Monday, July 18, 2011

What's in a name?

To: Julian P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What's in a name?
Date: 12 December 2003 11:49

Dear Julian,

Here are my comments on your essay, ''What's in a Name?' An Essay on Proper Names and Logic', for the University of London BA Logic module, which you e-mailed on 28 November.

Apologies in advance for repeating some of the points I made in our telephone conversation last Friday!

I have thought more about the question of essay title. This is an important issue because it determines the focus of your essay. Whether you are responding to a set question or making up a title of your own, an essay is, or should be an answer to *some* question.

'What's in a Name?' is catchy, but doesn't obviously suggest any particular question. So the temptation is to write, 'All I know about proper names.' Actually, you have not done that. A far more appropriate title for your essay would be, 'A Theory of Proper Names'. This is what you have set out to do, and as I remarked in our conversation, you have done an excellent job.

However, *if* that is the question, then there are things that need to be said to motivate the search for a theory. What kind of thing is a theory of proper names? what is it for? You set out to answer these questions in the context of the requirements of a system of formal logic, citing the famous precedent of Frege's Begriffsschrift. However, if we were only concerned with the requirements for a formal system, then the issues which provoked theories such as Russell's would never have arisen.

The issues arise because our concern is with natural language, and not merely a formal language. This is a point that needs to be stressed. A theory of proper names is a contribution to a semantics for natural language (not so coincidentally, Kripke's paper, 'Naming and Necessity' first appeared in the collection 'Semantics of Natural Language' edited by Gilbert Harman and Donald Davidson).

A counter argument would be that it is not natural language as such that interests us, but rather the use of language to express thoughts about the world, a physical world in space and time in which we exist as physical beings. So the problems that arise in the context, e.g. of arithmetic do not exhaust the problems of understanding how proper names function.

In your discussion of the threat of scepticism which looms when the Theory of Descriptions is combined with Russell's requirements for a 'logically proper name' you make the point that a requirement for a theory of proper names is that objects in the world be *nameable*. If they are not, then we lose the one thing that is capable of anchoring general terms to reality.

However, as I suggested in our conversation, a different question to ask would be whether proper names are necessary (given that we have accepted that they must be possible). You seemed to think that there is an incoherence in the idea of a natural language which, as a matter of empirical fact, lacks any proper names. I was not convinced of this, however. Either way, this issue would seem to have an important bearing on the question of a 'theory of proper names'.

I also remarked that a weak link in your argument is your discussion of Kripke. Dummett, in 'Frege Philosophy of Language' correctly sees Kripke's chain of communication theory as a fundamental challenge to Frege, because it denies the Fregean assumption that speaker's knowledge that determines reference. However, the theory you give is in fact the later version of Evan's account (in 'Varieties of Reference') , which repudiated his earlier 'Causal Theory of Names' along with Kripke's chain of communication theory.

Evans builds his later theory on a theory of demonstrative reference, directly challenging Russell's account of a logically proper name. For Evans, the situation where A points out an object to B is the paradigm of reference, the ideal case. When objects are far removed from us in space and time, then on Evans' account successful reference to those objects (by a speaker who fully understands what he/she is saying) can only be explained in terms of descriptions. This is the theory which you in fact describe, although as I remarked you are hazy about the question how far is 'far removed'.

All the best,

Geoffrey