Naming and Knowledge

Naming and Knowledge

A long and winding tradition in philosophy has it that naming is the essence of language. You name it it’s a name. Or at least all words are name-like: names are representative of language in general. Names denote and language is in the denotation business. I am going to argue that this position is sorely mistaken, not because most words are not like names but because names are not like words—in fact, they are not words at all. Names are a very special kind of linguistic unit, quite distinct from words in general: they are not even meaningful. But this is not just a truism about the syntactic form of names; it reflects a deep fact about the connection between meaning and knowledge. If this sounds obviously wrong to you, do me the honor of reading on: names, unlike words in general, convey or embed no knowledge; they have a quite different character and function. Names are really incursions from outside language proper; they are alien imports, foreign to what language essentially is.

            The fundamental point to grasp is not unfamiliar: names are labels. That is, they are mere labels—tags, surrogates, pointers, placeholders. They have no conceptual content, no intrinsic meaning, and no information-value. The OED defines “name” as “a word or set of words by which someone or something is known, addressed, or referred to”. This is a very special type of expression: we would not describe other words in such terms. A definite description, say, is not a word or set of words by which someone or something is known or addressed; it is not a mere label for something. Naming is labeling, but describing is not labeling. We confer a name on someone in a baptism or something similar, so that henceforth they will be known by that name, but we don’t confer a description on something in this way. A person (or other entity) earns the descriptions that apply to it in virtue of the properties it instantiates, but names are not earned in this way—they are merely stipulated. They are what we call something not what something is. They are ceremonial, practical, and arbitrary: suitable for nametags, birth certificates, and roll calls. They are not attempts to capture some aspect of reality in words. This is why the description theory of names strikes us as so contrary to the evident nature of names: it makes names into conveyors of information, repositories of knowledge. No, a name is just a label, a mere device of identification, a convenience, an empty sound or mark. It has a bearer, to be sure, but it is not a meaningful element of language: labels on shirts have bearers too (the shirt itself) but they are not thereby meaningful entities. The essence of a name is to be meaningless, to convey no information, to express nothing about its bearer. Thus we pick meaningless sounds or marks to name people not meaningful descriptions (we don’t baptize someone “the future president of the United States”). We need labels for people, so we pick linguistic units that carry no semantic baggage—units quite unlike words in general. It doesn’t matter what the name says only what it sounds like, so we choose sounds that don’t say anything. We choose arbitrary bits of noise or script devoid of meaning. Nor do these bits magically acquire meaning by being so picked; they just function as empty labels. This is why you have to ask someone what he or she is called; it can’t be inferred from descriptive knowledge about the person (“Ah, you must be called ‘he of the flaming red hair’”).[1]

            I will put this by saying that names contain no knowledge. You can grasp and use them in the absence of any knowledge about their bearer (save that he or she is so named). You only know that this person is labeled “Sam Adams”, for example. The same is not true of any associated definite descriptions: here your grasp includes actual knowledge about the satisfier of the description. Hence a name cannot be equivalent to a description: one is a mere label and the other is a conveyor of information (knowledge, fact)—or purports to be. Probably the very existence of names as a linguistic institution derives from limitations on human knowledge: we just don’t know enough to refer to people and things by way of their properties, so we employ labels to circumvent our ignorance. Keeping track of a person’s changing properties is beyond most speakers, and names supply a nice convenient way of referring to them—precisely because they carry no epistemic commitments. Labels are what we use when identifying descriptions elude us. This is evident in the case of names for natural kinds: you may spot a new type of animal in a remote jungle and possess no uniquely identifying information about its species, so you just stipulate that this type of animal will be named a widger. Then you can talk about widgers without knowing much about them. When you learn more you may replace the name with something more descriptive, or invest the name with this new knowledge, but for now the label enables you to refer to this unknown type of animal. It’s just a label not a piece of zoological knowledge, but it serves your practical purposes. Thus names are devices for remedying ignorance in the furtherance of speech (demonstratives can function similarly[2]). Accordingly, we can say that the naming parts of speech are knowledge-independent while other parts of speech are knowledge involving. 

            Is this true of words in general? What about adjectives, connectives, and quantifiers? Quick inspection confirms the thesis that all such words are cognitively demanding—they are not mere labels. The word “red”, say, is not a mere label of redness but expresses that property: you can’t understand it without knowing what redness is. The same goes for other adjectives like “square” or “brave” or “tardy”: to grasp these words is to have knowledge of something substantive, namely what the denoted (expressed) properties are, not merely what certain things are called. The same is true for “and”, “or”, “all”, and “some”: these are not mere labels for things whose nature may escape us; they express in their meaning certain substantive facts concerning possible states of affairs. You have to know what a general fact is to grasp the meaning of the word “all”: you can’t claim to understand it and then say, “I don’t know anything about what this word names; I am just using it as a label for the thing it stands for”. Hence we say that these words are meaningful—that they are words. The OED defines “word” as follows: “a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used to form sentences with others”. Here the operative term is “meaningful”—exactly what names as labels are not. This is why I said that names are not really words: words are meaningful while names are meaningless (in a perfectly straightforward sense). Nothing meaningless can be a word. As the tradition puts it, names have no connotation, but words always have connotation. Other elements of discourse can be functional without being strictly words, such as emphasis, gestures, and facial expressions (even vocal sounds like “Boo!”); names belong in this general category—they are word-like but not really words. They can act as placeholders for real words but they are just senseless labels. We could say that they are not part of the language faculty proper, i.e. the system of meaningful elements that combine to form sentences, rather like gestural elements (pointing, head orientation). They are a bit like saying “la-di-da” or “blah-blah-blah”. They have to be learned as add-ons to linguistic mastery proper; they are not part of the initial innate language program. They are not part of an ideal language in which every element is a meaningful word (excuse the pleonasm). Ordinary language is clear on this point: we don’t ask, “What is your word?” but “What is your name?” and we don’t ask, “What is the name of red in Italian?” but “What is the word for red in Italian?” We know the difference between words and names, between meaningful signs and meaningless labels. In no way, then, could language consist of a collection of names—it would contain no words! Nor are names representative of language in general. Spoken language is a complex multi-faceted thing and it divides into the names and the non-names. This division correlates with knowledge and the absence of knowledge. Most of language is knowledge involving, but names are ways to speak without possessing knowledge: they function to label we know not what. Names are inarticulate and content-free, just empty sounds. Naming an object is the opposite of knowing about it. The only knowledge they require is knowledge of language itself (“This person has been dubbed ‘Sam Adams’”) while words in general require that one knows something outside of language, whether by acquaintance or description. You have to know what red is to understand “red” and what conjunction is to understand “and” and what a general fact is to understand “all”. Knowledge of names is always meta-linguistic knowledge, but this is not so for words in general. We need to have knowledge of things in order to understand words for things. Meaning and knowledge are intertwined. 

            We have learned that a single object can have two names and that an identity statement formed from them is a necessary truth; also that two descriptions can apply to the same object and in some cases form a necessary identity statement (when the descriptions are both rigid designators). But these are completely different semantically: the former consists of two labels that happen to be assigned by stipulation to the same object; the latter consists of descriptions that express properties that are necessarily co-instantiated by the object in question (e.g. “the successor of 4 is identical to the predecessor of 6”). We cannot analyze one in terms of the other, since they involve different kinds of fact. Nor should we suppose that their epistemic status derives from the same source: true, they both express synthetic propositions, but one derives from a coincidence of stipulations while the other arises from a non-linguistic fact about numbers. The same point would apply to any a posteriori identities involving descriptions. The sentences may look superficially similar, but the occurrence of names in one and descriptions in the other guarantees a complete difference of analysis. We can have two labels for the same thing and the same thing can instantiate different properties—these are very different states of affairs.

            Given that names are not really words (meaningful units of language), how is it that they can occur in sentences combined with real words? Now that is a good question—one would think that other words would shun their company. How do they manage to sneak into sentences disguised as words? Why don’t the sentences reject them as fake words? Get thee out you senseless labels–you empty vessels! A possible answer, which sounds more radical than it really is, is that names don’t occur as constituents of sentences. To be sure, they occur as parts of sound sequences and written marks, but all sorts of things belong there that are not part of sentences proper. Sentences are far more abstract than that, belonging to the unconscious computational mechanisms of the language faculty—they are composed of elements quite far removed from the sensory phenomena in which they are expressed by the human sensorimotor system. So it is possible that names are tacked on by some extraneous part of the mind and are not strictly sentence components at the deep level. The question, then, is what does occur in deep sentences when spoken sentences appear to contain names. The natural thought is that these elements are reference fixers of some sort: possibly definite descriptions, or (more likely) demonstratives. These lexical elements compose the underlying sentences—being genuine words—and names come into the picture by being tacked on from outside and uttered in outer speech. In any case, there are ways to explain how names can appear to be real words without actually being real words (a not uncommon phenomenon). The point always to remember is that names are empty meaningless labels brought in to serve a particular pragmatic purpose, which is divorced from knowledge of the extra-linguistic world.

            As a coda, let me note that names are bits of spoken language that we can like or dislike, abbreviate and distort, that can be changed at will, are subject to fashions and fads, and are easily forgotten—while the regular words of language are not subject to these whims. No one hates the word for red in their language, or proposes changing it, or feels it is so last year, or simply can’t recall it: these facts all suggest that names and words belong in different parts of our cognitive economy. Names are ancillary to language, orthogonal to it, not its truest representatives. All the more odd, then, it is that philosophers should have decided that they form the very essence of language; they are anything but.[3] Language would be quite happy to do without names and only tolerates them because of the epistemic deficits of its users (frankly, they are a bit of an embarrassment). What’s in a name? Nothing—and that is exactly their point.             


[1] If you look up the name “John” in the dictionary you will draw a blank, but the word “John” does appear, defined as “toilet” and “a prostitute’s client”. Dictionaries contain words with meanings not names. To ask for a definition of an ordinary name is bizarre, a kind of linguistic category mistake. 

[2] But demonstratives and other indexical expressions are not mere labels like names. And sure enough they demand a lot more epistemic engagement than names, typically requiring perceptual acquaintance or something close to it (as with “now”). We don’t baptize something “this”.

[3] It may seem especially odd that Russell required that a genuine name have a bearer with which we are acquainted—the most immediate and intimate form of knowledge. But the oddity ebbs when we remember that for Russell the prime example of a name is a demonstrative for a sense datum not an ordinary proper name at all. As Wittgenstein remarked, it is strange that philosophers have chosen as paradigms of names expressions that are not names at all (such as “this”). For Russell, in fact, ordinary proper names are dispensable parts of language, scarcely belonging there at all (in this his intuitions were on the right track). There is some irony in the fact that recent philosophy of language has focused on a type of expression that is quite peculiar and hardly belongs to language at all. It is demonstratives and descriptions that are the genuine article, both firmly hooked up to knowledge of reality.

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