Completely Empty Names



Completely Empty Names


It is time we faced up to some uncomfortable truths about proper names. There have been two theories about them, neither very intuitive, commonly known as the description theory and the direct reference theory. The two theories are radically opposed to each other and each faces formidable difficulties. The simplest way to state the difficulties is that (a) functioning names can lack individuating descriptive content and (b) they can lack an existing bearer: thus they can be empty of sense and empty of reference. On occasion they can be empty of both: a name might be used by someone who associates no uniquely identifying description with it and which also lacks a bearer. For example, you might use the name of a Greek god(“Hera”) and not be able to distinguish this god from others, and neither does the god in question exist. This is what I am calling a completely empty name—empty of both sense and reference. Yet the name has a use. Theorists will sometimes resort to reference when sense is lacking, and resort to sense when reference is lacking, but this tactic won’t work when both are lacking. Notice that both theories face blindingly obvious problems: for names don’t look like descriptions (where is the “the”), and meanings don’t get buried in the ground when bearers of names do. But it is felt that such counterintuitive results are required by theory, these being the only theories available. Odd that the only possible theories look so unpromising on their face, but hey that’s philosophy for you! Thus philosophers pick their poison, and gag on it too (all good fodder for doctoral dissertations). No matter that speakers can hardly ever produce a suitable description, or that it might turn out that all our names lack bearers (we are name-users in a vat): a bit of vigorous bullet-biting can steel us to such embarrassments, and ingenuity is always able to come up with something. Still, some faint hearts might feel that this is not a happy situation and cast about for a less rebarbative theory. And it is not as if there is no logical space for an alternative theory: not all usable expressions of natural language fit the sense-reference paradigm. What about logical connectives or stress patterns or words like “boo” and “ha”? They have a use but it would be stretching a point to declare them susceptible to the sense-reference scheme: they have neither, but they have a job to do. Can’t proper names fall into this general category? Their meaning isn’t constituted by a description or by their bearer but by whatever it is that confers a use on them. Thus they may be empty of both sense and reference and yet possessed of a usable meaning—significance, “semantic value”, communicative function. We just have to find out what that is; then our troubles with names will be over.

            That sounds like a nice resolution, pleasantly irenic and thrillingly eliminative (vaguely Wittgensteinian), but it runs into an obstacle: names are nouns that occupy the subject position in sentences, like descriptions and demonstratives, so they are not like sentence connectives or stress patterns or exclamatory noises. We use them to denote things and they enjoy liaisons with other denoting expressions, so how can they not be components of sentences with that kind of function? Just look and listen and you will see and hear them occurring as parts of sentences playing a specific semantic role—how then can their meaning be constituted by anything other than sense or reference? Don’t they carry modes of presentation of some sort, and aren’t they intended to refer to things? To say they mean neither sense nor reference sounds like saying they possess the null semantics, so it has to be one or the other (or both as in “dual component” semantics). For them to be “completely empty” would be for them to have no linguistic function, to be nonsense, like rocks and table salt. And yet the name “Hera” would appear to be perfectly usable, entirely normal, nothing to worry about, despite its semantic impoverishment. We therefore have a puzzle about names: they can have a use and hence a meaning, but the only candidates for that meaning can be absent from the scene—no definite description or existing bearer in sight. They ought to mean nothing, but in fact they are as meaningful as any name, no matter descriptively well endowed or firmly linked to a real object. Is there any way out of this puzzle?

            I will develop what I call the “parasite theory of names”. Names are not self-sufficient sources of semantic nourishment; they derive their nourishment from a host that is rich in semantic nutrients. First, we must note that what appears to be part of a sentence is not necessarily really a part of it. The specific sensorimotor systems that are employed in speech and writing provide outputs that contain names, but the underlying abstract language faculty may be differently constituted—it might not contain any names at all.[1] Names are imported into natural language use from an outside source, chiefly for purposes of communication; they are not part of the original language faculty designed for aiding thought. We don’t think in names, though we do use them to talk to other people—they are useful for that purpose. In the language of thought we have descriptions and demonstratives, but we don’t have names. Names are introduced as tags or labels for things that people often can’t identify by means of descriptions (and may not even exist): they are parasitic on more basic (and arguably innate) categories of expression. These basic expressions have descriptive content—they are not mere labels—and they anchor names in discourse; but names themselves lack such semantic features. Names can function without themselves possessing sense and reference because they are linked to other expressions parasitically: they work a bit like winks used in communication—they don’t mean anything in themselves but they can be “translated” into genuine words. Indeed, a system of winks could in principle replace a stock of names. A semantic parasite like this will have not have sense and reference considered in isolation (like a description), but it will borrow from words that do, thus achieving a utility in communication. Thus neither a description theory nor a direct reference theory will capture their mode of semantic functioning (their “meaning” roughly). Maybe some words in the language of thought have a purely descriptive content, and some may well be subject to a directly referential semantics (e.g. words for sensible qualities); but the names employed in outer speech (auditory and visual) don’t participate in such a semantics. They are non-descriptive labels designed to overcome a knowledge problem (people often don’t know enough to pin their intended reference down). Thus they have a use but they don’t have the kind of meaning that other expressions have—they have a kind of zero semantics. They have a pragmatics but they don’t have their own proprietary semantics: they are linguistic parasites. In a sense they defer to the “experts” located in LOT. If they were basic they would need a semantics to ground them—such as a descriptive or referential semantics—but they are anything but basic. The mistake of the tradition was to assume that names are basic and then fret about their inherent semantics, thus oscillating between descriptions and objects as sources of name meaning; but once we recognize that names are parasitic we can accept that neither type of theory applies to them—which is exactly how things appear. In particular, they don’t have the kind of meaning postulated by description theories—hence the familiar counterexamples. But neither do they have a meaning constituted by objects themselves—hence the problem posed by empty names. Completely empty names are thus not at all anomalous or defective: they do their job perfectly well by being anchored to semantic machinery in the head. They simply don’t have any originalsemantics, any self-sufficient content; they are just convenient ways to get things across to people. We could speculate that they were appended to the language faculty late in the game, long after LOT evolved to service thought; and they have nothing in them analogous to descriptions. Nor do they possess any mechanism that could deliver a reference (unlike descriptions): we merely stipulate a reference for them and then use them to refer—they couldn’t do it without us. Semantically, they are blank tablets, mere counters in a game, so it is pointless to try to develop a “semantics of names”. Descriptions and demonstratives, yes (and other types of expression), but not names; they are, as we naturally say, meaningless labels. So theories of names have been chasing a mare’s nest: there simply is nothing that a mare’s nest could consist of, since horses don’t build nests. Likewise, there is no such thing as a name’s meaning, unless we mean by that “whatever it is that names do in communication” (mares have nests too if “nest” just means “a place they raise their young”). In the same sense “um” and “ah” have no meaning, though they play a role in discourse. Names look like they must have a meaning because they occur in the sensorimotor externalizations of internal sentences of LOT (the abstract language faculty), but it turns out that this appearance is deceptive because names are not parts of the innate lexicon (as accents are also not). The mistake is thinking that names are a semantic category analogous to descriptions or demonstratives, equally basic, equally non-parasitic. But names by themselves could never exist; they need support from elsewhere. The correct conclusion, then, is that names are the wrong kind of thing to subject to semantic analysis of the traditional kinds. We can sensibly have a description theory of descriptions (trivially) and a direct reference theory of basic sensory terms (as well as a two-level theory of demonstratives), but it is a category mistake to seek such a theory of names. This then is the solution to the puzzle of names outlined earlier: the language game of names is not the same as other language games used to refer to things, so it is wrong to seek a theory of names based on theories appropriate for other types of expression. And that is why the theories that have been proposed are so wide of the mark.[2]


Colin McGinn             


[1] For this kind of perspective, see Chomsky, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (2016) and What Kind of Creatures Are We? (2016).

[2] We might compare the situation with a comparable mistake in the case of demonstratives: supposing that they must follow the paradigms of descriptions and names. Either demonstratives are really descriptions or they are really proper names, but they don’t appear to be either, so we have a puzzle. But the puzzle is resolved once we recognize that demonstratives function according to their own principles, in which context plays a crucial role. By analogy, names are rightly seen as neither descriptive nor directly referential but rather as parasitic and extrinsic to the internal language faculty proper. They are, just as they appear, meaningless labels arbitrarily assigned to objects about which we wish to communicate. They don’t mean associated descriptions and they don’t mean external objects: they don’t mean anything—though we may be said to mean something by using them. They are precisely not like descriptions or primitive terms for sensory qualities (e.g. “red”). Names are sui generis and should not be modeled on descriptions or demonstratives or primitive symbols for simple qualities.     

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