Kripke’s claptrap on proper names — 2

by pieterseuren

But OK, let’s carry on and witness the further unfolding of Kripke’s theory of proper names. According to Kripke, the origin of a name lies, ideally, in some kind of initial ‘baptism’ ceremony, in which the name-giver bestows a name on a certain entity or object. This name, if socially accepted, is then transferred, “from link to link”, to whoever uses that name at any later moment. That being so, anyone who uses that name, say the name Socrates, will then, by metaphysical necessity, be referring to the individual once ‘baptized’ that way. Even if I say “Socrates” while I mean “Aristotle”, I will nilly-willy be referring not to Aristotle but to Socrates. Though Kripke himself never uses the word causal in this connection, this account of proper names has entered the literature as the causal theory of proper names. For Kripke, this means that proper names differ essentially from DRPs in this respect: they belong to a unique metaphysical category.

To uphold this metaphysical thesis Kripke needs linguistic support. This he seeks in his critique of what he calls the description theory of proper names, which he ascribes to Frege, Strawson and Russell. According to this theory, proper names are abbreviations for clusters of contingent properties of the intended referent. Thus, the name Aristotle would stand for something like ‘the x such that x was the teacher of Alexander, a fourth century BCE Greek philosopher, the inventor of logic’, and other possible qualifications. He spends scores of pages refuting this theory—easy enough because this account of proper names is indeed entirely untenable and easily shown to be so. But he does not, or not seriously, consider a DRP analysis of the form ‘the x such that x is called “Aristotle” ’. Calling it a “theory” (p. 68), Kripke attributes this analysis to the Oxford philosopher William Kneale in an article of 1962 (‘Modality de dicto and de re’, in E. Nagel, P. Suppes, A Tarski (eds), Logic, Methodology, and the Philosophy of Science. Proceedings of the 1960 International Congress. Stanford University Press, 1962, pp. 629–30), but he dismisses it out of hand as “circular”, saying (p. 70): “We ask, ‘To whom does [someone using the name Socrates] refer by “Socrates”?’ And then the answer is given, ‘Well, he refers to the man to whom he refers.’ If this were all there was to the meaning of a proper name, then no reference would get off the ground at all.”

This critique is nonsense pure and simple. First, Kneale did not have a “theory” of proper names. His 1962 article was exclusively about the distinction between de re and de dicto modalities, and had nothing to do with proper names, which are a mere aside, taking up less than fifteen lines, in the context of a possible analysis of number names as proper names. In that article, Kneale simply takes it for granted, without arguing for that position, that the name Socrates “means ‘the individual called Socrates’ ” (p. 630). But then, if Kneale’s casual proposal is taken seriously and elaborated into a theory of proper names, it turns out to be the best theory available and not at all “circular”. In fact Kripke’s own analysis, when relieved of its metaphysical ballast, amounts to that proposed by Kneale. When a man, at some time in the past, was ‘baptized’, in Kripke’s sense, with the name Socrates, then this man has the property of having being baptized Socrates and that property, like any other, can be used to refer to the man by means of the phrase ‘the x such that x has been baptized “Socrates” ’. Such a property is not of a physical nature, but belongs in the realm of social reality, as it is the result of a socially accepted speech act of ‘baptizing’ someone or something and thus giving it a name. This property is then known to the members of the relevant social group and can therefore be used for the successful selection of a precise reference object given the right context and situation, just as with properties helping out to fix the reference of any other DRP. There is nothing circular about that, unless one makes the elementary mistake of confusing the referential and the quotational use of a referring expression. (In the latter, a referring expression is conventionally placed between double quotes: “Rome” stands for the word Rome, not for the city of that name. So, while Rome is the capital of Italy and “Rome” consists of four letters are true, “Rome” is the capital of Italy and Rome consists of four letters are false.)

Yet this is the elementary mistake Kripke makes, at least when referring to Kneale’s, but not when referring to his own, analysis. For him, the (abstract or formal) expression ‘the x such that x has been baptized “Socrates” ’ is not circular, but the expression ‘the x such that x is called “Socrates” ’ is. And that is claptrap. To say that there is a ‘rigid’, somehow metaphysical, link between a name once given and the entity the name is given to is pure mysticism, an appeal to some sort of magic, but not serious philosophy and even less serious science. Proper names are a specific kind of DRP, but not the kind proposed by Russell, Strawson or Frege. They are DRPs of the kind suggested by Kneale, whose (casual) analysis is not circular at all. This analysis answers all the questions one can seriously raise about proper names, or at any rate is consistent with any proper answers to such questions (which is why I use this analysis whenever I write about proper names). Just like any other kind of DRP, proper names depend, in principle, on the context and situation they are keyed to to select their reference. The name which in English sounds as Socrates (but is pronounced differently in Greek) does not just stand for the well-known ancient Greek philosopher, but is also used for numerous males alive today, especially in Greece, and, just like other DRPs, it infallibly picks out the correct referent on each occasion of use as long as it is used in the proper context and situation. How this is possible is a cognitive question, to do with intentionality or cognitive focussing and with social knowledge. There is nothing metaphysical about it.

Then, proper names allow for translations into other languages: the town known as Canterbury in England is known as Kantelberg to speakers of Dutch, what is Lille to speakers of French and other languages is Rijsel to Dutch speakers, what is Everest to the rest of the world is Chomolungma to Tibetans, German Matterhorn is Italian Cervino, English London is French Londres and Italian Londra, etc. Moreover, names can change their reference objects over time. Nowadays, the name Calabria designates the ‘toe’ of the Italian peninsula, but in ancient times it stood for the ‘heel’ of Italy. What happened was that in the late seventh century the Byzantines lost the old Calabria to the Lombards but kept the ‘toe’, up till then called Bruttium. Since the old Calabria had been the centre of government for the whole region, the name Calabria was transferred to the ‘toe’, a state of affairs that has persisted till the present day. Likewise for the city of Kandahar, which was founded by Alexander the Great around 330 BCE during his campaign through present-day Afghanistan and, like almost all the other cities he founded, was given the name Iskandaria (that is, Alexandria), from which the modern name Kandahar is directly derived. But the original site is well outside the city boundaries of modern Kandahar. So where is this ‘metaphysical’ link between a name, once given, and its reference object? So much for ‘rigid designators’: they are no more than a fiction of Kripke’s philosophical mind. … to be continued