Naming and Contingency



Naming and Contingency


Let’s accept that names have no meaning, as a distinguished tradition contends.[1] They may have a reference or denotation but they have no sense or connotation. Names lack “descriptive content” and are not synonymous with definite descriptions. Predicates are alien to their semantic functioning. They belong to a different semantic category from descriptive phrases (or demonstratives). Then an elementary consequence follows: names cannot give rise to analytic truths. For analytic truth is truth in virtue of meaning, but names have no meaning: they lack the semantic dimension that generates analytic truth. Descriptions have this dimension, so they readily produce analytic necessities (“The bachelor standing in the corner is unmarried”), but names are devoid of the kind of content that could underlie such necessities. This seems confirmed by simple inspection: sentences of the form “ais F” are never analytically true (the point is often cited as an argument against description theories).  You can never generate an analytic truth from “Aristotle” by combining it with a predicate true of him, though this is easily done by combining descriptions of Aristotle with such a predicate.[2] A generalization thus appears indicated: names cannot give rise to analytic necessities—simply because they lack the property responsible for such necessities, viz. meaning (sense, connotation). Sentences containing names are always synthetic; analytic necessity never follows from the semantics of names. So names belong naturally with contingency not necessity. Descriptions, on the other hand, readily lend themselves to necessities in virtue of their intrinsic semantics, because they possess a content that generates necessities (they have definitions and constituent semantic structure).[3] A monograph entitled “Describing and Necessity” would be aptly so named, while “Naming and Necessity” would raise eyebrows if intended to suggest that names and necessity have anything much to do with each other. One might even prefer “Naming and Not Necessity”, because names are not capable of producing necessities in virtue of meaning, having none.

            However, plausible as all this may sound, there appears to be an obvious counterexample to the generalization stated, namely sentences of the form “a is a”. Aren’t such sentences analytic tautologies, as with “Hesperus is Hesperus”? Such a sentence is necessarily true, known a priori, and inferable from mere mastery of the name “Hesperus”. It has all the marks of analytic truth. But on reflection this verdict should strike us as paradoxical, since we have just seen that names lack the property necessary for conferring analytic necessity, viz. meaning. How can our sentence be true in virtue of the meaning of “Hesperus” if that word lacks meaning (the reference of the name can’t produce such necessary truths)? It therefore looks as if the alleged counterexample cannot be genuine, so something must be said to explain it away. That is not so hard to do. First, notice that “a is a” sentences are highly unusual and not part of ordinary language—no one ever says things like this (except in a philosophy class). Second, are they even about things like the planet Venus—if so, what are they saying about it? Third, it seems obvious that their purport is something like the following: “The thing called “Hesperus” is identical to the thing called “Hesperus”—which is a metalinguistic tautology containing two occurrences of a single definite description. That is not generally true of sentences containing “Hesperus” (unless we decide to make it our general theory of names), but in this case it is what the peculiar sentence is really saying. But then the analytic status of “Hesperus is Hesperus” traces to a hidden description, which of course has descriptive content: the sentence has the same logical form as, “The inventor of bifocals is the inventor of bifocals”. The name “Hesperus” is not here occurring as a used proper name but occurs quoted inside a definite description, so we don’t have a counterexample to our plausible generalization. This is simply a case of a logically misleading sentence that can be generated from a natural language (though it is not generally used as part of natural language). When names occur in propria persona they never give rise to analytic necessities (how could they given their lack of meaning?); but they can occur in a nonstandard way in certain types of sentence (as quoted expressions in a metalinguistic definite description). The case is not unlike the sentence “I’m John Smith” said by way of personal introduction: it clearly means something like “I’m called ‘John Smith’”, in which the name is mentioned not used. Strictly speaking, “Hesperus is Hesperus” is a non-sentence, a linguistic monster, but we easily hear it as a quick way to express the descriptive metalinguistic equivalent (compare “There are a lot of John Smiths in the world”).

            This point can be reinforced by asking whether names ever have synonyms. Analytic truths arise from synonyms, but where are the synonyms for ordinary proper names? They don’t even occur in dictionaries, let alone thesauruses: there is no list of synonyms for “John Smith”. Don’t say “John” is synonymous with “Johnny”: this is a matter of alternative versions of the same name not real synonymy of different names. Names are just tags or labels (as we are assuming) so they don’t have synonyms—words with the same meaning. Different words can express the same concept, but names don’t express any concept—so we don’t have the phenomenon of synonymy, i.e. different words for the same concept. Different versions of the same name are really pseudo synonyms, rather like abbreviations of common words in casual speech (e.g. pronouncing “living” without the “g” at the end). Nor would it be plausible to suggest that names are synonymous with themselves alone, so that “Hesperus is Hesperus” contains a synonymy: no word is ever synonymous with only itself, since synonymy requires identity of meaning and hence a meaning that can be otherwise expressed. Names don’t function like regular words (and arguably are not words at all), so they can’t do what genuinely meaningful words do, i.e. produce analytic truths. They look like words, but so do such non-words as “Ha” or “Boo” or “Um”. Names can be used by speakers to perform acts of reference, but that doesn’t qualify them as real semantic units—almost anything can be used to perform acts of reference (e.g. blinking).[4] In any case it would be wrong to try to assimilate names to other types of expression that participate in genuine synonymies.

            It might be said that names admittedly never generate analytic necessities, but don’t they occur in sentences expressing synthetic necessities so that it would be wrong to dissociate them altogether from the concept of necessity? What about “Aristotle is a man” and “Paris is a city” and “Hesperus is Phosphorous”? I would not wish to deny that such sentences express necessities (non-analytic ones), but it doesn’t follow from their existence that the names in them have anything to do with the necessities stated. On the contrary, the necessities in question (“de renecessities”) can be reported using sentences of different semantic types, including descriptive sentences. The necessity doesn’t arise from the name but from the fact: facts of natural kind and facts of identity. The necessity reported has nothing intrinsically to do with the names used to report it but simply arises from the nature of the fact reported. So a monograph on de re necessity might be misunderstood if entitled “Naming and Necessity”, suggesting perhaps that the two topics are connected. Names have nothing to do intrinsically with either analytic de dicto necessity or synthetic de re necessity. Descriptions, on the other hand, have to do with both, since they are the ground of analytic necessity and they express de re essential properties of objects. For someone wishing to point up a connection between types of reference and types of modality, the titles “Naming and Contingency” and “Describing and Necessity” would be the best choices. Of course, the word “and” by itself entails no claim of connection (though it may conversationally imply it), being usable simply to make a list; but if it is desired to suggest a deep connection between language and modality, then the titles just mentioned would be appropriate. In particular, names are indissolubly connected to contingency in that they are incapable of generating necessary truth, whether analytic or synthetic.[5] Necessity either comes from concepts or from the world, but names express no concepts and are not part of extra-linguistic reality. They are merely convenient labels devoid of descriptive content and not integral to de re necessities: they cannot function as necessity generators (unlike concepts and properties). It is as if names have never even heard of necessity and want nothing to do with it. When God created names he still had more work to do to bring necessity into the world.

[1] I defend this position in “Naming and Knowledge”.

[2] There are such things as descriptive names (oxymoronic as it sounds), since we can simply stipulate that a name is to abbreviate a description, and these will give rise to analytic truths. But they are far from being the general case (Mill could have accepted their logical possibility).

[3] Demonstratives also feature in analytic truths in virtue of an appended predicate, as in “That bachelor is unmarried”. 

[4] It can even be argued that names lack reference as a matter of their intrinsic character: it is speakers who refer by using name not names themselves. But in the case of descriptions the words themselves contribute to determining reference; it isn’t just the speaker’s act that confers reference. This is why the content of a description can conflict with the speaker’s intention, which is not the case with names. The reference of a name is a matter of speaker stipulation alone, but a description carries its own reference-fixing content. Name reference is essentially pragmatic while description reference works via semantic content, i.e. meaning. (These are thorny issues, but I take it the basic contrast is plain enough.)  

[5] Someone may object that rigid designation can lie behind necessary truth, so names are logically connected to necessity, as in the necessary truth of “Hesperus is Phosphorus”. Both names designate the same object in every possible world; therefore the identity statement is a necessary truth. The same is not true for definite descriptions, which are non-rigid designators. But this is confused: descriptions can be rigid designators and thus generate necessary identity statements; and not all statements containing names yield necessary truths, e.g. “Plato taught Aristotle”. It is the necessity of the identity relation that lies behind the necessity of “Hesperus is Phosphorus” not the occurrence of names in this statement.  And we would get the same result by substituting rigid descriptions into the sentence (“the planet composed of such a such a chunk of matter”). Names are not distinctive of necessarily true identity statements; still less do they produce such necessities (identity itself does). 

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