Meaningless Names

Meaningless Names

If an expression has meaning, it should be possible to say what that meaning is. Meaning should not be something ineffable. Dictionaries say what meaning is—they specify the meaning of words. But they don’t contain names (or very few).[1] What would they look like if they did? They would certainly be extremely long: all the names of people past and present laid out alphabetically with accompanying definitions. It is not clear what form the definitions would take, however—how would the names be defined? There are two theories of the meaning of names and each recommends a different method of definition: the description theory and the direct reference theory. According to the first, a dictionary entry would take the form “N means the F”; according to the second, it would be “N means x”. For example: “Plato means the teacher of Aristotle”, and “Plato means Plato”, respectively. One specification attributes certain properties to the bearer of the name, while the other simply specifies the bearer. In the case of a general term like “cat” these would be equivalent to the following: “Cat means a small carnivorous mammal of such-and-such an appearance”, and “Cat means cats”. In short, one view says that names mean properties and the other says that names mean objects. So, imagine two dictionaries of names each using one or the other format: would these be good dictionaries? They would not. The first would suffer from the problem of selection—which property specification should be put into the entry for a given a name? People associate different properties with the same name, at a time or at different times, so the choice appears arbitrary; no definition in these terms provides a constant interpersonal meaning. No meaning in a common shared language gets specified, but dictionaries specialize in such general public meanings. All we have is idiosyncratic beliefs about the bearer—hardly the stuff of a shared language. Also, the underlying theory has been subjected to devastating criticism, and we don’t want a dictionary of names to presuppose a false theory. This is simply not what names mean, so we shouldn’t say that this is what they mean in our dictionary. According to the second theory, names mean objects, so a dictionary along these lines will say as much. The trouble here is that such a dictionary will be entirely uninformative: it will simply say things like “Plato (the name) means Plato (the object)”. This is like saying “Cat means cats”: it doesn’t articulate the meaning at all. But meanings need to be informatively specifiable, or else the dictionary is useless (assuming it is a dictionary of a language in that language). Also, the underlying theory is controversial at best, false at worst. We don’t want a statement of meaning to presuppose a questionable philosophical theory of meaning. Thus, we can’t do with names what dictionaries do with other words: that is, we can’t say what names mean in the standard fashion.

The reason for this, I suggest, is that names have no meaning, given that words have meaning only if we can say what that meaning is. They are, as the tradition maintains, mere tags or labels, devoid of meaning. Some names have meaning, such as “Shorty” or “Big John” or “Autumn” or “June” or “Tuesday”, but most names don’t. If they have no meaning, then we cannot state their meaning; that is why we cannot state it. For the same reason, we can’t state the meaning of horses or toadstools or accents or pauses or sighs. Names are used in communication, as are many things, but they are not thereby elements with meanings. It is true that as so used they have denotations, but the denotation isn’t part of their meaning—for they have none. Names are meaningless tags for objects denoted by speakers. It might be wondered how they can have denotation but no meaning to determine the denotation. The answer is that there are terms that fix their reference but don’t determine their meaning. Suppose we say that the reference of “Plato” is fixed by “the object people call Plato”: that explains how the name latches onto one thing rather than another, but it tells us nothing about the meaning of “Plato”—nothing that could be usefully reported in a dictionary. So, names can feature in sentences which have meaning and truth conditions without themselves having any meaning.[2] Names don’t bring meanings with them that combine with other meanings to produce meaningful sentences (they have a use but no meaning). As theories of meaning, then, the two traditional theories are barking up the wrong tree—there is no meaning up there to start with. There may be truth in the theories in other respects, but not as contributions to the theory of meaning. They are certainly not paradigms for other classes of expressions that do indisputably have meaning. There is no such thing as a “semantics of names” if that means a theory of meaning for names. If names had meaning, it would be possible to compile a dictionary specifying their meaning; but it’s not, so they don’t. That’s why there is no dictionary devoted to names (even of famous people, as it might be Dictionary of the Names of the Stars).

Descriptions and demonstratives have meaning, as do prepositions and conjunctions, but not proper names. We don’t think we are expanding our vocabulary by learning new names; nor do we complain that our names misdescribe us. We recognize that they are just convenient devices with no intrinsic significance. If a name’s meaning were identical to its reference, then it would have a meaning, as the word “red” has a meaning by denoting the color red; but then it would not be a mere empty label. That theory would imply that the meaning would perish with its bearer (as Wittgenstein once remarked), which is not what meanings are supposed to do. But associated descriptive beliefs are too variable and contingent to constitute meaning, so this theory is ruled out too. Names have no meaning at all, in the way other words do, so there is nothing there for theories of the meaning of names to be theories of. A lot of recent philosophy of language has been chasing a mare’s nest.[3]   

[1] The OED contains the name “Jesus” and the names of the planets (though not “Shakespeare” or “London” or “Plato”), but the entries are hardly adequate to specify a meaning. For “Jesus” we read “the central figure of the Christian religion”: is that what the name meant to his family or the apostles? At best this is a reference-fixer for us now. Ditto for the entries purporting to give the meaning of the names of the planets.

[2] A pure causal theory allows for this possibility too.

[3] Oddly enough, the entire history of philosophical discussion of names has lost sight of their most obvious characteristic, which is difficult by this time to recover, namely that names are empty labels—meaningless sounds or scribbles conscripted to serve acts of speaker reference. They have no cognitive content, no intrinsic significance, no propositional potency. They are semantically vacuous; dead on arrival. Yet they do a useful job in acts of speech. See my “Completely Empty Names” for more on this theme.

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