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Proper names

"A proper name [is] a word which answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about" writes Mill in A System of Logic (1. ii. 5.), "but not of telling anything about it". The problem of defining proper names, and of explaining their meaning, is of the most recalcitrant in modern philosophy.

The Problem of Proper Names

Mill's definition is as good as any, though it is ultimately not helpful. A proper name tells us *which* thing is in question, without giving us any other information about it. But how does it do this? What exactly is the nature of this information? There are two puzzles in particular:

(i) The name in some way reveals the identity of the object. An identity statement[?], such as "Hesperus = Phosphorus" should contain no information at all. If we understand the names, we should understand the information they carry, namely the identity of their bearers, and if we grasp their identity, we should understand automatically whether the statement is true or false. Thus the statement should not be informative. Yet it is. The discovery that Hesperus = Phosphorus was (in its day) a great scientific achievement.

(ii) Empty names seem perfectly meaningful. Then whose identity do they reveal? If the only semantic function of a name is to tell us which individual a proposition is about, how can it tell us this when there is no such individual?

Theories of Proper Names

Many theories have been proposed about proper names, none of them entirely satisfactory.

1. Proper names have no meaning.

In Aristotelian logic, proper names had no place at all. There were only two kinds of propositions: existential ("some men are philosophers") and universal ("all men are mortal"). The subjects of both consisted of a common name ("philosopher", "man") and a quantifier ("all", "some"). Proper names do not therefore signify any constitutuent of any propositon. Aquinas argued that this is because "the intellect" grasps a proposition, and the intellect understands by abstracting the "universal content" from sense perception. The "principle of singularity" that makes Socrates this individual, we cannot grasp at all, except indirectly, by "turning towards the sense appearance" (conversio ad phantasmata). See Summa Theologica q.86 a1.

The obvious difficulty with this theory is that sentences containing names do seem to be informative, even when there is no object appearing to the senses.

<The following is a portion of Larrys Text, wikification is encouraged>

What is the meaning of proper names? What do names themselves mean? My name is "Larry" and presumably that word, "Larry," has meaning; so what is it? You'd think that would be a fairly clear and straightforward question. You'd think the question is not at all mysterious, since, for example, the name "Larry" means me! So I am the meaning of the name. That makes sense, right? Well, it may not be so simple. We're still not done considering complications.

I just got done alluding to a view about the meaning of proper names, which we can formulate as the following theory:

The referential theory of proper names is the view that the meaning of a proper name is the individual to which it refers (denotes, picks out).

Another name for the theory is the "Fido"-Fido theory -- because the name "Fido" refers to, or denotes, or picks out, well, that little dog Fido. So the name "Fido" means the dog Fido. But now wait a minute. Lots of dogs have been named "Fido." Lots of people have been named "Larry." The referential theory talks about proper names as though there's only one thing that any proper name, such as "Fido," can mean. Right? It says: "the meaning of a proper name is the individual," that one item, "to which it refers." But then isn't that wrong, to say that a proper name like "Fido" can mean any one dog in particular?

Not really, because when we use proper names, we usually understand by the total context which individual we're using the proper name to pick out. So when I said that the name "Larry" means me, you all understood, of course, that when I used the name "Larry" it meant one of the gazillions of guys named "Larry." But just to be clear, let's update the statement of the referential theory, so it includes this stuff about context. We'll put it like this:

The referential theory of proper names is the view that the meaning of a given use of a proper name is the individual to which, in the context of the use, it refers (denotes, picks out).

So this is better. It might be the case that the name "Fido" picks out lots of different dogs; but a given use of the name refers to just one of the animals named "Fido."

I suppose this looks like a very reasonable theory. But consider now the following objection, which is due to the extremely influential German philosopher and logician, Gottlob Frege, who worked mainly in the late nineteenth century. He wrote a famous article called "On Sense and Reference", in which he said that proper names have two different kinds of meaning: not only their reference, but also their sense. So Frege said that there was more to the meaning of proper names than what they referred to. You also have to consider their sense, he said.

Consider examples like the following. Suppose you know that the name "Cicero" refers to a famous ancient Roman statesman. Well if you didn't know that then you do now. Suppose I tell you next that the name "Tully" refers to an ancient philosopher who was also an orator. I'm sure most of you didn't know that. But now consider. If I were to tell you, "Cicero is Cicero," you'd say, "Yeah, so?" You haven't learned anything then. But if I tell you, "Cicero is Tully," then you have learned something -- and that's a matter of fact, indeed Cicero is Tully; the man's full name was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Well, the argument goes, the only way it can be informative to say that Cicero is Tully is if the two names, "Cicero" and "Tully," differ somehow in their meanings. They have, as Frege said, different senses.

Let me give you another example. Both of the examples are totally hackneyed but if you're going to get a traditional introduction to the theory of meaning then you've got to be exposed to them! There is bright point of light which appears in the morning sky, just before sunrise, called "the Morning Star"; and similarly, just after sunset sometimes you can see a bright point of light in the sky, and this has been called "the Evening Star." And so the proper name, "the Morning Star," refers to a particular celestial object that appears the morning; and the proper name, "the Evening Star," refers to a particular celestial object that appears in the evening. And well, you've probably guessed it -- in fact the Morning Star is the Evening Star, and they are both the planet Venus and not a star at all.

So you've been informed and enlightened; you've been told that the two different names actually refer to the same thing, and you (probably) didn't know that before. If the two names had exactly the same meaning, though, how could it be informative or enlightening to be told that the two names refer to the same thing? They couldn't. So "the Evening Star" must differ somehow in its meaning from "the Morning Star." Since they refer to the same thing, namely Venus, it must be something else about their meaning that differs. And this other thing we call sense. So the sense of "the Morning Star" differs from the sense of the "Evening Star." Frege then said that a proper name denotes its reference and expresses its sense.

So then what sort of thing is a sense? It's basically like a description of a thing the word refers to; you can regard the following as a definition of "sense":

The sense of a proper name is a set of properties that can be expressed as a description that picks out the reference of the name.

To take an example: the sense of "the Morning Star" would be a set of properties that can be expressed as a description; and that description would pick out the planet Venus from among all the other stars and planets in the sky. So the description might be: "the brightest natural object in the sky, aside from the sun and the moon, which appears occasionally before sunrise." Something like that description would express the sense of "the Morning Star." And then how would the description of the sense of "the Evening Star" go? Maybe like this: "the brightest natural object in the sky, aside from the sun and the moon, which appears occasionally after sunset."

Now remember, we started out our discussion of proper names with the referential theory, the "Fido"-Fido Theory, which says that the meaning of a proper name is simply the thing to which it refers. But now if we say, with Frege and some others, that proper names have a sense as well as a reference, then we have to change our theory. So here's the new theory:

The descriptivist theory of proper names is the view that the meaning of a given use of a proper name is constituted by (1) the individual to which, in the context of the use, it refers (denotes, picks out), and (2) a set of properties that can be expressed as a description that picks out the reference of the name. (1) is the reference and (2) is the sense.

So according to the descriptivist theory of meaning, there's a description of the sense of proper names, and that description would, like a definition, pick out the reference of the proper name. In fact, if you will remember that distinction we drew between the extension and the intension of a general term; reference and sense is the same sort of distinction, only applied to proper names, rather than general terms. The extension of a general term like "dog" is just all the dogs that are out there; the extension is what the word can be used to refer to. The intension of a general term is basically a description of what all dogs have in common; it's what the definition expresses. So you can think of the sense of a proper name something like an identifying description of an individual -- as it were, a definition of a name. So the sense of my name, "Larry," would list some salient facts about me, that picked me out, that distinguished me from other people. And then to return to what the descriptivist theory of meaning says: it says that in order to say what the name "Larry" means, not only would you have to say that it means me; you'd also have to specify the sense of the name, that is, you'd have to give that identifying description of me.

Now, there have been a lot of philosophers who have denied that there is anything like a sense of proper names. Instead, they advocate the so-called causal theory, which I'll define in a little bit. But first I want to say what the causal theorists deny. The causal theorists say: in order to give the meaning of a proper name, you don't have to express the sense; you don't have to give an identifying description of the individual that bears the name. They think that, in order to say what a name means, we can just stick with the referential theory; and then all you have to do is account for what causes proper names to refer to the individuals to which they refer. Why, they ask, does any given proper name refer to the individual that it does? So the causal theorists, the people who think that proper names don't have senses, still feel they have to ask: How do proper names come to refer to the individuals that they do refer to?

So how would a causal theorist answer that question? Well, something like this. In naming a newborn baby, traditionally we have taken the baby to a priest or pastor who baptizes and names the baby, say "Jane Doe." So the pastor says, "This child's name is ?Jane Doe?." And henceforth everyone calls the little girl "Jane." With that initial act, the act of christening as it's called, the pastor gives the girl her name. This seems all fairly straightforward. So we were asking: How do proper names come to refer to the individuals that they do refer to? In the case of our Jane, how does the name "Jane Doe" come to refer to Jane? The answer is obvious: Jane was christened "Jane."

However, not everyone who knows Jane was at Jane's christening. So how is it that when they use the name "Jane Doe," they are referring to Jane? Well, that's obvious as well: there is a causal chain that passes from the original observers of Jane's christening to everyone who uses her name. For example, maybe Jane's friend Jill wasn't at the christening, but Jill learns Jane's name from Jane's mother, who was at the christening.

The causal theory says, then, that all proper names get their meaning -- their reference is fixed, made rigid as Kripke says -- by an initial act of christening. Whether you're naming a person, a ship, a town, a planet, or whatever: there's that original act of naming, and then the thing named has its name rigidly, so that the name is called a rigid designator of what it refers to. That's a technical term: rigid designator. Here's a definition:

A name is a rigid designator iff it denotes its reference in all possible worlds.

So the name "Jane Doe" is a rigid designator; which means that it denotes Jane in all possible worlds. And what that means is that, throughout all kinds of possible changes that Jane might undergo, all the different ways that she is or might have been, the name will refer to her.

So then it's not the sense of the name "Jane," not any particular set of properties of Jane, that we use to refer to Jane. Because those properties might change -- they might have been totally different. But Jane would still be Jane. In fact, we can refer to Jane without knowing anything about her -- except the fact that she's called Jane. So it's possible to refer to Jane without knowing anything like a sense of the name "Jane." And the reason, Kripke said, that that's possible, is that there was that original baptismal act, when Jane was given her name; and in order for us to succeed in referring to her, there just has to be a causal chain leading from our present use of the name and that original baptism.

So if you want the causal theory of names stated briefly, here it is:

The causal theory of proper names is the view that the meaning of a given use of a proper name is constituted by the individual to which, in the context of the use, it refers (denotes, picks out); and the name's reference is originally fixed by a baptismal act, whereupon the name becomes a rigid designator of the reference; and later uses of the name succeed in referring to the reference by being linked by a causal chain to that original baptismal act.

Well, I don't have time to say anything else about the theory of meaning. I've just given you a sample of one problem within the theory of meaning -- the problem of the meaning of proper names. This is to say nothing, or very little anyway, about the meaning of, for example, whole sentences.

But let's talk a little about the meaning of whole sentences, because our next topic is truth, and it's whole sentences that we're going to want to say are true or not. That makes sense, right? Individual words and phrases aren't true or false; only whole sentences are true and false.

And not just any old sentences are candidates for truth; they have to be meaningful as well. You can take the following as a principle: "A sentence can be true or false only if it is meaningful." In other words, if a sentence is just nonsense, then it can't be either true or false. So that's one very important connection between meaning and truth: being meaningful is a prerequisite of truth or of falsehood.

You might object, "Well, wait a minute. Here's a nonsense sentence: 'the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.? Why couldn't we just say that that is false?" Well, here's why that nonsense sentence can't be false: if it's false then its opposite has to be true. Here's another principle you can take home with you: "If P is false, then not-P is true." So just apply that principle to the nonsense sentence I gave you. We want to say "The slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe" -- that's our P -- is false. Well then, not-P must be true. So then it must be true that the slithy toves did not gyre and gimble in the wabe. Yes indeed, I strenuously insist, the slithy toves did not gyre and gimble! Nope! And if they did gyre or gimble it certainly wasn't in the wabe! Well, that's just nonsense as you can see. So, in order to be true or false, as I said, a sentence has to be meaningful. And as I said, that's a very important connection between the topics of meaning and truth.

See: Alex, Singular term

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