A Taxonomy of Reference

A Taxonomy of Reference

Wittgenstein would say that reference comes in many varieties, like sentences; the concept of reference is a family resemblance concept. We should be wary of the urge to assimilate, unify; we should respect the multiplicity (his word) of reference, like the multiplicity of language games. Gareth Evans called his book The Varieties of Reference (though without acknowledgment to Wittgenstein—why, I wonder), and he explored these varieties in detail, resisting efforts to reduce one variety to another. At the level of thought, we could say that intentionality comes in varieties: there are irreducibly different ways of mentally representing things—being intentionally “directed” to them. Russell didn’t subscribe to this strong multiplicity thesis, but he firmly distinguished two basic types of reference, which he famously labeled “knowledge by acquaintance” and “knowledge by description”; these are held to underlie different types of linguistic reference (proper names and definite descriptions). He was a two-variety theorist about reference—a referential dualist—as opposed to a radical plurality theorist. What about Frege? He, I think, was a single-variety theorist, at least if we limit ourselves to reference to objects as opposed to concepts (in his sense). Frege took all reference to objects to proceed by way of what he called “sense”, glossed as “mode of presentation”—which includes sentences as referring to truth-values, conceived as objects. He made no principled distinction between different types of referential device; all involve the all-purpose notion of a mode of presentation (whatever quite that amounts to). In Russell’s terminology, he might be said to hold that all reference depends on knowledge by description, i.e., knowledge of truths, or conceptual knowledge. That is certainly the way he has traditionally been understood, though there have been dissenters from this interpretation. Anyway, for Frege, reference is homogeneous, uniform, essentially identical (identical in essence). So, classically, we have a one-variety theory, a two-variety theory, and a multiple-variety theory—monism, dualism, and pluralism (a familiar philosophical division of viewpoint).

I am going to propose a three-variety theory, based on ideas that have been floating around for a while. I want to make explicit and systematize these ideas. Since labels matter, I will fuss a little over how these three varieties are to be characterized. The first variety I shall call (in deference to Russell) “reference by acquaintance”, though the terminology is by no means perfect. We might better call it “reference by perception” using a suitably wide notion of perception, because we want to include not only perception by the five senses but also introspective perception and “intuitive” perception (as in perception of mathematical objects and perception of universals—Russell’s “acquaintance with universals”). The idea is that of direct unmediated awareness of some entity not based on concepts or what Russell calls “knowledge of truths”. It is not inferential or derivative or indirect, but immediate and in-your-face. Sense data are Russell’s favored objects of such acquaintance. This kind of reference could be possessed by a being devoid of concepts or propositional knowledge; we might think of it as primitive animal intentionality. The human mind is capable of such basic apprehension of things—a result of primitive mechanisms of mental representation shared by other creatures. Baby reference, we might call it—reference without thought, reflection, or reasoning. Simple vision is the paradigm, though not the sole instance. It can be, and has been, studied by perceptual psychologists. We know quite a bit about how it works.

The second variety I will call (again in deference to Russell and tradition) “reference by description”, which again is not perfect, because we mean to include non-linguistic concept-mediated reference. It is thought-involving, truth-invoking, inference-implicating, and inherently complex. It works by the mechanism of satisfaction—predication, attribution. It essentially employs the word “the” or its psychological counterpart. It conforms to Russell’s theory of descriptions, so it involves quantification and identity. It is sophisticated compared to reference by acquaintance, requiring ascent to propositional thinking not just brute object awareness. Such reference is typically accomplished by employing causal, spatial, and temporal concepts—”the cause of X”, “the object to the right of Y”, “the event following Z”. Relational concepts are its bread and butter. Inference is its natural home. It belongs to the “higher” animals. It occurs when we say and think things like, “The next in line to the throne had better not be bald”. Cognitively, it goes well beyond reference by acquaintance. Its brain physiology is mysterious.

The third type of reference I will call “reference by location”, which again is not ideal but better than some other labels. I have in mind reference effected by means of context, causality, community, history, environmental embedding, spatiotemporal location, and overt pointing: that is, factors external to the referrer, often unknown by him, and entirely objective. We are now very familiar with this third source of reference through work on indexical terms, causal theories of names, externalist thought experiments, division of linguistic labor, and the role of the community in fixing reference. I won’t defend this body of work here; the point is just that this viewpoint has introduced us to a type of reference distinct from the other two—reference by means of location. Reference can depend not just on what you are currently conscious of, or what descriptions you have in mind, but also on context, causal relations, spatiotemporal location, and community membership. Not on knowledgeof these things, mark, but the objective existence of them—what the external facts actually are. In respect of primitiveness, we might think of reference by location as lying somewhere between reference by acquaintance and reference by description—“adolescent” reference perhaps, or “canine” reference (dogs are not big on reference by means of individuating descriptions, but they are not limited to simple perception). The animal doesn’t need direct perception of the referent, nor the resources of conceptual individuation; the context can provide the necessary grounds for effecting an act of referring. This is reference by means of objective relations.[1]

Once we have this tripartite taxonomy to hand, we can discern further subdivisions: we have the genus Reference, the species Acquaintance, Description, and Location, and now the subspecies corresponding to the different types of perception, description, and location. For example, we might have visual perception of objects, descriptions employing spatial concepts, and actual temporal location. We can also contemplate extending the taxonomy beyond reference to objects to take in reference to properties or even states of affairs and truth-values. Thus, we could distinguish perceiving a state of affairs, describing a state of affairs, and demonstrating a state of affairs (“that fact”, “the actual world”). The same three-part taxonomy carries over to higher-order types of reference. It may also occur to us (as it has to many theorists in the past) that one type of reference might conceivably be reducible to another type. Thus, might all three types be reducible to the perceptual type? Russell clearly thought that reference to universals was a special case of acquaintance, so that reference by description reduces to reference by acquaintance. Some have thought that all reference might turn out to be locational—all reference reduces to causal relations to the environment (nothing referential is “in the head”). Yet others have maintained that it all comes down to concepts—description theories of everything, even perception. I think myself that we have learned enough to be confident that such reductionist projects stand little chance of success: we really do have three distinct varieties of reference (and not any more). It isn’t an open-ended plurality a la Wittgenstein, nor is it monolithic a la Frege, nor dualistic a la Russell, but rather a threefold division—a referential trinity. Nor is any one variety more basic than the others in the sense that the others depend upon it, or grow from it; they aren’t versions or variants of it. To be sure, perceptual reference is basic phylogenetically and ontogenetically, but it doesn’t follow that the other two are simply versions of it, as petals are versions of leaves. They may incorporate perceptual reference in some way, but they add to it substantially; new processes and principles are involved. The psychology of the three varieties is therefore markedly different; the mind is doing different things in each case. Intentionality works differently in the three cases, implicating quite distinct modes of reference determination—direct perception, conceptual individuation, and contextual fixation. The underlying machinery is different in each case. Concepts dominate in one (description), are absent from another (perception), and operate only partially in the third (location). Causation is central to perception, but not the other two. Location is inessential to description and incidental to perception. Elephants, whales, and humans are all mammals, but they are very different from each other; similarly, the three forms of reference are all instances of reference, but they are markedly different from each other. In fact, on my way of looking at things, reference is a biological phenomenon, so the threefold distinction is a biological distinction. Hearts, kidneys, and brains are all internal organs of the body, but they are as different as chalk and cheese. I can even see how Wittgenstein might insist that it is misleading to call each type of reference “reference”, as if they each share a common essence–though I don’t myself believe it is necessary to go that far. Reference is the genus; its varieties are the species. The variety matters, though it is not unlimited.[2]

[1] There is, of course, a huge literature on the topic of reference, to which I make no direct reference; readers can supply appropriate references. What kind of reference does the word “refer” make?

[2] If I were to write a book on the subject, it would be entitled The Three Varieties of Reference. I take the same view of speech acts: there are a small number of basic types (each belonging to the genus Speech Act) with many subspecies, not an indefinite number of basic types (pace Wittgenstein).

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