Meaning and Object





Meaning and Object



Wittgenstein writes: “It is important to note that the word ‘meaning’ is being used illicitly if it is used to signify the thing that ‘corresponds’ to the word. That is to confound the meaning of a name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say ‘Mr. N. N. is dead.’” (Philosophical Investigations, section 40) This is an argument by Leibniz’s law: the meaning of a name cannot be identical to its bearer because bearers die but meanings don’t, i.e. when the person denoted dies the name’s bearer dies but not the meaning of the name. Wittgenstein could have reversed the argument: a name’s meaning can go out of existence (“die”) without its bearer going out of existence. For a name to become meaningless is not for its bearer to cease to exist. Suppose that human beings were to lose the ability to understand and produce speech, so that language becomes meaningless to them; it doesn’t follow that the erstwhile referents of the names in the language cease to exist. If humans become extinct, the names in their language will stop having meaning, but many of things they used to refer to will still exist. In a possible world without language of any kind the things we actually refer to may nevertheless exist: those things cannot be meanings—for meanings of what? It looks like a category mistake to identify meanings with objects, senses with references.

            If so, it is a mistake to adopt a “direct reference” theory of the meaning of names—that is, a theory that identifies meaning with reference. If the bearer of a name dies, the meaning of sentences containing the name doesn’t die. So inserting the bearer of a name into the proposition expressed to capture the meaning of the name has to be wrong—or else propositions would be as mortal as people. More exactly, the proposition expressed does not have the same existence conditions as those of the bearer of the name. We might plausibly suppose that meanings (propositions) cease to exist when the minds that grasp them cease to exist, but that has nothing to do with the mortality of objects of reference. Meanings can exist only when concepts do, but concepts are perishable things—they depend for their existence on minds. If I lose my concept of Mr. N. N. the name “Mr. N. N.” becomes meaningless for me, though Mr. N. N. may march on regardless; and Mr. N. N’s continued existence is not required for me to have a concept of him.

            Does this prove that there is nothing to the “direct reference” theory of names? Is the “Millian” theory ruled out from the start? Certainly it would be reasonable to conclude that all meanings are (or depend on) concepts, so that the meaning of a name must be a concept of its bearer, and only concepts can constitute propositions. But it doesn’t follow that every viable theory of names must be a description theory, because we may avail ourselves of the idea of an object-embedding concept, i.e. a concept that incorporates an object. That concept can continue existing in people’s minds long after the object denoted is dead and gone. The concept is, in effect, a memory of the object—and memories can last longer than what they are memories of (also shorter if the person remembering dies sooner than the object remembered). So nothing we have said so far rules out a “direct reference” theory of names, so long as we formulate that theory in terms of suitable concepts, not by asserting any strict identity between meaning and bearer. The meaning (sense) of a name is identical to the individual concept associated with the name not with the individual itself.

            Does this collapse the Millian theory into a description theory? It does in the sense that both theories identify meanings with concepts of individuals not with individuals—for only concepts can enter the precincts of a proposition—but not in the sense that the same kinds of concepts are involved. Descriptive senses are not the same as object-embedding senses (assuming the latter notion is well-defined). The direct reference theorist can still deny that the sense of a name is given by a description; he can thus court Frege’s problem of informative identity statements. His distinguishing theses do not depend on the contrast between concepts entering propositions and objects entering propositions—he can abandon the latter and still have a distinctive view of the sense of names. It is just that names express concepts that incorporate objects.

But hasn’t a central semantic plank been ceded to the opposition? All meanings turn out to be conceptual in nature; no meaning reduces to objects of reference. That is not what Russell was aiming for in his theory of logically proper names, nor what Frege maintained till he invented the theory of sense and reference, nor what excites David Kaplan (the inventor of the phrase “direct reference”). Meaning cannot be reference, period. Meanings are always “in the mind” not “in the world”. Doesn’t that concede the general conception of meaning upon which the description theorist insists, if not the fine detail about the nature of particular concepts? Meaning is a matter of mind not world, psychology not geography. Meaning is always conceptual, never objectual.

However, I think the shoe is actually on the other foot: it is the description theorist who must concede the theoretical centrality of the world in determining meaning. This is because the concepts she appeals to—general concepts—are themselves world involving: they are concepts of objective worldly entities, viz. properties. The concept square, say, precisely is the concept of the objective geometrical property of being square—that property square objects objectively instantiate.  [1] The concept directly refers to that property—just as my concept of Mr. N. N. directly refers to Mr. N. N., according to the direct reference theory. The meanings of names and predicates work in fundamentally the same way: both involve concepts that directly pick out worldly items—objects or properties, particulars or universals. Direct reference is the semantic rule not the exception; it is just that it is always mediated by concepts of some sort (trivially so).

            The general lesson is that the correct contrast is not between semantic theories that trade in concepts and semantic theories that trade in objects; it is between two different sorts of concepts—those with descriptive content and those without.  [2] All meaning is conceptual and no propositions contain objects instead of concepts; the meaning of a name, in particular, is never its bearer but always a concept of that bearer. Perhaps this should have been obvious from the simple reflection that before there were speakers with concepts there were no meanings in the world, but plenty of objects. Objects are not meanings waiting to be scooped up by language.


  [1] The reason this point is often missed is that there is a tacit assumption that general concepts must be purely internal, so that a description theorist must hold to an anti-referential view of the meaning of predicates. But it is possible to hold that predicates refer to properties as names refer to objects—and this open up the possibility that predicates themselves are subject to a direct reference theory. 

  [2] I am not here committing myself to the idea that non-descriptive individual concepts ultimately make sense; I am merely articulating what a direct reference theorist should say in order to formulate his theory so as to avoid the kind of objection Wittgenstein raises. The question is how to avoid the category mistake Wittgenstein diagnoses.

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