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Saturday, April 30, 2011


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(A) We should distinguish three types of theories about the reference of names:

1) The Frege-Russell Sense-Theory: The sense of a name is such that when we substitute a linguistic item that expresses the sense of a name for the name in any context other than quotation, then neither the meaning nor the extension of the whole context changes.

2) Reference-Fixer Theories: Reference fixer theories of names include Kaplan's direct-reference theory, Kripke's rigid-designation theories, and perhaps some causal-theories.

Reference-fixer theories have two components:

(a) They deny that names have a sense in the sense stated in (1) above;

(b) The referent of a name is determined by a variety of reference-fixing devices. These may include the content/context account of Kaplan for indexicals; reference-fixing descriptions; communicative intentions of speakers; causal relations and chains; and any other contextual device that may suffice to pair name and object so as to create a referential relation between the pair.

3) Tag-Theories (Edward seems to hold this view): A name is just a tag attached to an object. There are no senses or reference-fixing devices nor is there really a relation of reference.

From the three theories above, the tag-theory is in my opinion the least defensible. Presumably the tag-theory maintains that a name is just like a tag on a bottle. We can imagine a person placing pieces of paper on bottles that pass before him on a conveyor belt. While the tags convey some information, presumably about the contents of the bottles, they do not name the bottle on which they are placed. Nor does the person who places the tags on the bottles intends that a tag shall name each individual bottle. I do not really understand the idea behind the tag-theory if it denies that there is a relation of reference and that there are no senses or reference-fixers that determine this relation for names.

(B) Bill maintains that the Sense-Theory has a clear advantage over the Reference-Fixing-Theory when it comes to negative existential statements involving names. I will now evaluate this contention.

Bill considers the following example. Suppose an atheist wishes to deny the existence of God by asserting the sentence "God does not exist". Assuming that 'God' is a name, what would be the truth conditions of such an assertion according to the Reference-Fixing-Theory?

Now Bill imagines that the Reference-Fixer Theorists will have to tell a story about the word 'God' and how his favorite reference-fixing devise fails regarding this word. One might imagine that such a Reference-Fixing Theorist provides the following truth-conditions for the sentence in question:

(T) 'God does not exist' is true iff there is no x such that 'God' refers to x and ....;

where the blank is filled with some story about how one or another reference-fixing devise is absent.

Bill argues that any account along these lines would be inadequate because

"...how can the nonexistence/existence of God hinge on such linguistic and historical facts? The nonexistence of God, if a fact, is an objective fact: it has nothing to do with the nonexistence of some initial baptism ceremony, or some break in a link of name transmission, or some failure of intention on the part of the name-users."

It would appear initially that Bill's complaint is compelling. After all when someone denies the existence of God by asserting 'God does not exist' they say something about the world, not about language and its relation to the world. Yet the Reference-Fixing Theorist is forced to paraphrase the said sentence so that the speaker ends up saying something about a word and the absence of a referential relation to the world. Thus, the Reference-Fixing Theorist cannot adequately capture what the speaker is actually saying.

While Bill's complaint may have merit, the question is whether it is ultimately a decisive objection. Consider for a moment how according to Bill the Frege-Russell Sense-Theorist will handle the same situation. According to the Sense-Theorist the name 'God' has a sense. In order for anything in the world to be the referent of the name, that object must instantiate the sense of the name. So the denial of the existence of God that is expressed by the sentence 'God does not exist' can be now stated as follows:

"2. The concept of an immaterial, omniqualified, etc. being is not instantiated."

(Bill assumes that senses are the same as concepts. I think this is a harmless assumption in this context.)

Notice that (2) is about a list of concepts and about the fact that the relation of instantiation fails to hold between these concepts and anything in the world. We could paraphrase Bill's (2) as follows:

(2)* There is no x such that x instantiates the concepts *immaterial*, *omniqualifies*, etc.

Notice how similar (2)* is to the right-hand-side of (T). While the later says that the word 'God' does not refer to anything in the world, the former says that nothing in the world instantiates certain concepts. There are two differences: (i) while (T) talks about the relation of reference, (2)* invokes the relation of instantiation; and (ii) while (T) talks about linguistic items such as the word 'God', (2)* mentions instead concepts.

But can't we now issue the very same complaint against (2)*, and hence (2), that Bill makes against the Reference-Fixing Theorists? Clearly, affirming or denying the existence of God is affirming or denying the existence of an individual object. And since objects are to be distinguished from concepts, we are entitled to ask Bill the following question: What does the existence or non-existence of God has to do with whether or not certain concepts are instantiated? One who denies the existence of God by asserting 'God does not exist' says something about the world and not about concepts and their success or failure to be instantiated.

So Bill's claim that the Sense-Theorists has an advantage over the Reference-Fixing-Theorist assumes the following: Paraphrasing the sentence 'God does not exist' in terms of concepts and their instantiation somehow succeeds better to capture what the speaker intends to say than a paraphrase involving words and the absence (or presence) of the relation of reference.

I would be interesting to hear Bill's argument for this assumption. I venture to guess, however, that such an argument, even if reasonable, would not be conclusively in favor of the Sense-Theorist. If I am right in this guess, then the two theories will have to be assessed with respect to broader considerations such as which one gives a better account for non-empty names, indexicals, and so forth. And it is far from clear that once all of these considerations are on the table, the Sense-Theory is clearly superior.

>> Tag-Theories (Edward seems to hold this view): A name is just a tag attached to an object. There are no senses or reference-fixing devices nor is there really a relation of reference.

That is roughly it, but of course the way you express the theory leaves it open to the apparently fatal objection that we cannot 'tag' anything that does not exist.

The theory holds that the verb phrase 'refers to', used in the philosophical sense, is logically instransitive, like 'thinks about', 'desires' etc. This does not commit us to non-existent objects. The sentence

(*) The name 'Bilbo Baggins' refers to a certain hobbit

is perfectly consistent with 'nothing is a hobbit', where 'nothing' ranges over absolutely everything, without qualification. (Avoiding the 'Lupu gambit', which has 'nothing' ranging over ordinary objects, but allowing some things that are outside its scope to be hobbits, mermaids, unicorns etc).

In this sense, and this sense only, there is no 'relation of reference'.

>>While the tags convey some information, presumably about the contents of the bottles, they do not name the bottle on which they are placed.

I don't follow this. The information conveyed by a proper name, according to the Edward-theory, is simply to signify which individual is the subject of the proposition in which it occurs. It can tell us this without signifying anything else about the individual (such as the 'contents of the bottles'). I have something about the theory here http://ocham.blogspot.com/2011/03/story-relative-reference.html

The strongest evidence for the Edward theory is as follows:

(1) We can tell 'which' character is being talked about in a story. War and Peace has many hundreds of minor characters but we can always (assuming we have paid attention) tell which character the author is talking about or 'referring to'. Let's call this 'story-relative reference'.

(2) There is no obvious difference between the semantics of a made-up story, and the semantics of a historical account which is perfectly true. E.g. we cannot tell from what is said in the Old Testament whether any of the characters really existed or not. Yet we can tell Adam from Eve, Cain from Abel, Moses from Isaiah and so on.Thus, whatever explains reference in a story, also explains reference-in-history.

(3) All the objections which argue against proper names being concealed descriptions, also apply against proper names used in a story-relative way. Whatever features or accidents we ascribe to a character in a story, we can deny of that character using the proper name for that character. This is essentially Kripke's objection, but Abelard also used it in the twelfth century, against the Boethius/Porphyry description theory of individuation http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/singular-terms-medieval/#2 .

These three, to my mind very compelling, pieces of evidence add up to the Edward or 'story-relative' theory of proper names. Which of these are you going to deny? Can Tolkien not tell us which hobbit threw the ring into Mount Doom? Is there any obvious semantic difference between a narrative which might be true (the Old Testament) and one which obviously isn't true (The Aeneid)? Is there any property signified by a fictional name except: being that very character?


There is of course an entire literature in Direct Reference theory devoted to explaining negative existential propositions containing fictional proper names. CJF Williams writes (Existence, X. vii., p. 259) "We can say that what is meant by 'Lady Catherine de Bourgh never existed' is less misleadingly expressed by "Jane Austen's use of 'Lady Catherine de Bourgh' is only a pretence of using it as a proper name ... [it] is partly at least a statement about an expression. It is made from otuside the 'Let's pretend' world of Pride and Prejudice about something which is used inside that world".

This was published in 1981 (we used the proofs for the book in our study group), but bears a strong resemblance to Kendall Walton's theory of pretence which was circulating at around that time, as was Gareth Evans 'The Varieties of Reference' which was published in 1982.

It is probably vulnerable to the objection that you outline above. If "'God' does not exist" means something like "The Bible's use of the term 'God' is only a pretence of using it as a proper name", then that is a linguistic fact only.

So far, we are agreeing ...


I think you are right. The objection I brought against the direct reference theorist could *mutatis mutandis* be brough against the indirect reference theorist.

Please forgive me, I wanted to email Bill Vallicella, but couldn't find contact info on this site. This message is in response to Bill's post on Prager and rejoicing over the death of a wicked person:

Dear Mr. Vallicella,

I read on your blog that Prager rejoiced over bin Laden's death and I was taken aback, especially in his view that rejoicing over bin Laden's death conforms to Judaism, as this was exactly contrary to the way that I was raised as a Jew. (Of course, just as there are many versions of Christianity, there are multiple versions of Judaism). Please see the links below. Thanks.



Mr. W.:

Dr. Vallicella's email is available in his "About" page.

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