Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Are they all names?

I am trying to work out a theory of proper names (PN) according to which a PN is not a part of natural language. This, I’ve heard, is Mill’s view of Language. Names simply name, and that is that. Names do not have meaning, on this view. And so on. And so forth. I have an initial problem with this view: it cannot work out for everything we call names, not even everything philosophers ordinarily call grammatically proper names.

So my view faces an initial problem: to put the limits to the phenomena I want to explain. It is often accepted that things like ‘London’, ‘Aristotle’, ‘Pegasus’, ‘Phlogiston’, and ‘Peter Ludlow’ are all within the same category. On my view, this is false. I am not sure about ‘London’ but it seems clear to me that ‘Pegasus’, ‘Phlogiston’ and ‘Aristotle’ are no within the same category as ‘Peter Ludlow’. There is an important difference between them. From the speaker’s point of view neither ‘Pegasus’, ‘Phlogiston’, or ‘Aristotle’ refers to anything with which there can be acquaintance. Thus, form this point of view, what makes something a PN is not the object that it refers to, but the relation that holds between the object and the subject.

Both ‘Pegasus’ and ‘Phlogiston’ are empty names. There can be no acquaintance whatsoever with what we intend to refer to by means of them. Thus, none of them is a PN. No worries then if those linguistic entities have a meaning. No worries if such meaning is determined by a definite description (DD).

It turns out that whether or not something is a PN is an a posteriori matter. Just like ‘Vulcan’ turned out to be an empty, fictitious, name, so may many other theoretical terms like ‘Neptune’, or ‘Pluto’ for that matter. What these names have in common is the fact that they are introduced by means of a theory that gives us the identity conditions of the object.

To contrast, consider the case of a paradigmatic introduction of a PN. I walk with Jon down the Diag and run into Axel. The introductory ritual, more often than not, goes as follows: “Have I introduced the two of you before?” I say, “No” they say, “Jon Axel. Axel Jon” I say, “Jon” says the one, and “Axel” says the other. Have we used any theory, presupposed any property, or associated any description whatsoever? It seems to me that we haven’t. From that moment on, both Axel and Jon are acquainted with each other. And that’s all we need, nothing more, nothing less.