Is Reference Real?




Is Reference Real?


“Sitting next to her, talking with her about the simplest and most insignificant subjects, Prince Andre admired the joyful shining of her eyes and smile, which referred not to what they were saying, but to her inner happiness”: Tolstoy, War and Peace, Volume II, Part Three, chapter XVII.


The standard position is that the concept of reference applies to some expressions but not to all. Which expressions refer is controversial: doubt has been cast on predicates, definite descriptions, “I”, quantifiers, connectives, adverbs, numerals, feature-placing sentences, and fictional names. The paradigms of referential expressions are taken to be names of persons or things and demonstrative pronouns: there are entities for these words to refer to and they succeed in referring to them. Reference is taken to be a real relation that can hold between words and things, but it may not hold in some cases. Not just any old expression can stand in this relation; the expression must contain a special power of referring, not conferred on every expression. Perhaps the power is derivative on a speaker’s performing a referential act, so that word reference is not an intrinsic property of the word, but it is still supposed that reference is not granted to any and every meaningful word. It is an elite property, marking a word out for ontological distinction: the word reaches majestically out to reality, sword-like, while non-referential words are semantically limited to language itself, trapped inside it. The referential words provide the hooks linking language to the world. They are lines thrown out to reality.

But this position is not the only one: Frege’s position stands in stark contrast. According to Frege, every expression refers: not just names and demonstratives but predicates, connectives, quantifiers, sentences, and that-clauses. A menagerie of entities is wheeled in to provide the reference for these expressions: first- and second-level concepts, truth functions, truth-values, and indirect senses. If each word refers, there must be something to which it refers; the relation needs relata. Reference thus comes cheap and is thoroughly democratic, making no distinctions. It is not a privilege possessed by names and other singular terms but a property of every meaningful expression. Language has hooks to the world at every point. Many philosophers have felt that this is excessive, that it empties the concept of reference of all significance; they evidently have a sufficient grasp on the notion of reference to feel this in in their bones. Another position, seldom if ever occupied, is that no word refers–not even the supposed paradigms of reference. True, traditional empiricist theories of meaning, which equate meanings with “ideas” or mental images, make no mention of a reference relation to the non-mental world; but even these theories don’t explicitly deny that reference applies to language. The neglected position does just that: it asserts that reference is a pseudo-concept, applicable to nothing. Frege took language to be semantically uniform with respect to reference and so does this third position, but in the opposite direction; only the standard position adopts a mixed perspective—partly referential, partly not. The uniformly non-referential position holds that there is no such relation as reference, not even for names—though it is not denied that every expression has meaning (determinately so). Reference is a myth, a philosopher’s invention, a trick of the imagination. Words don’t refer, period (and neither do speakers).

It must be admitted that the two pure positions enjoy a theoretical advantage: they don’t divide words into two groups characterized by different semantic concepts. The standard position posits an awkward theoretical disunity: on the one hand, the robustly referential expressions (or speech acts); on the other, the etiolated non-referential expressions locked up in themselves. At least Frege’s universal referential realism makes no such division and accordingly affords a generalized conception of meaning—all meanings are designed to generate acts of reference. The mixed position, by contrast, supposes that some meanings have the job of generating reference and some do not—and that seems like an unattractive lack of unity in the concept.[1] Also, there is intractable controversy about which expressions are referentially endowed, which casts doubt on the clarity of the concept of reference, as philosophers are wont to understand it. Some people have no doubt that definite descriptions refer while others stoutly deny it, and intuitions seem hazy on the question. Some people insist that predicates refer to properties while others vehemently deny it, and the issue is difficult to resolve. In certain moods Frege’s system can strike one as theoretically compelling, but then one snaps out of it and reverts complacently to the mixed position. We may find ourselves accepting that reference has its varieties, but we stubbornly maintain that expressions either have it or they don’t—even as we lack clear criteria to make the distinction. A more uniform position would seem desirable, but Frege’s position is too extravagant to contemplate; and the third anti-referential position just seems manifestly untrue, since surely some words refer!

The view I am going to defend is the anti-referential view, but this will require some subtlety and alertness to philosophical illusions. The basic idea is that the philosopher’s concept of reference is a misplaced reification of a common sense notion: it invests more in that notion that it can really bear. I will begin by consulting the dictionary, always a solid starting point. The OED has this for “refer”: “to mention or allude to” and then “(of a word or phrase) describe or denote”, followed by secondary meanings such as “send someone to a medical specialist”. Under “mention” we find “refer to briefly” and “refer to (someone) as being noteworthy”. So we have a speaker’s use of “refer” that includes mentioning and alluding, and then a linguistic use of “refer” that includes describing and denoting. Clearly “mention” is not a synonym of “refer”, so we can’t trade on its familiarity to validate the philosopher’s use of “refer” (we often mention that such and such but we can’t refer that such and such). The closest we get to the philosopher’s use is “describe or denote,” but “describe” doesn’t cut it since not all referring expressions are descriptive—and don’t predicates describe? So we are forced to fall back on “denote”. Here is the entry for “denote”: “be a sign of; indicate” and “stand as a name or symbol for”. The first thing that strikes one here is the generality of the notion as so defined. The notion of being a sign of or indicating is not even restricted to linguistic contexts: it is the analogue for denotation of Grice’s notion of natural meaning. Clouds can denote rain under this definition, since they can be a sign of rain or indicate it. So this cannot be the definition we are seeking if we want to capture the philosopher’s notion. We turn then to the second definition: here the generality is at least confined to language, since it concerns symbols. But isn’t “red” a name or symbol for redness? Isn’t “and” a symbol for conjunction? Isn’t “all” a symbol for universal quantification? Isn’t every word a symbol for something? Then everything in language denotes something, according to this definition. We are in Frege territory, with the notion shorn of all exclusive implications: denoting is just the property of being a symbol for. Isn’t a symbol precisely something that is a symbol for something—that’s what it is to be a symbol. Calling a symbol denotative doesn’t go beyond calling it a symbol. Clearly Frege and other philosophers intend something stronger than that—but what? That is all that the dictionary tells us and it does nothing to vindicate the philosopher’s use of the term. The notion of reference so understood is trivial not substantive: no concept of a special relation possessed only by special words can be gleaned from the dictionary definition.

At this point the philosopher is apt to fall back on something called “the name-bearer relation”: surely this is a case of genuine substantive reference. Here is the name and there is its bearer, clearly distinct things, and the former designates the latter—denotes it, refers to it. But what does this alleged relation come to?  Isn’t it just that the former is a name of the latter? It is the word (symbol) that we use for a certain individual. But nothing in that locution implies some special relation of reference that holds uniquely between name and object. Notice that the alleged relation is not perceptible and has no causal powers: it is not like a bridge or a light ray or a line drawn in space. It is curiously impalpable, strangely elusive. We might imagine it as analogous to a kind of pointing: pointing fingers are perceptible things, and some reference is indeed aided by pointing. So we imagine the name as pointing to its bearer (or the speaker doing so, physically or mentally): that is what reference looks like! But this is so much mythology: there is no such pointing going on. The idea is just an imaginative crutch designed to confer substance on the supposed special relation of reference. Someone might protest: “Surely sentences containing names are about something—isn’t that what reference is?” I would make two points. First, sentences are also “about” other things such as colors and conjunction—this is part of what they mean—but the idea is supposed to be that these expressions don’t refer. Second, the relevant notion of “about” is connected to truth, as follows: a name contributes to truth conditions in virtue of the fact that a certain object is relevant to the truth of sentences containing it and not other objects. The name “Aristotle” is such that sentences containing it are true just if Aristotle is a certain way. The name “Aristotle” is a name for Aristotle in this sense: but on the face of it this truism says nothing about any supposed relation of reference.[2] The mistake is to think that the very thin notion of reference that is captured by the truism is actually a thick substantive relation that it makes sense to investigate like other relations in nature. It is not, for instance, like the relation of perception (with which reference is often compared). It is quite true that we mention things and allude to them and even make reference to them, but these commonsense notions don’t add up to the philosopher’s special notion of reference—that privileged restrictive notion that invites such philosophical perplexity. We have taken an ordinary notion, fine in its place, and run away with it, postulating metaphysical facts that exceed anything common sense can ground. We have, in a word, reified the notion. This is why it sounds so strange to say in this sense that a predicate denotes a property or that “and” denotes conjunction or that sentences denote truth-values. We have stretched and mangled the notion beyond recognition. We have conjured a semantic reality from thin air and based our whole account of language around it. We are guilty of philosophical hyperbole.[3]

Notice that abandoning the notion of reference, as a heavy-duty theoretical tool, does not mean we have to abandon key insights. We can still distinguish names and demonstratives from descriptions, predicates, and quantifiers; and we can still say (if we like) that the meaning of a name is its bearer. What we must not do is invoke a special relation of reference that supposedly links names to their bearers, or demonstratives to objects in the environment, or “I” to a certain self. We might wish to speak this way for convenience, expressing only the thin deflationary notion I specified; but we can’t suppose we are speaking of a primitive relation, analogous to pointing, that links words with things. Seeking a causal theory of reference, say, or a functional theory, is folly, since reference is not the kind thing that could consist in such facts; it’s just a device we use for talking about words, sentences, and truth. Or again, it is a potentially misleading way to express the idea that symbols symbolize—that symbols are symbols for something. When someone learns that “and” is the word for conjunction in English we can express that fact by saying “He now knows that ‘and’ refers to conjunction in English”, but nothing can be read into that way of talking of the kind assumed in standard philosophical parlance. There is no such thing as reference in that sense—it isn’t real. The right thing to say is that in the ordinary dictionary sense every meaningful word refers (shades of Frege, suitably deflated) but in the philosopher’s sense no word refers, not even names. And that seems like a welcome result given that a mixed position is theoretically infelicitous: better to have a nice uniform account of meaning. Wouldn’t it be odd if one part of language—the part occupied by names and demonstratives—had the remarkable property of reference while the rest of language hobbled along without it? Imagine lines drawn vertically below every allegedly referential word and a blank below every non-referential word: that would suggest totally different functioning as between the two kinds of word. Yet syntactically and pragmatically (as well as sense-wise) all expressions are alike–why the anomaly?

How did the notion of reference find its way into the philosophy of language? We all remember Frege’s argument for why we need sense in addition to reference, but the same argument can be construed as a defense of reference (and may subliminally operate in this way). Suppose we start by assuming that “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” have different senses: we then observe that they nevertheless have something in common, i.e. the same planet is relevant to the truth of sentences containing either name. Let’s introduce a name for this common feature: we say that both names refer to the same planet. Then we announce that two names can have the same reference—an interesting discovery about language. We invert Frege’s argument so as to move from diversity of sense to unity of reference, in the process inventing a new concept, viz. reference. And now we are off and running, applying this notion all over the place. But the data that led to this conceptual profusion merely concerned the fact that the same object figures in the truth conditions of sentences with different senses—it has no more content than that. Then too, we are influenced by the pointing gesture and by the relational nature of perception. We thus end up with a thick (yet elusive) concept of reference whose correct application proceeds to perplex us. We need to develop a healthy skepticism regarding the notion of reference that has grown from these dubious roots. There is nothing wrong with saying that names name people and things, but we shouldn’t convert this into the fanciful idea that there is some peculiar relation that links names to their bearers—an invisible string, a mental pointing, a magical arrow.[4] Alternatively, we could view talk of reference and denotation purely mathematically, as in mathematical model theory, and give up the idea of real empirical concrete relations between words and things. There should be no metaphysics (or science) of reference.

The usual way this subject has been pursued is to assume that there are certain paradigm cases of reference (the name-bearer relation, demonstrative reference to sense-data) and then ask whether other cases approximate to the paradigm. Then we debate how far the concept of reference can be extended from the paradigm cases. The more radical position is that there are no paradigm cases, because nothing refers. We can speak of meaning and sense as real properties of language, but it is pointless to debate how extensively the notion of reference applies. It has no serious application, not as a matter of linguistic theory (though a doctor can still refer a patient to a specialist). Articles with titles like “On Denoting” or “On Referring” are about nothing (this one might be called “Against Denoting”). Questions like whether the reference relation is rigid or non-rigid with respect to a particular class of expressions are also misguided, since there is no reference relation to be one or the other (though we can reconstruct the underlying issues without assuming realism about the reference relation). We must either purge the philosophy of language of the myth of reference or show that it can get by without going beyond the minimalist view of “refers”. The standard division between the referential and the non-referential is an untenable dualism.


[1] If the sense of names involves a mode of presentation of a reference, what does the sense of other expressions involve if there is no reference to be presented? The mixed position gives us a radically divided theory of what senses are, thus undermining the idea of a general notion of sense.

[2] It is commonly stated that predicates denote their extensions, thus conjuring up a special semantic relation between predicates and sets; but this is no more than a fancy way to talk about the things a predicate is true of. There is no more content to the idea of extension-denotation than the idea of what a predicate is true of. The same should be said of names: talk of their denotation is just a fancy way to talk about their contribution to truth.

[3] I am conscious of echoes from Wittgenstein in these remarks.

[4] Notice that other non-theoretical uses of “refer” and cognates do not suggest any such “queer” facts (Wittgenstein’s term): letters of reference, references as citations, works of reference. Nor does the comical use of “I don’t know to what you are referring” by the socially aspiring lady in the train station tearoom in the film Brief Encounter (she actually knows quite well to what the station master is referring).


10 responses to “Is Reference Real?”

  1. jeffrey g kessen says:

    Here here! Take on next the matter of “referential intent” , a dubious sub-category of communicative intent. .Could there be such a thing as “intending to refer” , as such, in some sort of real psychological way? Yeah, I could point to my cat and say to someone else, “Hey, that’s my cat”. But that’s motivated speech of some sort—and “intending to refer” utterly underdetermines the speech-act. I’ve probably got it wrong here. But even mere “pointing” to something, absent speech, has its motives, absent even such a thing as referential intent.

    • I corrected your use of “it’s” because I don’t want my blog contributing to this common grammatical error. Also underdetermination and motivation have nothing to do with the arguments I gave.

  2. jeffrey g kessen says:

    Now there’s the Colin McGinn we all know and love. A good terse and proper scolding—but maybe not so proper in this case. Your Post was about relations as such. My Comment was about referential intent, about which matters of underdetermination and motives have some relevance. I merely suggested the topic to you. As for my use of “it’s” and “its”, yes truly it’s indicative of grave grammatical inability. I do get your point though. Anyway, stay safe, the second wave of this pandemic seems to be coming. Mandatory order here in Orlando to wear masks, as of tomorrow.

  3. jeffrey g kessen says:

    Fair enough. I misread your essay. But back to your Post on disgust—starting tomorrow I will be obliged to wear a sweaty stinking motherfucking mask for eight hours in 90 degree temperature. ‘Tis indeed a wonderful life. Philosophy has its consolations, but not so much when humidity supervenes. On a more sprightly note, my cat no longer has fleas.

    • Glad to hear about your cat–I use that anti-flea ointment you put on the back of their neck. I actually wear a face covering when I am in the sun, playing tennis or kite surfing, just to keep my skin safe, so I am fairly used to the anti-Covid type of mask: but I wouldn’t like to do it eight hours a day.

  4. jeffrey g kessen says:

    So, Dimitrov and Djokovic test positive for Covid-19. “Tennis channel” talking heads are being pretty severe upon Novak for hosting the tournament so early in the pandemic. From what I can gather so far, both players seem to be asymptomatic, not especially surprising in the case of athletes. My guess is that there are not so many athletes at Trump rallies.

  5. jeffrey g kessen says:

    “Verbose” scoldings have delightfully their time and place. Got one scheduled for next week. No thoughts on Novak?

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