Thursday, July 7, 2011

Proper names and reference failure

To: Michael W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Proper names and reference failure
Date: 6 October 2003 10:12

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your e-mail of 28 September, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, ''No object, no thought.' - How plausible do you find the view that when a proper name fails to pick out an object, sentences containing that name fail to express a thought?'

Frege's notion of a 'thought' (the German is Gedanke - but I'm not a German speaker) has little to do with the contents of a speaker's or hearer's consciousness at any given moment. A thought is not the same as an episode of thinking.

As the colour example is contentious in more than one way, let's take a simpler case. The mug of tea is on the desk. That expresses a thought. As I write those words, let's suppose that I am gazing at the steaming liquid wondering when it will be cool enough for me to take my first sip. I can see what colour the mug is, where it is positioned on the table, how strong the tea is and a thousand other details. But the thought (or proposition) is the thought. It is what is expressed by the words, 'The mug of tea is on the desk.'

Think of it this way. The meaning of a thought/ proposition according to Frege is its truth conditions. The truth conditions state what is the case *if* the proposition is true. Well, that proposition can be true in a myriad ways and false in myriad ways. Each of the ways that the proposition can be true can be concieved as corresponding to a possible world, and the same for each of the ways in which it can be false. From my privileged standpoint, I can rule out many of the ways in which the proposition might have been true (e.g. the tea is cold).

In saying, 'The mug of tea is on the table,' I am saying *less* than I know. That is all. The same applies when you say, 'My new car is green.' The meaning, the common 'sense' (Sinn) attaches to the words, while all the other stuff is in your head and in mine.

I don't see anything here which conflicts with Chomsky. What *does* conflict with Chomsky is the idea that first-order predicate calculus is *sufficient* to capture a human speaker's understanding. If Chomsky is right, understanding the grammar of a natural language requires something extra - the right kind of hard wiring in the brain.

The 'no object, no thought' issue is concerned with the project of giving truth conditions. We are naturally tempted to say that if you tell me about your friend Basil (who unknown to me doesn't exist) and I then tell someone else, 'Basil has been nominated for the Nobel Prize', there is a thought which I express. Russell's theory of descriptions gives a way of 'translating' this statement in a way that exhibits the thought. E.g. 'Mike Ward's school friend who went to the US and joined MIT as a nuclear physicist has been nominated for the Nobel Prize.' On the 'no object, no thought' view, that may be one of the things that is in my mind when I make that statement, but it is not the proposition which I am attempting to state. In fact, I fail to state a proposition, fail to make a statement with truth conditions, because one of the terms fails to refer.

In order to answer the question set, it is necessary to discuss rival theories of proper names, Russell/ Frege/ Searle view versus Kripke and Evans (Saul Kripke 'Naming and Necessity', Gareth Evans 'The Varieties of Reference'). Your idea was to outflank this discussion altogether by showing that the project of giving truth conditions (which both sides of the dispute agree on) falls to Chomsky's criticisms. I have explained why I don't think it does.

From Chomsky's perspective, it is impossible even to *see* this question.

I think that the question is important. So long as we believe that the meaning of a person's words depends solely on 'what is in their head' we are trapped in an essentially idealist view of the relation between mind and reality. But you have to take that idealist view, if you insist that sentences containing a term without a reference can still 'express a thought' in Frege's sense.

All the best,

Geoffrey