Wednesday 13 November 2013

Names: Between Mill and Frege

Followup posts: 

(Added October 2016: my most up-to-date treatment of names can be found in Chapter 6 of my PhD thesis. This is an early, undeveloped attempt.)

Kripke at the beginning of 'Vacuous Names and Fictional Entities':
One of the main concerns of my previous work (Kripke 1980) [Naming and Necessity] is the semantics of proper names and natural kind terms. A classical view which Putnam mentioned, advocated by Mill, states that proper names have as their function simply to refer; they have denotation but not connotation. The alternative view, which until fairly recently has dominated the field, has been that of Frege and Russell. They hold that ordinary names have connotation in a very strong sense: a proper name such as ‘Napoleon’ simply means the man having most of the properties we commonly attribute to Napoleon, such as being Emperor of the French, losing at Waterloo, and the like. Of course, intermediate views might be suggested, and perhaps have been suggested.
My aim here is to propose just such an intermediate view. In future posts I will flesh out the proposal and offer some speculations about why it has not been generally adopted already.

As is well known, the cardinal problem with Millianism about names is Frege's Puzzle, given in his famous article 'On Sense and Reference': Millianism leaves us unable to semantically distinguish, in a systematic compositional way, 'Hesperus is Phosphorus' from 'Hesperus is Hesperus'; since Hesperus is Phosphorus, both names involved in those propositions have the same referent, and thus, on the Millian view, the same meaning. But the two propositions do not seem to have the same meaning - the first is an empirical scientific discovery, and the second is not. Further problems arise with singular negative existentials like 'Santa does not exist' - here, in addition to Frege's-Puzzle-type problems of differentiation ('Santa doesn't exist' and 'Noddy doesn't exist' mean different things, even though both names are the same as regards their referents; neither has one), we have the problem of seeing how any of them could be true, or even mean anything.

As is also well known, the cardinal problems for descriptivism - what Kripke above calls the view of Frege and Russell - are given by Kripke in Naming and Necessity. I will not try to summarize Kripke's whole case properly, but it is often divided into three prongs: the semantic objection, the epistemological objection, and the modal objection. Very roughly, the semantic objection is 'Which description or descriptions constitute the meaning of some given name? Isn't any answer bound to be arbitrary? And since different people might associate different descriptions with the same name and the same object, how aren't they just talking past each other when they use the name?'. The epistemological objection is 'Take any plausible meaning-giving description or cluster thereof. I can surely use the name in question correctly without knowing all this - I don't have to know much of anything about someone in order to pick them out with a name'. And the modal objection is 'Suppose "Aristotle" means "the teacher of Alexander". How does it come about, then, that "Had things gone differently, Aristotle might not have been the teacher of Alexander" seems true, while "Had things gone differently, Aristotle might not have been Aristotle" seems false?'.

I am not concerned here to argue that no versions of Millianism or descriptivism have legs. I will not, for example, argue against Millianisms which try to fill the apparent semantic gap in their accounts by means of linguistic pragmatics, nor will I argue against "wide-scope" or "actualizing" versions of descriptivism. I want to propose what I think is an elegant and natural view in between Millianism and descriptivism which avoids the problems of both.

I have two ways of expressing what I take to be essentially the same view, but others may prefer to think of me as offering a disjunction of two structurally similar views. The first is in terms of the use of a name, or the role it plays in the system of language to which it belongs. The second is in terms of individual concepts - the ideas of particular objects which we (sometimes) tie names to. I more-or-less identify these things in my own thinking, but since the concepts 'use' and 'role' on the one hand, and 'concept' and 'idea' on the other are quite different (as are the uses or roles of these terms!), it is worth giving both formulations, in case someone prefers one over the other. The use-conception is inspired, at least in part, by Wittgenstein (particularly the middle period, for example Philosophical Grammar). The concept/idea-conception is more traditional.

The view, then, is that names have uses, or are tied to individual concepts, and that these are partly constitutive of their semantics. (We may say that uses, or individual conepts, constitute the internal meanings of names.)

Individual concepts or name-uses do some of the work Frege wanted to do with his senses, but there are important differences. One important difference is that Frege held, of his senses, that they determine reference, whereas individual concepts or name-uses avowedly do not do this in general; someone on Twin Earth can use a name in the same pattern (i.e. with the same concept or use), but with a different referent - in a word, semantic externalism is true of individual concepts or name-uses. (We can of course have a notion which adds an extensional component to the individuation of these things, so that two concepts or uses are distinct if they have different objects, or different projective relations to reality, but we can also isolate the internal component.)

Another important difference is that, while Frege indicates that the sense of a name is that of, or can be given by means of, a definite description, I hold no such thing with respect to individual concepts or name-uses. Names are in an important sense indefinable, as Wittgenstein held in the Tractatus. But that does not mean their referents are all there is to (what you might, though possibly misleadingly, call) their meanings, i.e. Millianism doesn't follow. (Wittgenstein expresses Millianism too in the Tractatus, when speaking of 'names', although there is an exegetical question whether this term is meant to cover ordinary proper names, which is what I am talking about, or names in some philosophically idealized sense, e.g. names in an "ideal logical language".)

Individual concepts or name-uses combine, in a very simple way, the difference-making power of Frege's senses with invulnerability to Kripke's arguments against descriptivism. 

Frege's Puzzle is solved, much in the same way as Frege did with his senses: 'Hesperus is Phosphorus' and 'Hesperus is Hesperus' are different propositions with different meanings, since 'Hesperus' and 'Phosphorus' are tied to different individual concepts and have different uses. (Likewise with 'Clark Kent' and 'Superman'.)

But unlike with Frege's senses, this conception of names is not only compatible with Kripke's rigid designation thesis, but predicts it, at least when formulated in terms of individual concepts: if names are associated with individual concepts - concepts of particular objects - then it is immediate that they will designate the same object in all possible worlds where that object exists; designating another object is out of the question, since we are holding fixed the meaning of the proper name - the associated individual concept.

Individual concepts or name-uses also allow for an important kind of flexibility, which we must recognize in order to solve Kripke's puzzle about belief. We can individuate name-uses and individual concepts - as well as the uses or meanings of other terms, and other concepts, and larger units such as propositions - at different granularities, so that what at one granularity might count as instances of different uses/concepts may count on another (coarser) granularity as instances of the same. This is an important ingredient of my view, and will be discussed in a future post.

I have now at least mentioned all the main ingredients of the view of names I want to propose. Further posts - on semantic granularity, on internal and external meaning, and on why the view I propose hasn't already been generally adopted - will fill out the picture. I will conclude this post by trying to avert a couple of possible misunderstandings:

(1) The term 'individual concept' is sometimes used in philosophical logic and technical philosophy of language to refer to functions from possible worlds or state-descriptions to individuals (or similar constructions). I am not using it that way. For one thing, that way of going would make the problem of empty names harder - i.e., it would reduce the utility of my approach with respect to the problem of empty names - since one needs individuals for the functions to map to. For me the notion of an individual concept is more basic - it is just a refined version of the ordinary idea of an idea of an object.

(2) I am not saying that any sort of theory which associates names not with name-uses or individual concepts (in my sense), but with something else, and calls the associates 'the semantic values' of the names, is wrong. My attitude here is that expressed by Chalmers in this passage from 'The Foundations of Two-Dimensional Semantics':
A methodological note: in this paper I will adopt the approach of semantic pluralism, according to which expressions can be associated with semantic values in many different ways. Expression types and expression tokens can be associated (via different semantic relations) with extensions, various different sorts of intensions, and with many other entities (structured propositions, conventionally implied contents, and so on). On this approach, there is no claim that any given semantic value exhausts the meaning of an expression, and I will not claim that the semantic values that I focus on are exhaustive. (I think that such claims are almost always implausible.)

Chalmers, David J. (2006). The foundations of two-dimensional semantics. In Manuel Garcia-Carpintero & Josep Macia (eds.), Two-Dimensional Semantics: Foundations and Applications. Oxford University Press.

Frege, Gottlob. (1952). first pub. 1893. ‘On Sense and Reference’, in P. Geach and M. Black (eds.) Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, Oxford: Blackwell.

Kripke, Saul A. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press.

Kripke, Saul A. (2011). Vacuous Names and Fictional Entities. In Saul A. Kripke (ed.), Philosophical Troubles. Collected Papers Vol I. Oxford University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Dover Publications.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1974). Philosophical Grammar. Blackwell.