How successful are Kripke’s criticisms of a descriptive theory of names?

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With regards to his modal arguments, Kripke applies the term ‘rigid designator’24 to names, meaning that referral to an object is consistent in every situation thinkable25, specific to ‘our language’. 26 He rejects using even the most specific definite descriptions of properties, for example, commonly held beliefs about an individual’s life, as methods of identifying referents, stating that if another individual, in a vastly different situation, also fulfilled the same criteria for reference, we would not ascribe to them the name of the original individual.

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27 An example of this, based upon Kripke’s argumental structure, could be: My best friend, James West, achieved the best ‘A’ Level grades in the country for the 2002 academic year. If my brother, aged ten, took his exams prematurely and achieved exactly the same grades in the same ‘A’ Level subjects and they too are the best grades in the country for the academic year 2004, then we will not refer to him as ‘James West’ because he fit the same criteria.

This is because he is an independent individual and the name James West does not refer only in virtue of having that description. If James West’s exam papers were in fact marked wrong due to an error on the part of the examining board, and he was subsequently informed that his actual grades were much lower than he was previously told, we would not say that he is no longer ‘James West’. (The structure of these examples is based upon Kripke’s ‘Hitler’ argument. 28)

The descriptive account suggests that it is necessary (true in all possible worlds) that I was Young Citizen of the Year 2000 (I was) to exist as ‘Louise’. It does not permit the possibility that in another possible world, I very well could not have been awarded this title though I would still be ‘Louise’. Kripke’s arguments that attributed properties are accidental and therefore we would be unjustified in giving reference to a name by this definition, are the strongest of all arguments he provides, especially his Hitler example.

However, his suggestion that ‘The property we use need not be one which is regarded in any way as necessary or essential’29 followed by the specification that the term ‘yard’ should pick out a certain fixed reference in all possible worlds, seem jointly logical, although we cannot trace whether it is actually used this way. Surely a measurement such as ‘one yard’ is more likely to be used in a standard way, than ‘Louise’ to pick out a certain fixed reference to ‘Head Girl at school’ in all possible worlds.

Kripke suggests that it may be a-priori that Hesperus is seen in the evening in that the referent is determined in that way. 30 I follow his point, although determinations made like this would only be valid to the individual speaker/thinker, not to the wider world, as Hesperus could very well have previously been named Bob in another person’s vocabulary, and although you would intentionally be referring to your ‘Hesperus’, the question could arise as to which you were truly referring.

Kripke’s semantic argument contradicts the descriptive theory that whatever can satisfy the associated descriptions to a particular name, is the referent of that name, by substituting in an alternative proper name as the actual name and investigating if the original name refers to the substitute. For example, If the meaning of ‘Louise’ is constituted in part by ‘spent a year in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa’, and ‘James West’ is the actual person who spent a year in South Africa, an individual using ‘Louise’ would not be referring to ‘James West’, they would be referring to ‘Louise’.

I agree that Thesis (2) requires specific, quite detailed properties in order to hold, although I do not think Kripke was justified in dismissing it outright. If an individual’s whole knowledge of physicists was constituted by the name ‘Feynman’ simply in virtue of this definition, then to them, within the totality of their belief-system (as the lexis of Thesis 2 states), the property: ‘is a famous physicist’ would ‘pick out someone uniquely’ within their field of knowledge.

Kripke’s argument has been criticised as resting on his own presumptions of how other individuals use the name ‘Godel’, suggesting their key interest to be in the name as an individual, whereas, if individuals had more specific interests, in ‘diagonal argument’31 within the proof, for example, they would perhaps be referring to ‘whoever proved the theorem’32 instead. 33 This possibility seriously jeopardises Kripke’s semantic argument, although he confines it to a footnote and dismisses it quickly.

To investigate this concept of intentionality and interests would depend on the amount of knowledge an individual possesses and some external way of investigating, impossible to be satisfied, reference and intention to see to whom people are truly referring. Returning to my South Africa example, I see that if an individual has no knowledge of the claimed properties, they would intentionally be referring to ‘Louise’, whereas in the actual world, the mismatch of properties to individuals would mean they are actually referring to ‘James West’, according to the previous argument.

Against the absolute pinpointing of reference, there are a number of descriptions/sets of characteristics abbreviated by names that are constantly changing. If Warwick University and Duke University battled to gain the world record for the number of people involved in a pillow fight, as they did, and I was to refer to Warwick University as the world record holders, meanwhile, unknown to me, Duke University had broken the record, I would be falsely referring to Warwick as the world record holders, although I, as in my example for Feynman above, am referring to Warwick.

Kripke’s causal picture is the culmination of his criticisms of causal theory, where referents of a name need not be necessary, a-priori, or detailed (previously referenced). This provides a suitable foundation for his causal theory which doesn’t really require us to believe much and is not particularly revolutionary.

He provides an extension to Strawson’s theory, suggesting that ‘initial baptism’; intentional naming through conscious pinpointing of an object and assigning it a name34, are made at the outset of the name’s usage life, as such, and that individuals refer to names in virtue of being part of a causal chain, using names subsequently, for the theory to work, in a way consistent with the person from whom you heard the reference. He recognises that this happens in an actual rather than an observable sense.

His concept of a ‘rigid designator’35 is key to his positive picture. His idea of ‘initial baptism’36 presumes a-priori knowledge in that that is how the reference is determined, in-keeping with his Hesperus example. I think Kripke’s causal theory is a precarious one in that it states a logical and quite simple proposition that links are actually made, but cannot account for these without an independent determinant of reference. There are many problems, independent of those that Kripke attributed himself to his own theory.

The theory suggests that we can refer to someone without knowing little more than a tiny piece of information given to us by our predecessor in the chain of reference. Surely this makes the whole of naming accidental and uncontrollable. Each individual having their own causal theory network may contradict the vast causal theory network that is central to Kripke’s thesis of naming, in that the possibility that an individual had heard the name a number of times and/or from different sources would muddle things rather. The causal theory also depends on receiver disposition.

One wonders whether they are expected to use the most recent referent each time, discarding previously held beliefs, simply to keep the chain going. Surely people make mistakes but names still refer with a lesser fallacy level than one would expect. If Kripke’s causal theory were true, would the description pool associated with a name not be reduced vastly from person to person? I feel that originally, the causal theory may have worked, and baptism of reference can be made validly only in the instance that the entity had not been previously named.

To conclude, I feel that Kripke’s criticisms of a descriptive theory of names are comprehensive although his own theory puts far too little emphasis upon speaker and listener dispositions and the possibility of investigating to whom/what someone is ‘really’ referring.

Bibliography: Evans, G. 1973. ‘The Causal Theory of Names’ in Martinich, A. P. (ed. ) 1996. The Philosophy of Language, 3rd edn, (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Kripke, S. A. 1993. Naming and Necessity, (Oxford: Blackwell)

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