"A proper name
[is] a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about" writes John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, economist and civil servant. An influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy, his conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of...
in A System of Logic
A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive is an 1843 book by English philosopher John Stuart Mill. In this work, he formulated the five principles of inductive reasoning that are known as Mill's methods.-References:...
(1. ii. 5.), "but not of telling anything about it". The problem of defining proper names, and of explaining their meaning, is one of the most recalcitrant in modern analytical philosophy.
The problem of proper names
A proper name tells us which
thing is in question, without giving us any other information about it. But how does it do this? What exactly is the nature of this information? There are two puzzles in particular:
- The name in some way reveals the identity of the object. An identity statement, such as "Hesperus
In Greek mythology, Hesperus is the Evening Star, the planet Venus in the evening. He is the son of the dawn goddess Eos and is the brother of Eosphorus , the Morning Star. Hesperus' Roman equivalent is Vesper...
Phosphorus , a name meaning "Light-Bringer", is the Morning Star, the planet Venus in its morning appearance. Φαοσφόρος and Φαεσφόρος are forms of the same name in some Greek dialects....
" should contain no information at all. If we understand the names, we should understand the information they carry, namely the identity of their bearers, and if we grasp their identity, we should understand automatically whether the statement is true or false. Thus the statement should not be informative. Yet it is. The discovery that Hesperus = Phosphorus was (in its day) a great scientific achievement.
- Empty names have to seem perfectly meaningful. Then whose identity do they reveal? If the only semantic function of a name is to tell us which individual a proposition is about, how can it tell us this when there is no such individual?
Theories of proper names
Many theories have been proposed about proper names, none of them entirely satisfactory.
theory of proper names is the view that the meaning of a given use of a proper name is a set of properties that can be expressed as a description
A definite description is a denoting phrase in the form of "the X" where X is a noun-phrase or a singular common noun. The definite description is proper if X applies to a unique individual or object. For example: "the first person in space" and "the 42nd President of the United States of...
that picks out an object that satisfies the description. It is commonly held that Frege held such a view — the description being embedded in what he called the sense
Sinn and bedeutung are usually translated, respectively, as sense and reference. Two different aspects of some terms' meanings, a term's reference is the object that the term refers to, while the term's sense is the way that the term refers to that object.Sinn and bedeutung were introduced by...
) of the name. Certainly, Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. At various points in his life he considered himself a liberal, a socialist, and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had never been any of these things...
seems to have espoused such a view in his early philosophical career (Sainsbury, R.M.
Mark Sainsbury may refer to:*Mark Sainsbury , United Kingdom philosopher*Mark Sainsbury , New Zealand current affairs presenter...
, London 1979). According to the descriptivist theory of meaning, there is a description of the sense of proper names, and that description, like a definition, picks out
the bearer of the name. The distinction between the embedded description and the bearer itself is similar to that between the extension
and the intension
of a general term, or between connotation and denotation.
The extension of a general term like "dog" is just all the dogs that are out there; the extension is what the word can be used to refer to. The intension of a general term is basically a description of what all dogs have in common; it's what the definition expresses.
The difficulty with the descriptive theory is what the description corresponds to. It must be some essential characteristic of the bearer, otherwise we could use the name to deny the bearer had such a characteristic. The objection is associated with Kripke
Saul Aaron Kripke is an American philosopher and logician. He is a professor emeritus at Princeton and teaches as a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center...
, although philosophers such as Bradley
Francis Herbert Bradley, OM, was a British idealist philosopher.- Life :Bradley was born at Clapham, Surrey, England . He was the child of Charles Bradley, an evangelical preacher, and Emma Linton, Charles's second wife. A. C. Bradley was his brother...
John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...
had already noticed the problem.
Causal theory of names
The causal theory of names combines the referential view with the idea that the name's referent is fixed by a baptismal act, whereupon the name becomes a rigid designator of the referent. Subsequent uses of the name succeed in referring to the referent by being linked by a causal chain
In philosophy, a causal chain is an ordered sequence of events in which any one event in the chain causes the next. Some philosophers believe causation relates facts, not events, in which case the meaning is adjusted accordingly.-See also:*Causality*Event...
to that original baptismal act. (The theory is an attempt to explain exactly why a proper name has the referent that it actually does).
- Braun, David, Katz on Names Without Bearers, The Philosophical Review
The Philosophical Review is a quarterly journal of philosophy edited by the faculty of the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University and published by Duke University Press . The journal publishes original work in all areas of analytic philosophy, but emphasizes material that is of general...
, Vol. 104, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 553–576
- Coates, Richard, "Properhood" in: Language, 82.2 (2006): 356-82.