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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

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Thank you – this expresses my question to Peter very well. In answer to your question, clearly I accept (1), and have said so a number of times, also here http://ocham.blogspot.com/2011/05/frodo-frodo-theory-of-reference.html where I introduce the ‘Frodo’-Frodo theory of reference.

I reject (3). Reference is not a relation – by which I mean that the verb ‘refers’ to is logically intransitive. I explain that idea here http://ocham.blogspot.com/2011/03/logically-intransitive-verbs.html but I will explain it briefly here also. A verb ‘R’ is logically intransitive if ‘a R b’ does not imply ‘some x is such that a R x’, and is consistent with ‘No x is such that x is b’. This steers the narrow course between the Scylla of Meinong, and the Charybdis of direct reference.

This may seem odd and counterintuitive, so I will clarify. Suppose someone has not read the first book of Lord of the Rings but has read books II and III thoroughly. We are discussing the book and are talking about ‘Strider’, and he asks, puzzled:

(Q1) Which character does the name ‘Strider’ refer to?

I reply

(A1) ‘Strider’ refers to Aragorn, King of Gondor.

Isn’t that correct? Isn’t there some sense in which my reply is true? And if another one replies

(A2) ‘Strider’ refers to Farimir, prince of Ithilien.

isn’t that false? Or suppose someone asks

(Q2) Who is the king referred to in Return of the King?

to which you might reply

(A3) The ‘king’ in Return of the King refers to Aragorn, who is crowned King of Gondor.

Is that not a correct answer? Tolkien experts speak up, please. There is a similar question about which towers ‘The Two Towers’ refers to*.

If such sentences are true – and people like Peter van Inwagen http://ocham.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-falsity-of-fiction.html certainly think they are, we have avoided the difficulty of direct reference. But then we have to explain the problem of what “‘Strider’ refers to Aragorn” logically implies. Van Inwagen bites the bullet. He accepts that it implies ‘some person is such that ‘Strider’ refers to him”. Moreover he is an anti-Meinongian, and so regards this as equivalent to “some existing person is such that ‘Strider’ refers to him”. So he would reject your (2).

I do not reject your (2). I agree that neither Frodo nor Aragorn exist, or ever existed. And since, like any good nominalist, I am an anti-Meinongian, I regard this as equivalent to “absolutely no one is such that they are or were Frodo, or Aragorn”. Thus I regard the following conjunction is consistent and true:

(*)‘Strider’ refers to Aragorn but there was absolutely never such a person as Aragorn.

Thus I avoid the twin reefs of Meinong and Direct Reference. (As well as Inwagenism – Inwagen holds that fictional characters do exist, but that tables and chairs do not. I do not know his views on fictional tables and chairs).

In summary, I hold that reference is not a relation. The verb ‘refers to’ has the grammatical properties of a verb expressing relation, but not the relevant logical properties.

* There is some dispute among Tolkien trainspotters about this. Wikipedia says that “In Peter Jackson's adaptation the title is indicated to be referring to the towers of Barad-dûr in Mordor and Orthanc in Isengard.” Note the use of ‘referring to’ in an encyclopedia. However this forum http://www.thetolkienforum.com/archive/index.php/t-2787.html says “the two towers Tolkien was referring to may have been Barad-Dur and the Tower of Ecthelion in Minas Tirith”.

PS the Tolkien site linked to above is well worth reading through, for those who are interested in the logic of discourse about fiction. They discuss the author’s referential intentions and even cite Tolkien’s letters to the publisher Raymond Unwin in order to determine which towers he is ‘referring to’.

You speak of the "difficulty of direct reference." What exactly is that? Is it the problem that, e.g., 'Frodo' is meaningless on a DR view according to which meaning is exhausted by reference?

If reference is not a relation, then what is it?

And if reference is not a relation, why did you ask whether it is an internal or an external relation? That question presupposes that it is a relation.

To deny that reference is a relation, like Edwards professes to do, is to undermine one of the central purposes of language which is to communicate about the world. And if we cannot use language to communicate about the world, then we cannot use it to express our thoughts about the world either. What we call sentences then are nothing more than a string of symbols, better yet marks, that even an ant can draw.

If reference is not a relation, as Edward maintains, then it is not a relation between a word and some object in the world either. And if reference is not a relation between a word and some object in the world, then it is completely mysterious how can the use of a name help us pick out anything in the world. e.g., Suppose someone asserts:

1) Phoenix is a large city.

What are they talking about? Phoenix, of course. But if the word 'Phoenix' is not related by way of reference to anything at all, then it is not related to any city in Arizona either. And if 'Phoenix' is not related to anything, then we have no clue what (1) is about. And if we have no clue what (1) is about, then we cannot tell whether it is true or not.

Edward suggests that we should think of a name as telling us "which character the name refers to". But how does a name *tell us* that? If reference is not a relation, then how does the use of a name succeeds to pick out anything at all? Surely it does not succeed in so doing merely in virtue of some purely physical properties of the word or sound.

Generally a dog barks when a stranger approaches. The dog barks at this instance. This barking alerts us to the presence of a stranger. The doorman tells us that a stranger is at the door by saying "A stranger by the name of John is at the door". There is a difference between the barking of the dog and the telling of the doorman. What is it? In the former case we know that dogs generally bark when someone approaches. So we infer from this barking that most likely someone is at the door. The barking does not *refer* to the stranger. In the later case we infer that someone by the name of John is at the door because we understand what the doorman said and that he was talking about, referring, to a man at the door. By denying that reference is a relation, Edward assimilates the case of the dog barking to the case of the doorman. And by doing so he deprives language from its most important and distinctive way of communicating. What I fail to understand is this: What motivation drives this "theory"?

There is a difference between a work of fiction and an autobiography. One way to state the difference is by saying that while the characters in a fiction do not exist, the autobiography is surely about someone who exist(ed). Another way of expressing the same point is this. We can say about an autobiography of FDR, for instance, that there exists (timelessly) an x such that 'FDR' refers to x and this autobiography is about x. In fiction, however, an analogous inference does not hold. Why? Because the names in a fictional work do not refer to anything that exists.


@Bill
>>it the problem that, e.g., 'Frodo' is meaningless on a DR view according to which meaning is exhausted by reference?

Exactly.

>> reference is not a relation, why did you ask whether it is an internal or an external relation?

I wanted to understand the views of those who think it is a relation.

>>If reference is not a relation, then what is it?

‘Reference’ is an abstract noun. ‘Refers to’ is a verb.

-----------------------------------------
@Peter

>>Suppose someone asserts: 1) Phoenix is a large city. What are they talking about? Phoenix, of course.

And if someone asserts ‘Orthanc’ is a tower, they are talking about Orthanc. The only difference, as I noted in my detailed comment above, is that there is no such place as Orthanc, but there there is such a place as Phoenix.

>> And if 'Phoenix' is not related to anything, then we have no clue what (1) is about.

This is invalid. The sentence “Phoenix is a large city” says that Phoenix is a large city, so I do have a clue what it is about (Phoenix). Similarly “Orthanc is a large tower” says that Orthanc is a large tower, and so I know what that says too.

>> Edward suggests that we should think of a name as telling us "which character the name refers to".

Correct.

>>But how does a name *tell us* that?

By the mechanism of reference. “Frodo carried the Ring to Mordor” tells us which character in LOTR carried the Ring to Mordor. That is true beyond any doubt. It is a given, a datum, it is datanic, it is a fact that no reasonable person could question. But the mechanism that brings this about cannot be a relation between language and anything, for there is no such person as Frodo, nor any such place as Mordor.

>>If reference is not a relation, then how does the use of a name succeeds to pick out anything at all? Surely it does not succeed in so doing merely in virtue of some purely physical properties of the word or sound.

But it clearly does. ‘Frodo’ picks out a character in LOTR. True. But there is no such person as Frodo. Therefore there is no such relation. There is merely the verb ‘refers to’.

Peter: you must surely agree that the ‘Christ Myth’ theory is a logical possibility. In its most extreme version, it holds that the entire New Testament is a fiction, that Jesus did not exist, nor did any of his disciples, nor any of the other major or minor characters, except for certain known historical characters such as Herod and Pilate. Yet you cannot possibly deny that the names such as ‘Peter’, ‘Matthew’, ‘Simon’ and so on tell us which character did which thing in the story. That is a datum, a fact about the New Testament story even if it really is a story. It may seem very puzzling to you, and I admit it is. But it is a fact, for all that.

>> What motivation drives this "theory"?

To draw logical inferences from the facts. The facts are (1) that fiction is semantically indistinguishable from history. We cannot tell, by analysing the meaning of proper names in the New Testament, whether any of the characters existed. That is an assumption, and there are philosophers who deny that assumption, but I take it as a given.(2) That sentences like

(*) ‘Strider’ refers to Aragorn, King of Gondor.
(**) The sentence “Frodo carried the ring to Mordor” tells us which hobbit carried the Ring to Mordor

are undeniably true, and could even be given as correct answers in a textual criticism exam. If so, the only alternatives are (1) Meinongianism – fictional names refer to things that don’t exist or (2) fictional names refer, but reference is not a relation, i.e. ‘refers to’ is logically intransitive. See above.

>> There is a difference between a work of fiction and an autobiography. One way to state the difference is by saying that while the characters in a fiction do not exist, the autobiography is surely about someone who exist(ed).

Agreed, and as I stated above re Phoenix and Orthanc.

>> Because the names in a fictional work do not refer to anything that exists.

Agreed, so long as ‘exists’ is read as outside the scope of ‘refer to’.

Peter,

Suppose I'm told 'm is F', 'm is G', 'm is H',... but I don't know what F, G, H, etc, mean. How do I identify m? Impossible. But suppose I have a magic machine with a dial labelled F, G, H, etc, and such that if I put an object in the machine's scanner and turn the dial to P then the machine says 'Yes' if the object has property P and 'No' otherwise. With my machine I can exhaustively test each object in turn and find one with properties F, G, H, etc. Later I'm told that 'm is X'. I check this with my machine (it has X on its dial) but the machine says 'No'. I conclude that 'm is X' is false. Wouldn't I conclude that 'm' refers to the object that met all the original tests? And if I couldn't find an object that the machine said had all those properties, wouldn't I conclude that m doesn't refer to anything?

Edward,

I asked you what reference is if it is not a relation. You said, "‘Reference’ is an abstract noun. ‘Refers to’ is a verb."

How nominalistic! But I asked you, not about 'reference,' but about reference. So you evaded the question and may have fallen into use-mention confusion to boot.

You cannot be content with saying what rerence is not. You need to say what it is. Are you proposing, perhaps, an adverbial theory of reference? Accordingly, 'Frodo' refers-Frodo-ly.

>>Are you proposing, perhaps, an adverbial theory of reference? Accordingly, 'Frodo' refers-Frodo-ly.

Certainly not, but it would require more detail than would be appropriate for a comment box. I am not proposing any theory (yet), I am simply making an observation that both the following sentences are true

(*) ‘Frodo’ refers to Frodo
(**) There never was such a person as Frodo

Any theory of reference must explain these facts. One reason I don’t think an adverbial theory would do it is the way that we can apparently quantify, in some odd sense, over fictional characters. For example, consider

(A) Some characters in Lord of the Rings are said to have carried the Ring.

Now certain substitutions make this sentence true. For example

(B1) In Lord of the Rings it says that Frodo carried the Ring.

is not only true, but it makes (A) true as well. Another example is

(B2) In Lord of the Rings it says that Bilbo carried the Ring.

We could also have

(A*) At least two characters in Lord of the Rings are said to have carried the Ring.

which is not verified by (A1), but by (A1) and (A2) together.

No adverbial theory, at least not a simple one, would explain this substitution effect, i.e. the fact that substitution of the names of fictional characters, i.e. names such that nothing is named by them, makes certain more general quantified statements true. Peter van Inwagen discussed this in more detail in papers such as this http://andrewmbailey.com/pvi/Creatures_of_Fiction.pdf .

Peter says “By denying that reference is a relation … [Edward] deprives language from its most important and distinctive way of communicating.” And “To deny that reference is a relation, like Edward professes to do, is to undermine one of the central purposes of language which is to communicate about the world.”

OK.

1. If any piece of language has an important communication function, we should be able to tell whether it has an important communication function.
One of the most important features of communicating with someone is that they should know they are being communicated to. They should also be able to say with reasonable certainty what is being communicated.

2. It follows from this that if non-empty proper names have a vitally important communication function that non-empty proper names don’t have, then we should know whether or not a grammatical proper name is communicating this vital information, and we should be able to be reasonably certain what they are communicating.

3. The New Testament contains many grammatical proper names. For any of these, if it is non-empty it is communicating information to us in an important and distinctive way, according to Peter. If it is empty, it is communicating nothing of the sort.

4. Thus (from 2 above) we should be able to tell of that name whether it is communicating information to us in an important and distinctive way.

5. But (assumption) we cannot tell this. We do not know for certain whether the Christ Myth theory is true or not. Thus we do not know, if Peter’s claim is correct, whether the name ‘Jesus’ is communicating information to us in an important and distinctive way.

6. I conclude that Peter’s claim is absurd. The information that a proper name communicates to us is exhausted by what it would communicate us even if it had no ‘referent’ at all. The mere fact of the existence of a referent adds no further information to what the name already tells us.

I think I understand EO's theory but I find I'm often easily thrown by the multiple senses of 'refers to' that are in play. My suggestion is that we call EO's story-relative notion of reference 'naming'. Thus we have

'Phoenix' names one of the large cities.
'Frodo' names one of the Hobbits.

According to EO, naming is a linguistic concept applying equally to fiction and fact. The two sentences above are 'on a par' and it's only because we possess more information about cities and Hobbits than is conveyed in these sentences that we are tempted to label the first fact and the second fiction. On the other hand, there is a sense in which

'Phoenix' refers to a large city in Arizona.
'Frodo' refers to nothing,

possess 'epistemic import'. They seem to tell us something about the state of the world and our conventions for talking about it. If we search Arizona we will encounter a large city, but if we search the whole world over we will not find a hobbit. It's this sense, I think, that motivates Peter's last comment. Now, is this a useful distinction to make, or does it reveal a misunderstanding?

Edward,

Your problem is how the following can both be true

(*) ‘Frodo’ refers to Frodo
(**) There never was such a person as Frodo

What if I said this. 'Frodo' lack a referent, but it has a reference, and the latter is given by a disjunction of definite descriptions. When we affirm (**) we are affirming the fact that nothing satisfies even one of these descriptions. When we affirm (*) we are affirming that 'Frodo' has a reference.

There are no Meinongian nonexistents and reference is not a relation. But reference, like intentionality, is reference-like.

DBr >>According to EO ... The two sentences above are 'on a par' and it's only because we possess more information about cities and Hobbits than is conveyed in these sentences that we are tempted to label the first fact and the second fiction.

I want to deny any suggestion or hint of some postmodern or relativistic theory according to which there is no such thing as real truth. The distinction between truth and falsity is fundamental and I am emphatically not denying it. If I say that something is the case and it is the case, I say something true, otherwise it is false. If I say that something is the not the case and it is the case, I say something false, otherwise it is true.

What I am saying is that we cannot determine whether some character was really a historical character simply by analysing the semantics of the name. Rather, I look for other sources that allude to the same character, at around the same period, I check to ensure that this source is truly independent of the original one, and not merely derived from it. All the usual good things.

There is a fascinating story here about poisonous allegations originally made on Wikipedia, which then got picked up by the tabloid press, and then got recycled back onto Wikipedia. For Wikipedia, anything is true if it can be backed by what it calls ‘reliable sources’ which for them includes tabloid newspapers, and in this case a tabloid newspaper that was repeating falsehoods originally made in the encyclopedia. I don’t subscribe to any such relativistic theory as that!

Bill >>What if I said this. 'Frodo' lack a referent, but it has a reference, and the latter is given by a disjunction of definite descriptions.

The problem with the definite description theory has been mentioned by Peter Lupu here. Proper names have a number of semantic features that make them incompatible with descriptions. For example

(1) As Arisotle and many others have noted, you can't define a proper name. They seem to be semantically simple.

(2) You can't quantify them. You can't say 'every Socrates' in the way you say 'every man'.

(3) There seems to be a fundamental difference between Concept and Object.

(4) Whatever the temporal or modal context, the proper name always has the 'same reference'. In the same sense, it can only apply to one individual thing, as opposed to a common name, which can apply in the same sense to multiple things.

All these and more suggest that proper names are fundamentally different from descriptions. In particular, the fact that they appear to be semantically simple suggests that their meaning is their bearer.

I don't accept this argument, but it is a powerful one that requires some detail to address.

DAvid >>If we search Arizona we will encounter a large city, but if we search the whole world over we will not find a hobbit.

I agree entirely, but how does that help? If we had searched all of Palestine early in the first century BC, would we have found Jesus? If so, then Jesus existed, otherwise not. My point is simply that we cannot determine the truth of the matter by analysing the meaning of the name 'Jesus'. That is fundamental.

Thus, communicating the existence of a referent cannot be an important and distinctive semantic feature of a proper name. A proper name tells us which character a sentence is about, without telling us anything else about it, where 'anything else' also includes whether the referent actually exists or existed. The name does not tell us that either.

EO,

I do appreciate that there isn't a whiff of relativism in your position. I also agree that the symmetry between the sentences we use to express fact and those we use to express fiction is hugely significant. We certainly can't determine the truth of Jesus's existence by analysing the name 'Jesus'. Absolutely. Nevertheless, there is something, to borrow a physics metaphor, that 'breaks the symmetry'. Somehow we do come to believe that some names 'attach' to objects and others do not. Language does not merely bombinate in the void. Some philosophers argue that this connection is 'direct', as if some magical arrow went from word to object. Neither of us believes that this is so, but this illusion still has a powerful grip on most of us. Perhaps this is asking too much, but can you offer the beginnings of a story that explains this? I give a clumsy attempt in a comment above. Roughly, and rather obviously, we say a name 'refers to' an object if the object possesses all the properties 'associated' with the name. This would, I guess, turn out to be a kind of definite description theory. I think it can be shown to evade the four objections you mention above, but maybe that's a story for another day.

>> Somehow we do come to believe that some names 'attach' to objects and others do not. Language does not merely bombinate in the void. Some philosophers argue that this connection is 'direct', as if some magical arrow went from word to object. Neither of us believes that this is so, but this illusion still has a powerful grip on most of us.
<<

Agree. I.e. you can make a philosophical problem 'evaporate' by analysis, but then it comes back after you have lost attention. A bit like those Escher drawings, no?

I understand your puzzle, and I share it. But I don't know how to resolve it.

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