Borak. In this world the description ‘the inventor of bifocals’ will be subordinated to the proper name Borak, referring for this reason to a different object.
Two consequences of this view are the following: (i) descriptions associated with proper names, particularly auxiliary ones, must be accidental, (ii) descriptions not associated with any proper name, particularly when they are treated as fundamental, are easily seen as rigid designators. Both of these consequences are proved true by examples.
Consider the following examples of (i):
1. the iron lady,
2. the City of Light,
3. the master of those who know,
4. the first emperor of Rome.
All these descriptions are clearly accidental designators. This is so because there are possible worlds where Margaret Thatcher was a fragile housewife who never went into politics, where Paris was destroyed in the tenth century, never becoming the City of Light, where Aristotle never wrote a word of philosophy, and where Julius Caesar was a tenacious defender of democracy. In such worlds, these descriptions would not apply, or they would apply to the objects of proper names that they are not subordinated to in our world. These descriptions must all be accidental, because their satisfaction is only contingently associated with the satisfaction of the identifying rules for the proper names to which they are factually subordinated in our world.
Now consider some examples of (ii):
1. the easternmost point of South America,
2. the third cavalry regiment of Sintra,
3. the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914,
4. the last ice age.
Since they are not associated with proper names, these descriptions can easily be interpreted as rigid, and they will be regarded as accidental only when associated with a content that satisfies the disjunctive rule of other referential expressions. Thus, description (1), when associated with the geographical place referred to in our world as the city of João Pessoa, will be an accidental designator. But if we understand (1) as designating the easternmost point of South America regardless of its latitude, then it is a rigid designator. For if in a possible world there is a South America where Tierra del Fuego is twisted in the direction of Africa so that the easternmost point of South America turns out to be somewhere in Tierra del Fuego, we will find in this region the same referent – the same point – located in that world. The same applies to (2): if ‘the third cavalry regiment of Sintra’ is understood independently of its changeable components and of a certain time of existence, it will be rigid. And the same, of course, applies to description (3), naming an event, and to description (4), naming a state of affairs. If in a possible world Ferdinand were strangled and not shot dead, (3) would still apply; and if in a possible world the last ice age ended twenty-thousand years earlier than in ours, (4) would still apply, since it would also still be the last ice age in that world.
Since consequences (i) and (ii) are not anticipated by the old causal-historical explanation, they support the meta-descriptivist understanding of naming.
In what follows, I will refute only some of the main counterexamples to descriptivist theories of proper names, since a detailed treatment is not possible here.
A well-known counterexample is that of Gödel. Suppose that all that John knows about Kurt Gödel is the description ‘the originator of the incompleteness theorem’; then suppose that in the Twenties, an unknown Viennese logician named Schmidt wrote a paper which presented the incompleteness theorem, dying mysteriously soon after this. After his death, his friend Gödel stole the manuscript and published it under his own name. According to Kripke, if the description theory were correct, John should conclude that ‘Gödel’ means the same thing as ‘Schmidt’. Nevertheless, it is clear that Gödel was Gödel and not Schmidt!
This objection poses no difficulty for meta-descriptive theory. Our characterizing description of the name ‘Kurt Gödel’ can be summarized as: a ‘great logician whose most important idea was the incompleteness theorem’. This is more than what John knows, since this description also points to Gödel’s skills as a logician and to his other contributions to logic. Moreover, Kripke does not even consider the localizing description: ‘the person born in Brünn in 1906, who studied in Vienna, emigrated to the USA in 1940, and worked at Princeton University until his death in 1976’. As a competent speaker of the language, John must tacitly know that in order to conclude that Gödel was Schmidt one would have to do much more than just attribute the discovery of the incompleteness theorem to Schmidt: one must also attribute both the missing constituents of the characterizing description of Gödel, as well as the whole localizing description of Gödel, to Schmidt. Since John does not know these descriptions, he has no reason to conclude that Gödel is Schmidt, and he certainly knows that.
However, the information that Schmidt developed the theorem already transfers something from the meaning of ‘Gödel’ to the meaning of ‘Schmidt’. For imagine that, shocked by the news of Gödel’s dishonesty and feeling pity for Schmidt, John exclaims: ‘Yes, Schmidt was the true Gödel!’ We feel that he is right, as long as we understand this utterance as hyperbole. Moreover, there are ways in which Gödel could really be Schmidt. Thus, suppose that for some reason Schmidt murdered Gödel when he was a teen ager and assumed his identity, studied in Vienna, conceived of the theorem of incompleteness, married Adele, emigrated to the USA in 1940 and worked at Princeton University until his death in 1976. In this case, we would all agree that Gödel was Schmidt, but only because Schmidt is the causal origin of our awareness that he satisfies the fundamental descriptions for this name sufficiently and more than any other person. In this case, Kripke would get his cake, but would not be able to eat it too, since the meta-descriptive theory explains this occurrence much better than the causal-historical view.
Another of Kripke’s counterexamples is the following. Suppose we have fixed the reference of the name ‘Hesperus’, associating it with the description ‘the celestial body visible in the sky there in the afternoon’. If the description theory were true, he holds, this would be a necessary truth. But imagine a counterfactual situation in which Hesperus was long before struck by a comet, shifting its orbit so that it occupied a very different position in the sky. In this case, Hesperus would not satisfy the description. However, Hesperus would remain Hesperus, independently of descriptions, for its name is a rigid designator.
In order to answer this objection, we need first to note that Kripke is appealing to a very contingent auxiliary description, while he uses ‘Hesperus’ here as an alternative name for ‘Venus’. But the localizing description of Venus is ‘the planet that at the time of its naming orbited the sun between Mercury and the earth’, which indicates a causal path. There is no relevant characterizing description, since ‘the planet that at the time of its naming was the brightest visible to the naked eye and had nearly the same size as the earth’ is contingent and surely not the main reason for applying the name. Indeed, we could even say that in this case the localizing description is also the characterizing description, since it is what gives us the real reason to use the name! The result is that if at the time of its naming this localizing-characterizing description were not satisfied (if it were not the planet between Mercury and the earth) there would be no reason to say that this planet was the same as Venus. Since the condition of identification would not be satisfied, this counterexample is incoherent.
A different kind of counterexample is given by semi-fictional names like Jonah. According to the Bible, Jonah was sent by God to preach in Nineveh and, because he defied God, he was cast overboard during a storm and swallowed by a big fish. These descriptions are held to be historically false. However, there are biblical scholars who believe that there was some real person who was the source of this tale. The conclusion, according to Kripke, is that the name Jonah would in this case have a reference because of its causal-historical chain and not because of any wrongly associated descriptions.
Our view is that even in these cases descriptions play a fundamental role. Associated with semi-fictional names there must be both fictional and non-fictional descriptions. The fictional ones are those referred to above. But we can extract from the story some vague fundamental descriptions that some believe to be non-fictional, like the localizing description ‘a man who lived in North Africa in the seventh century B.C.’ and the characterizing description ‘a preacher who originated the biblical tale of Jonah’. Although these descriptions are not precise enough to create an effective identifying rule, there are reasons to suppose that this rule could possibly be established and applied, and this amounts to the same thing as to say that there could have been someone who was in the origin of the biblical tale.
Suppose, on the other hand, that in the fourth century B.C. one of the writers of the Bible was injured when he stepped on a sea urchin and, inspired by this accident, wrote the story of Jonah while recovering. In this case we would not say that Jonah ‘was’ the sea urchin, since our vague localizing and characterizing descriptions, even if causally originated by the sea urchin, have no possible application to it (a sea urchin is neither a man nor a biblical preacher). However, it seems that a straight causal-historical view would be committed to the conclusion that the sea urchin was Jonah.
Consider now the following counterexample from Donnellan. A couple receives a visit from a close friend, Tom, who would like to see their child, who is asleep in bed upstairs. The parents awaken the child and say, ‘This is our friend Tom.’ Tom greets the child with ‘Hello youngster,’ and the child falls asleep again. Asked about Tom the next morning, the child says, ‘Tom is a nice person,’ without having any definite description associated with Tom. Although she does not even remember being awakened, notes Donnellan, she still succeeds in referring to Tom.
Our answer appeals to what we called the cognitive division of linguistic labor. We do not need to know the localizing and characterizing description rules in order to correctly insert a proper name in a vague context. But to say that we use a name referentially in such cases means only that we use it in ways that allow interpreters who really know the identifying rule to complete the identification. The privileged interpreters are in this case the parents. They know Tom’s appearance, what he does for a living, where he lives and where he came from. Indeed, by herself the child is not really able to refer to Tom in a proper sense. The child’s reference to Tom is completed by the parents, who are aware of the causal circumstances and able to refer to Tom in the full sense of the word.
Kripke also gives instructive counterexamples of people who associate indefinite descriptions with a proper name, e.g. ‘a great physicist’ with Richard Feynman, or simply wrong descriptions, like ‘the inventor of the atom bomb’ with Albert Einstein. However, it is possible to say that these people are nevertheless referring to Feynman and Einstein, and this independently of the flawed descriptions they associate with these names.
Once more our answer appeals to the cognitive division of linguistic labor. In order to use a name referentially, the speaker does not need to know very much of its meaning. All that he needs is to be able to attach some converging description to the name (Searle). If he knows this and he knows the institution of proper names, being in this way aware of his own ignorance, this enables him already to insert the name properly in vague discursive contexts. The reference occurs only in the sense that it allows more competent interpreters to read into the utterance the name’s proper reference. However, if a speaker does not associate any converging description with the name, believing, for example, that Feynman is the name of a brand of perfume or that Einstein is the name of a precious stone, he will almost certainly not be able to insert it into even the vaguest discursive contexts that are appropriate for it. He is said to have failed to refer.
Kripke also appeals to circularity. If someone asks who Einstein was, a descriptive answer could be ‘the discoverer of relativity theory’; but if someone asks what relativity theory is, the answer is ‘Einstein’s discovery.’ Or, in a more elaborate example, if someone asks who Giuseppe Peano was, a common but mistaken answer is ‘the discoverer of the axioms of arithmetic’. However, this is a wrong answer, since these axioms were in fact discovered by Dedekind. Now, suppose we say that Peano is ‘the person whom the majority of experts refer to as Peano’ and that these experts are mathematicians. However, suppose further that the majority of mathematicians erroneously believe that Peano discovered the axioms… In this case, we could suggest, we need to appeal to the description ‘the person whom most Peano experts refer to as Peano’. But this would also be circular, since in order to identify the Peano experts we first need to know who Peano was.
This kind of argument seems to me clearly fallacious. It is certainly not necessary to know that relativity theory was conceived by Einstein in order to learn about this theory. In fact, we learn the meaning of a proper name in what we could call a gradually ascending bascule movement. This movement can begin with a converging description, even with a wrong one. Then we use our deficient knowledge as clues to achieve more reliable independent knowledge, for example, the information supplied by mathematicians that is found in encyclopedias. Now, with the help of this newly obtained descriptive information, we can go further, checking the work of experts and learning more and more about the bearer of the name until we arrive at detailed knowledge centered on fundamental descriptions. This knowledge will obviously include much of the content of the first descriptions. But this does not make the procedure circular. You can experience this the next time you do a Google search.
A very different objection is that of ‘epistemic magic’ made by externalists like Michael Devitt. According to this objection, descriptivism attributes to the mind the extraordinary property of allowing its contents to refer to something outside the mind; but this is a magical view of reference and intentionality.
Our answer to this objection is that things that we are still unable to explain often seem mysterious. Magnetism, for example, seemed to be a magical property until physics could explain how it works. How by using our minds can we have cognitive access to the external world is a profound philosophical problem that until now has been only conjecturally approached. This does not seem to be an artificially produced mystery that because of this is hopelessly unsolvable. One of these is in my view the mystery created by externalists like Devitt, who believes that an external causal-historical chain – unrelated to adequate descriptively expressible cognitions – has the magical power to make a word at its end to refer to the object at its beginning. This makes us wonder whether the externalist objection of epistemic magic is not a kind of projection of one’s own felt difficulty into the enemy field of cognitivism.
I hope I have shown that the proposed theory of proper names, by improving the cluster theory and by joining it with insights of the causal-historical view, fares better than each of these theories alone. Indeed, it even seems conceivable to implement MDR in a computer program and enter the relevant information about names and domains of objects, so that the computer could find the right owners of those names. However, this does not seem to be even remotely conceivable regarding any other competitor.