On Philosophy

March 13, 2007

“Is Called”

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I proposed that the description that best characterizes what we mean when we use a name is the description “the thing that is called ‘name’”. To me this seems unproblematic, but in retrospect it only seems unproblematic because I have pinned down what exactly is meant by such a description elsewhere, not on this blog. Allow me then to correct that oversight by providing just such an explanation.

To begin with some might challenge the validity of the “is called” description by arguing that the description itself relies on the existence of non-descriptive reference, and thus cannot by itself be part of an account in which non-descriptive reference is eliminated in favor of some kind of descriptions. But that would be to misunderstand the “is called” description as meaning “is referred to by”. Understandably those who already approach meaning by equating it with reference treat most semantic terms by reducing them to claims about reference, but I do not approach meaning in that way, nor is that my intent. However, to explain the “is called” description it might seem that I must put it in term of some other description that attaches the name to the object, or by appealing to a fact about reference. But both of these options seem to rest on the idea that somehow some word or words basically refer to the object, without depending on any other properties of the object, which is exactly the kind of account I am trying to avoid. This dilemma is a false one though, there is a third option, specifically that the description can be explained in terms of reference guaranteed by context and not by language.

What it means to say that something is referred to by the context is best illustrated by an example. If we are standing on a bridge I can speak the words “this bridge” and refer unambiguously to the bridge itself (assuming that I have not been previously talking about some other bridge). Obviously the worlds “this bridge” do not themselves refer to any particular bridge, rather it is the context that provides a basis for the reference. More generally we can say that reference is created through the context when the individuals in that context are already intentionally directed at the same object and the words bring into focus that intentional directedness in the individuals in the context who hear them. In the case of standing on the bridge we were both already intentionally directed at the objects in our surroundings. When I said “this bridge” it brought to attention our intentional directedness at the bridge, and thus the words referred to that specific bridge without describing the bridge.

Thus we can say that something is called “X” when “X” is used to designate that thing in situations where reference is already guaranteed by the context. For example Sam is called “Sam” because, for example, people point at him and say: “that man is Sam”, he refers to himself by saying: “I am Sam”, ect.

Now let’s consider three possible problems for this kind of description*. One is where people no longer refer to that item in situations where reference is guaranteed by context. For example suppose the Holy Grail did exist at one point, and was known by that name. Furthermore let us suppose that it still exists, but is in a collection of cups and no one knows which one is the “real” Holy Grail. In such a situation what do we refer to or pick out by our use of “the Holy Grail”? In such a situation I would say that there is still a fact about which of those cups at one point were referred to in situations where reference was guaranteed by context as “the Holy Grail”. Thus in such a situation our description “defaults” to its secondary meaning, “was called”. This “defaulting” is not introduced simply manufactured to overcome a problem with the theory, almost all theories must have some version of it, as a result of the second possible problem, considering what we refer to when the object no longer exists. This problem occurs for every use of descriptions. For example “my great grandfather is dead”. This description too seems to face this problem, as it says something about my great grandfather, and yet no one exists who can satisfy that description, and thus we aren’t making a claim about anybody. In these cases the description “defaults” to be one that refers to past individuals as well as currently existing individuals, and the same thing can be said about the “is called” description.

Finally we have cases of mistaken identity or miscommunication. For example if, someone tells me that Sam is also called Samuel (when in fact he is not) then I may seemingly speaking meaningful sentences about Samuel, when in fact I don’t seem to be referring to Sam at all (since he is not in fact called Samuel). Again, the same problem occurs for all kinds of descriptions. For example, if I mistakenly think that the man across from me is drinking a martini then I can talk to my friends meaningfully about the martini drinking man when in fact there is no such person (or that the person I am referring to is not such a person). Again, this is handled with a kind of “defaulting” to become “the man I think is drinking a martini” and “the person who I think is called Samuel”. Both of these manage to correctly describe the individuals we think that we are referring to because our misconception manages to pick out a single individual. In the case of the martini drinking man there is only a single individual who I think is drinking a martini, and who others understand me to think of as drinking a martini. Similarly in the case of Sam there is a definite matter of fact about who I think is called Samuel, namely the man called Sam.

So, if you believe that descriptions are part of language in any way (which is something that no one denies) then there is reason to believe that “is called” can’t be the description that lies behind proper names based on the nature of the description itself. It is true that sometimes it can be hard to determine how a description manages to be a meaningful way to talk about real world objects, but this doesn’t rule out “is called” more than it does any other description.

*Note: these problems have more to do with determining which real objects are the “best fit” for the description given that the description doesn’t, by itself, seem to pick out a specific object. Now I have argued previously that reference, which is what we are dealing with here, is separate for meaning, and so in some sense the “problems” aren’t problems at all, since we aren’t committed to saying anything about our ideas on how reference is determined on the basis of a description. But, on the other hand, the meaning is the possibilities that are evoked by the use of that piece of language, so perhaps the solutions to these problems can also be taken as clarifying more precisely what the possibilities are (as in: it could possibly have only been referred to in context with that name in the past, ect).

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