Luke 2:21 (NIV): On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. (emphasis added)
This New Testament passage implies that before a certain human individual came into existence, he was named, and therefore could be named. The implication is that before an individual comes into existence, that very individual can be an object of irreducibly singular reference by a logically proper name. That is by no means obvious as I shall now argue.
To simplify the discussion let us revert to a mundane example, Socrates, to keep the particulars of Christian incarnational theology from clouding the issue. We will have enough on our plates even with this simplification. At the end of this entry I will return to the theological question.
A Remarkable Prophecy
Suppose there had been a prophet among the ancient Athenians who prophesied the birth among them of a most remarkable man, a man having the properties we associate with Socrates, including the property of being named 'Socrates.' Suppose this prophet, now exceedingly old, is asked after having followed Socrates' career and having witnessed his execution: Was that the man you prophesied?
Does this question make sense? Suppose the prophet had answered, "Yes, that very man, the one who just now drank the hemlock, is the very man whose birth I prophesied long ago before he was born!" Does this answer make sense?
To focus the question, let us assume that there is no pre-existence of the souls of creatures. Let us assume that Socrates, body and soul, comes into existence at or near the time of his conception. For our problem is not whether we can name something that already exists, but whether we can name something that does not yet exist.
I say that neither the question nor the answer make sense. (Of course they both make semantic sense; my claim is that they make no metaphysical or broadly logical sense.) What the prophet prophesied was the coming of some man with the properties that Socrates subsequently came to possess. What he could not have prophesied was the very man that subsequently came to possess the properties in question.
What the prophet prophesied was general, not singular: he prophesied that a certain definite description would come to be satisfied by some man or other. Equivalently, what the prophet prophesied was that a certain conjunctive property would come in the fullness of time to be instantiated, a property among whose conjuncts are such properties as being snubnosed, being married to a shrewish woman, being a master dialectician, being accused of being a corrupter of youth, etc. Even if the prophet had been omniscient and had been operating with a complete description, a description such that only one person in the actual world satisfies it if anything satisfies it, the prophecy would still be general.
Why would the complete description, satisfied uniquely if satisfied at all, still be general? Because of the possibility that some other individual, call him 'Schmocrates,' satisfy the description. For such a complete description, uniquely satisfied if satisfied at all, could not capture the very haecceity and ipseity and identity of a concrete individual.
We can call this view I am espousing anti-haecceitist: the non-qualitative thisness of a concrete individual cannot antedate the individual's existence. Opposing this view is that of the haecceitist who holds that temporally prior to the coming into existence of a concrete individual such as Socrates, the non-qualitative thisness of the individual is already part of the furniture of the universe.
My terminology is perhaps not felicitous. I am not denying that concrete individuals possess haecceity. I grant that haecceity is a factor in an individual's ontological 'assay' or analysis. What I am denying is that the haecceity of an individual can exist apart from the individual whose haecceity it is. From this it follows that the haecceity of an individual cannot exist before the individual exists.
But how could the non-qualitative thisness of a concrete individual be thought to antedate the individual whose thisness it is? We might try transforming the non-qualitative thisness of a concrete individual into an abstract object, a property that exists in every possible world, and thus at every time in those worlds having time.
Consider the putative property, identity-with-Socrates. Call it Socrateity. Suppose our Athenian prophet has the power to 'grasp' (conceive, understand) this non-qualitative property long before it is instantiated. Suppose he can grasp it just as well as he can grasp the conjunctive property mentioned above. Then, in prophesying the coming of Socrates, the prophet would be prophesying the coming of Socrates himself. His prophecy would be singular, or, if you prefer, de re: it would involve Socrates himself.
What do I mean by "involve Socrates himself"? Before Socrates comes to be there is no Socrates. But there is, on the haecceitist view I reject, Socrateity. This property 'deputizes' for Socrates at times and in possible worlds at which our man does not exist. It cannot be instantiated without being instantiated by Socrates. And it cannot be instantiated by anything other than Socrates in the actual world or in any possible world. By conceiving of Socrateity before Socrates comes to be, the Athenian prophet is conceiving of Socrates before he comes to be, Socrates himself, not a mere instance of a conjunctive property or a mere satisfier of a description. Our Athenian prophet is mentally grabbing onto the very haecceity or thisness of Socrates which is unique to him and 'incommunicable' (as a Medieval philosopher might say) to any other in the actual world or in any possible world.
But what do I mean by "a mere instance" or a "mere satisfier"?
Let us say that the conjunctive property of Socrates mentioned above is a qualitative essence of Socrates if it entails every qualitative or pure property of Socrates whether essential, accidental, monadic, or relational. If Socrates has an indiscernible twin, Schmocrates, then both individuals instantiate the same qualitative essence. It follows that, qua instances of this qualitative essence, they are indistinguishable. This implies that, if the prophet thinks of Socrates in terms of his qualitative essence, then his prophetic thought does not reach Socrates himself, but only a mere instance of his qualitative essence.
My claim, then, is that one cannot conceive of an individual that has not yet come into existence. For until an individual comes into existence it is not a genuine individual. Before Socrates came into existence, there was no possibility that he, that very man, come into existence. (In general, there are no de re possibilities involving future, not-yet-existent, individuals.) At best there was the possibility that some man or other come into existence possessing the properties that Socrates subsequently came to possess. To conceive of some man or other is to think a general thought: it is not to think a singular thought that somehow reaches an individual in its individuality.
To conceive of a complete description's being satisfied uniquely by some individual or other it not to conceive of a particular individual that satisfies it. If this is right, then one cannot name an individual before it exists.
Back to Theology
Could an angel have named Jesus before he was conceived? If I am right, no angel, nor even God, could name Socrates before he came to be. But the case is different for Jesus on classical Trinitarian theology. For while there is on Christian doctrine no pre-existence of the souls of creatures, there is on Christian doctrine the pre-existence of the Word or Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity. So one could possibly say that the angel named the pre-existent Word 'Jesus.'