Short text to be presented in the World Congress of Philosophy, Athens, 2013. Better is to read 'Outline of a Theory of Proper Names'. This is only a summary.
NEO-DESCRIPTIVISM ON PROPER NAMES
Claudio F. Costa/UFRN
My aim in this paper is to briefly present the essentials of my reformulation of the old cluster theory of proper names. Essential to this reformulation is my introduction of a meta-descriptivist rule which establishes a cluster’s main descriptions and the manner in which they must be satisfied in order to allow the application of a proper name. Using this rule, we can explain the informative content of proper names, understand why they are rigid, in contrast to descriptions, and give more detailed answers to the counterexamples to descriptivism.
Key words: proper names, reference, cluster theory, descriptivism.
As Wittgenstein once said, our aim in teaching philosophy should not be to give food to people because they enjoy it, but to give them a new and different food in order to change their taste. This is what I am trying to do here. Until now I remain totally convinced that my way of understanding how proper names work is the right one. But to convince others seems to be a really hard task. And it is particularly difficult when you are fighting against the mainstream philosophy of language, in the case, the externalist-causalist view on the mechanisms of reference of proper names.
There is another reason why what I am intending to do is difficult to be accepted. It is because the question about proper names is the cornerstone of the theories of reference. As descriptivism on proper names was rejected by Kripke, Donnellan and others more than 40 years ago, they have opened a way to different, externalist, causalist and potentially non-cognitivist views concerning singular terms, general terms, and even sentences. On the other hand, if you wish to re-establish descriptivism and, with it, some kind of cognitivist-internalist view, even if in a new and much more complex form – as it is my intention here – then the way will be also open to the reestablishment of a descriptivist-cognitivist-internalist view of language in general. We will need to change again the whole topography of our philosophy of language. And since the new orthodoxy is already in its maturity – it leaves a good life since 40 years – and it has developed thousand good and bad arguments in its favour, the challenge is really great. If you restrain yourself to answering the good arguments, you already need to write a whole book in order to make descriptivism on proper names convincing. But if you consider the potential disarrangement of well-established views about reference suggested by this, a book with thousand pages answering only the good arguments and trying to restate the cognitivist-descriptivist-internalist perspective would not be enough. With this warning I will try to make a very short summary of my view on proper names.
My proposal arises from the view that the cluster of cluster theory is completely disordered. It has always appeared clear to me that some kinds of descriptions are more important than others, but the older cluster theory doesn’t take this into account. My view is that the speakers of a language implicitly appeal to a meta-descriptive rule with the function of organizing the cluster and telling us when the relevant descriptions of the cluster are sufficiently satisfied to allow the application of the corresponding proper name. In my view, this addition greatly enhances the cluster theory of proper names, since it not only increases its explanatory power, but also shows why proper names are rigid designators.
The first thing to do is to find the relevant descriptions. My suggestion, based on an examination of ordinary language, is that we first need to exclude descriptions of the kind (C), which I call auxiliary descriptions. Examples of auxiliary descriptions associated with the name ‘Aristotle’ are: ‘the master of those who know’ (a metaphorical description), ‘the teacher of Alexander’ (accidental, but well-known description), ‘the lover of Herphyllis’ (accidental, but relatively unknown description), ‘the philosopher mentioned by the professor in the last class’ (adventitious description). These descriptions may help us to identify the bearer of a proper name, but they do not belong to its identification rule. This is also the reason why they are never sufficient to identify the bearer of a proper name.
What really matters are descriptions of the kinds (A) and (B), which I call fundamental descriptions. I define them as follows:
(A) Localizing descriptions: those descriptions that localize an object in space and time and give its spatio-temporal career.
(B) Characterizing descriptions: those descriptions that characterize what we regard as the most important aspects of the object, giving us the reasons why we apply the proper name to it.
Having established the two most fundamental kinds of description rules, I propose the following meta-descriptive rule establishing the conditions for the application of any proper name:
MD-rule for the application of proper names:
The referent of a proper name N is the object that sufficiently and more than any other object satisfies the conditions set by its descriptions of type (A) and/or (B).
I will illustrate my suggestion with the name ‘Aristotle’. Condition (A) for Aristotle is given by the description ‘the person born in Stagira in 384 BC, who lived the most productive part of his life in Athens, and who died in Chalcis in 322 BC ….’ Condition (B) is given by the description ‘the author of the great ideas of the Aristotelian opus ….’ (That these characteristics are the most fundamental is supported by any comprehensive encyclopedia). Thus, by applying the meta-descriptive rule for the proper name ‘Aristotle’ we get the following rule of identification:
The referent of ‘Aristotle’ is the human being that satisfied sufficiently and more than any other the conditions that he was born in Stagira in 384 BC, lived part of his life in Athens and died in Chalcis in 322 BC and/or was the author of the great ideas of the Aristotelian opus.
This formulation of the meta-descriptive rule allows us to answer Kripke’s objections, according to which descriptivism is false, since there could be a possible world where Aristotle lived 500 years later or where he died as a child, never writing anything at all on philosophy. Since the rule demands only a disjunction of the fundamental descriptions, these two possibilities are conceivable. What is inconceivable is that neither the localizing nor the characterizing rules are sufficiently satisfied. Such a case is offered by John Searle in the following example:
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 later Renaissance, then the ‘discovery’ would become a bad joke.
This example is counterintuitive, for neither of the two fundamental descriptions is satisfied by the object.
The identification rule for ‘Aristotle’ can explain other objections, for example, why it is intuitive for us that the Aristotle of the Twin-Earth (who is qualitatively identical to our Aristotle) is not the true Aristotle. The reason is because the Aristotle of our earth better satisfies the RI ‘Aristotle’ than does the Twin-Earth Aristotle. Although both satisfy the characterizing rule (both wrote the Opus Aristotelicum), the first more completely satisfies the localizing rule, since he lived in the Greece of our earth, and not in the Twin-Earth Greece.
Here we need to consider Kripke’s counterexamples of people who associate an indefinite description or even a wrong description with a proper name, such as respectively ‘an American scientist’ with the name ‘Feynman’, and ‘the inventor of the atom bomb’ with the name ‘Einstein’. The answer to this counterexample is that the speaker is able to endow a proper name with some referential role, even with a very incomplete knowledge of its rule of identification, insofar as the linguistic community, as a whole, possesses complete knowledge. Important for there being some referential rule is that the description known by the speaker enables him to correctly insert the proper name in sufficiently vague discursive contexts. This is the case with Kripke’s counterexamples, since they contain convergent descriptions, correctly classifying the associated proper name. On the other hand, when proper names are associated with divergent descriptions that incorrectly classify these proper names, the referential role is lost. Thus, if a speaker associates the divergent description ‘a brand of perfume’ with the proper name ‘Feynman’, and the divergent description ‘a precious stone’ with the name ‘Einstein’, he will probably not be able to correctly insert these names in a discursive context.
The other counterexamples can be easily answered. I will consider here only the well-known Gödel counterexample. Suppose that Mary knows nothing about Kurt Gödel, except the description ‘the creator of the incompleteness theorem’. Then suppose that in the Thirties an unknown Viennese logician named Schmidt wrote the first paper to describe the incompleteness theorem, but died soon afterward. Subsequently, his friend Gödel stole his manuscript and published it under his own name. According to Kripke, if the descriptivist theory is correct, Mary should conclude that ‘Gödel’ means the same thing as ‘Schmidt’, but it is clear that Gödel was in fact Gödel and not Schmidt!
This objection poses no threat to our view. Our characterizing description of the name ‘Kurt Gödel’ can be summarized as: ‘a great logician who made certain major contributions to logic, particularly the incompleteness theorem.’ This is more than what Mary knows, since this description also points to Gödel’s achievements as a logician and to his other contributions to logic. Moreover, Kripke does not even consider the localizing description: ‘a 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 1978’. As a competent speaker of the language, Mary must tacitly know that in order to conclude that Gödel was Schmidt, she would have to do much more than just attribute the discovery of the incompleteness theorem to Schmidt. She would also have to attribute to Schmidt both the missing constituents of the characterizing description of Gödel and the entire localizing description of Gödel. Since Mary does not know these descriptions, and since she is aware of this, she finds no reason to conclude that Gödel was Schmidt.
Another important point is that the proposed view explains why a proper name is a rigid designator. It is because the rule of identification applies to all possible worlds where the bearer of the proper name exists. This is made clear by the fact that the rule of identification of a proper name can be expressed by an analytic identity sentence linking the proper name with an associated description. For example:
Aristotle is (the same as) the name that applies to someone who satisfies sufficiently and more than any other person the condition that he was born in Stagira in 384 BC… and/or was the author of the main ideas of the Aristotelian opus.
This expression of the identification rule for ‘Aristotle’ is analytic and necessary, containing the complex definite description ‘the name that applies to…’
Our view also explains the contrast between the rigidity of proper names and the flaccidity of descriptions. Definite descriptions are flaccid only in contrast with proper names. We can explain this using Wittgenstein’s distinction between symptoms and definitional criteria. According to this distinction, a definitional criterion, once given, warrants the application of a word, while symptoms only make it probable. In their association with proper names, definite descriptions give us only symptoms for the application of the latter. This explains why these descriptions are not applicable in all possible worlds where the bearer of a proper name exists. By contrast, what the description expressing the rule of identification of a proper name gives is its definitional criterion. This criterion must be satisfied in all possible worlds where the bearer of the proper name exists, since it simply defines what this object must be. This is why descriptions that are not associated with any proper name, like ‘the third cavalry regiment of Sintra’, ‘the last Ice Age’, and ‘the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914’, are easily recognized as rigid designators. It is because concerning their objects of application, the rules of identification of these descriptions cannot mismatch with the rules of identification of corresponding proper names.
 This formulation can be found in a longer article entitled ‘Outline of a Theory of Proper Names’, to be published in my book Lines of Thought: Rethinking Philosophical Assumptions (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). The theory was first formulated as a causal-descriptivist theory of proper names in my paper ‘A Meta-Descriptivist Theory of Proper Names’, Ratio, vol. 24, 2011. Today I think that the causal-historical element is superfluous and that the theory is strengthened if formulated as a full-blooded version of descriptivism.
 Saul Kripke: Meaning and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1980), pp. 62-3.
 John Searle: ‘Proper Names and Descriptions’, in P. Edwards (ed.): Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: Macmillan 1967), vol. 6, p. 490.
 See John R. Searle: Intentionality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1983), pp. 254-255.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Blue and the Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell 1958), p. 24.