Sunday, May 3, 2015

Naming Names and the Problem of (Ancient) Greece

On page 81 of Naming and Necessity, Kripke (1981) states,

"that we know that Cicero was the man who first denounced Catiline.  Well, that's good.  That really picks someone out uniquely.  However, there is a problem, because this description contains another name, namely 'Catiline'."

Kripke is trying to avoid the circularity condition (C) spelled out in Lecture II of Naming and Necessity, delivered on January 22, 1970 at Princeton University.

The circularity condition (Kripke, 1981, page 71) states that "for any successful theory, the account must not be circular.  The properties which are used in the vote must not themselves involve the notion of reference in such a way that it is ultimately impossible to eliminate."

By vote Kripke means a set of properties that uniquely pick out some object (person, place, or thing).

On Friday, I was reading McGinn's (2015) wonderful new book The Philosophy of Language.  On page 53 McGinn makes an interesting statement that is directly refuted by the Kripke quotes above. McGinn claims that Kripke makes no mention of impure descriptions, or those that define a name in terms of other names, despite what Kripke wrote on page 71 of Naming and Necessity.

McGinn writes that the name "Aristotle" can be replaced by the definite description "the best pupil of Plato."  To quote McGinn, "notice that this description contains a name, 'Plato.' Many of these uniquely identifying descriptions contain such names.  But according to the description theory, all names are equivalent to descriptions.  What then is meant by the name 'Plato'?  The name 'Plato' cannot abbreviate the definite description 'the teacher of Aristotle' because that definition would be circular.  To refer to Plato, we must create a new definite description.  We could say, 'the most famous philosopher of ancient Greece,' but then the question would arise as to what the name 'Greece' means.  The point is that the uniquely identifying definite descriptions themselves contain another name.  To explain what that name means, the descriptions continue to regress to descriptions containing other names.  This issue raises serious problems for the description theory, since names are supposed to depend ultimately on descriptions for their reference."

McGinn's chapter on Kripke is fascinating and incredibly useful, but it is short on the chain of communication theory of reference and gets some aspects of it wrong, in my opinion.  This will be the subject of another blog post.

Suffice to say here that definite descriptions are Fregean constructs that Kripke set out to refute.  Kripke was successful in this (in my opinion), using the idea of possible worlds to spell out how names can retain their referents that in other worlds have radically different properties.  What if Aristotle had decided to study music, or had been born with a brain defect?  He would still have been Aristotle, and the name would still have referred to him uniquely.  Analogously (or not), to what does 'Greece' refer?  Could it have turned out differently?  In what ways?  We think of many things (both ancient and modern) when we utter the name Greece, but it does not refer in any straightforward way.  Think of the Elgin marbles, for example.

The question now is how all of this applies to theories of geographical reference.  "Geographical Naming and Necessity" is the title of a paper I will be delivering at the Canadian Association of Geographers meeting (1-5 June 2015).  I will present my findings so far, from what will be (by that time) 8 months of study of primary texts by Kripke, Wittgenstein, McGinn, Evans, Hanna & Harrison and others, applying their insights towards geographical naming systems, with necessary and sufficient referring conditions spelled out, and special reference to the 'problem' of indigenous names.
Stay posted, or see you at the CAG!


Kripke, Saul.  1981.  Naming and Necessity.  Oxford: Blackwell.

McGinn, Colin.  2015.  The Philosophy of Language.  Cambridge, Massachussetts: MIT Press.

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