Kripke’s claptrap on proper names — 1

by pieterseuren

Let me first say something about the person Saul Kripke, since many of you may not have heard of him, or only vaguely. Saul Kripke (born 1940) is an American philosopher and logician. He was a child prodigy who, amongst other remarkable achievements, wrote a completeness theorem in modal logic at the age of 17 and taught a graduate logic course at MIT while a first-year student at Harvard. Soon after his graduation at Harvard in 1962, he was appointed to the Harvard Society of Fellows, an institution helping to get exceptionally gifted young scholars started on their career. He shared this honour with, among others, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Burrhus F. Skinner, Willard V. O. Quine and Noam Chomsky. (In 1963 he made a Fullbright-financed world tour, which included the logic department of Amsterdam University, on which occasion I briefly met him. My later encounters with him were at Oxford during the early 1970s.) At the moment he is a highly respected philosopher, ranked by some among the very world top in the history of the subject.

He has also, unfortunately, dabbled in language and that’s where we find the claptrap mentioned in the title of this post. In January 1970, not yet 30 years old, he gave three long lectures at Harvard which were recorded and later published, more or less literally as they were spoken, under the title Naming and Necessity, first, in 1972, as a long article in Semantics of Natural Language (edited by Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman, Reidel, Dordrecht, 1972, pp. 253–355), then, in 1980, as a book Naming and Necessity, with a preface, addenda and index, by Blackwell, Oxford. I will be referring to this latter edition.

What is this Naming and Necessity about? Well, to a large part it is about metaphysics, in that Kripke wants to establish that identity statements of the kind Cartesius is Descartes, if true, instantiate a form of a posteriori necessity—a category not allowed for by Kant. This is, he says, because once the reference of the two names is fixed and it turns out that the reference of the one is identical with that of the other, as both names refer to one and the same entity D, there is no way in which D cannot be identical with D. The statement is thus both necessary and a posteriori. This property of a posteriori necessity adheres to identity statements given in terms of proper names, but not, he says, when they are given in terms of descriptive referring phrases (DRPs), as in The French philosopher who died in Stockholm in 1650 is the man who developed the Cogito-Principle, because someone else could have been a French philosopher dying in Stockholm in 1650, or someone who developed the Cogito-Principle. (The example is mine, not Kripke’s, but my example is better. Kripke uses Phosphorus is Hesperus versus The morning star is the evening star, but it is not clear that the morning star and the evening star are DRPs and not also proper names.)

In itself, this metaphysical question would not interest me here if it weren’t for the fact that he uses natural language to support his thesis. And here we see strange things happen. For some unexplained reason and without any proper theory of how reference in general gets off the ground, he seems to have developed a fixation on proper names, such as Socrates, the Eiffel Tower, Harold Smith, Paris, the Queen Mary, Electrolux, The Times, the Dorchester, the Danube, the Alps, which he considers to be metaphysically different from DRPs, such as the highest tower in Europe, Plato’s teacher or the man reading a newspaper. The latter, he says, have no fixed reference, but the former do. The DRP the highest tower in Europe referred to the Eiffel Tower after, but not before 1889 (which is when it was erected). The DRP the man reading a newspaper refers to different persons on different occasions. But proper names always refer to the same entity no matter when and how they are used—provided the reference object has been historically fitted out with its name, or ‘baptized’. Proper names are rigid designators, but DRPs are non-rigid or accidental designators. And here he gets into trouble, caused not only by the sloppiness of his analysis but also because what he says about language just isn’t true.

What exactly are rigid designators? A proper definition is not given. All we find, on p. 48 of Kripke’s 1980 book, is the following: “Let’s use some terms quasi-technically. Let’s call something a rigid designator if in every possible world it designates the same object, a non-rigid or accidental designator if that is not the case.” But on the same p. 48, in note 15, we read: “The apparatus of possible worlds has (I hope) been very useful as far as the set-theoretic model-theory of quantified modal logic is concerned, but has encouraged philosophical pseudo-problems and misleading pictures.” In general, Kripke takes distance from the notion of possible world(s), preferring to speak of “ ‘possible states’, or ‘histories’, of the world, or ‘counterfactual situations’,” (p. 20). Yet he never makes it clear what he actually means by those terms. Nor does he ever enlighten his readers on the question of what should be understood by the term or notion ‘the same object in every possible world’. He (rightly, I think) chides David Lewis (p. 76) for the latter’s bizarre notion of ‘trans-world identity’, but nowhere is it specified what he, Kripke, means by ‘sameness in every possible world’. He never presents a “rigorous theory of reference” (p. 93): “I don’t know that I’m going to do this because, first, I’m sort of too lazy at the moment [or indeed at any later moment; PAMS]; secondly, rather than giving a set of necessary and sufficient conditions which will work for a term like reference, I want to present just a better picture than the picture presented by the received views.” Hmmm, I wonder what would have happened to you or me if we had submitted a manuscript with this kind of ‘analysis’. Note that he was not yet 30 when he wrote/spoke these words, which shows once again that haloes breed complacency and hence claptrap: the old story of the emperor’s clothes. … to be continued