Proper names

Proper name

"A proper name [is] a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about" writes John Stuart Mill in A System of Logic (1. ii. 5.), "but not of telling anything about it". The problem of defining proper names, and of explaining their meaning, is one of the most recalcitrant in modern analytical philosophy.

The problem of proper names

Mill's definition is as good as any, though it is ultimately not helpful. A proper name tells us which thing is in question, without giving us any other information about it. But how does it do this? What exactly is the nature of this information? There are two puzzles in particular:

  1. The name in some way reveals the identity of the object. An identity statement, such as "Hesperus = Phosphorus" should contain no information at all. If we understand the names, we should understand the information they carry, namely the identity of their bearers, and if we grasp their identity, we should understand automatically whether the statement is true or false. Thus the statement should not be informative. Yet it is. The discovery that Hesperus = Phosphorus was (in its day) a great scientific achievement.
  2. Empty names seem perfectly meaningful. Then whose identity do they reveal? If the only semantic function of a name is to tell us which individual a proposition is about, how can it tell us this when there is no such individual?

Theories of proper names

Many theories have been proposed about proper names, none of them entirely satisfactory.

Descriptive theory

The descriptive theory of proper names is the view that the meaning of a given use of a proper name is a set of properties that can be expressed as a description that picks out an object that satisfies the description. It is commonly held that Frege held such a view — the description being embedded in what he called the sense (Sinn) of the name. Certainly, Bertrand Russell seems to have espoused such a view in his early philosophical career ( Sainsbury, R.M., Russell, London 1979). According to the descriptivist theory of meaning, there is a description of the sense of proper names, and that description, like a definition, picks out the bearer of the name. The distinction between the embedded description and the bearer itself is similar to that between the extension and the intension of a general term, or between connotation and denotation.

The extension of a general term like "dog" is just all the dogs that are out there; the extension is what the word can be used to refer to. The intension of a general term is basically a description of what all dogs have in common; it's what the definition expresses.

The difficulty with the descriptive theory is what the description corresponds to. It must be some essential characteristic of the bearer, otherwise we could use the name to deny the bearer had such a characteristic. The objection is associated with Kripke, although philosophers such as Bradley, Locke and Aristotle had already noticed the problem.

Referential theory

Causal theory of names

The causal theory of names combines the referential view with the idea that the name's referent is fixed by a baptismal act, whereupon the name becomes a rigid designator of the referent. Subsequent uses of the name succeed in referring to the referent by being linked by a causal chain to that original baptismal act. (The theory is an attempt to explain exactly why a proper name has the referent that it actually does).

See also

Further reading

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