What is the meaning of a proper name?

Matthew asked:

What is the meaning of a proper name?

Answer by Eric DeJardin

Hello, Matthew! Thanks for the excellent question.

We might start, as is often done in philosophy, by defining our terms.

Let’s call an expression a ‘proper name’ if it’s (1) syntactically simple (i.e. the meanings of its parts don’t necessarily contribute to the meaning of the name, so e.g. the baseball team, ‘The Pittsburgh Pirates’ isn’t composed of pirates, and it need not include anyone from Pittsburgh), and it (2) at least purports to refer to some particular thing (with the qualifier ‘at least purports to refer’ added to countenance the possibility of proper names that arguably don’t refer, like ‘Zeus’).[1] And let’s say that the meaning of a sentence is determined by what’s involved in the act of understanding it, and that what it takes to understand a sentence is to grasp the conditions that would have to be satisfied to render it true. Finally, let’s say that the meaning of the expressions that sentences comprise, like proper names, consists in the contribution they make (when they’re used) to the meaning of a sentence.

We can now see that we’re not speaking about the meaning of a name in the sense that e.g. ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’.

So, we can now ask, what contribution do proper names make to the meanings of sentences that use them?

Puzzles about identity statements (inter alia) led Frege to argue that a name makes two contributions to the meaning of a sentence — its referent, i.e. the object to which it refers, and its sense, i.e. that which is contained in its ‘mode of presentation’ to the name user.[2] The two notions are related in that the sense of an expression determines its referent. So, a name’s referent contributes to the meaning of a sentence in which it is used insofar as it enables us to understand what conditions would have to be satisfied to render the sentence true — e.g. ‘John is 6 foot tall’ is true if the predicate ‘is 6 foot tall’ accurately describes the referent of ‘John’ — and a name’s sense contributes to the meaning of a sentence in which the name is used by providing us with a specific ‘way of thinking’ about the referent[3] (which is one way in which the somewhat obscure notion of a ‘mode of presentation’ can be understood) — e.g. the sense of ‘John’ may be ‘the manager of the Greenville Benny’s store’ (properly indexed to time and place) if that’s the manner in which you know John; and so if a predicate can be truly ascribed to the sense ‘the manager of the Greenville Benny’s store’, then a sentence using a name which expresses that sense is true.

So, as we just saw with Frege, the sense of a proper name can be cashed out in terms of a description of the name’s referent. Russell argued that all proper names in natural language are disguised descriptions, for if they merely referred directly to their bearers, then negative existential sentences containing them (e.g. ‘John doesn’t exist’) would be contradictory (since one would have to refer to John to succeed in denying his existence), and existential sentences containing them (e.g. ‘John exists’) would be tautologous (since, if the name ‘John’ succeeds in referring to John, then to go on to say of John that he exists is redundant); hence, Russell identified the meaning of a proper name with the definite descriptions that uniquely describe its bearer.[4] However, unlike Frege, for whom the sense of a name determines its referent, and so for whom a name acts as a referring expression, Russell’s descriptions don’t refer, but denote — that is, they act as quantifier expressions (i.e. expressions concerning ‘one’, ‘some’, ‘none’, ‘all’, etc.) that posit conditions that one object uniquely satisfies without thereby invoking that object (as a referring expression does).[5] Russell therefore rejects Frege’s notion that the meaning of a name is composed of its sense and referent. So, if ‘John’ disguises the description, ‘the manager of the Greenville Benny’s store’, then the name is reduced on a Russellian analysis (when used in a complete sentence) to ‘there is at least one manager of the Greenville Benny’s store, and there is at most one manager of the Greenville Benny’s store’, which is a conjunction of sentences that lacks any referring expressions (excepting ‘Greenville’ and ‘Benny’s’, which aren’t relevant here), and hence that renders sentences which use the name ‘John’ true only if the denotation of the description both exists and satisfies whatever is predicated of it.

Kripke argued, contra Russell (and, though this is disputed, contra Frege), that the meaning of a proper name cannot be identified with its associated description (or cluster of descriptions).[6] Why? Among other reasons, he argued that names and descriptions exhibit different properties in modal contexts (i.e. contexts concerned with necessity and possibility); so, while it seems necessarily true that George Washington was George Washington (N.B. not that it’s necessarily the case that George Washington was named ‘George Washington’, which is a statement that first uses and then mentions the name, but that George Washington was George Washington, which is a statement with two uses of the name), it doesn’t seem necessarily true that George Washington was ‘the first president of the United States’ (e.g. he may have been killed during the Revolutionary War, etc.). Rather, like Mill before him[7], Kripke argued (with qualifications and a bit of tentativeness) that the meaning of a proper name just is its bearer, and that names get hooked up to their bearers via a causal chain of use that originates in a kind of (formal or informal, or even accidental) ‘baptism’ in which the object is given its name.

By my lights, Kripke’s arguments are decisive, though they are not without a host of problems of their own (as is the case with most philosophical arguments; it seems to me as if the position one ultimately adopts is as much a consequence of one’s judgment about which problems one can live with as it is a consequence of one’s judgment about which arguments are the strongest). For example, if the meaning of a name is its bearer, then what role does the bearer itself play in a sentence that contains the name? Is the bearer a proper part of the proposition that the sentence expresses, and if so, how can an object be a part of a proposition? What about possible discrepancies in the causal chain that links information about the object, via its baptism when it’s ‘given’ a particular name, to the subsequent users of the name — how are they to be handled? And does it follow from this view that we cannot refer to abstract objects (supposing there are any), like numbers or propositions, since they are by definition causally effete? Further, contemporary Russellians and Fregeans have responded vigorously to arguments like those adduced by Kripke. Be sure to read their responses (e.g. see the appendix to chapter 5 of Dummett’s Frege: The Philosophy of Language for a broadly Fregean response to Kripke, or Nelson’s article ‘Descriptivism Defended’ for a broadly Russellian response to Kripke); in the end, you may come to agree with them. Whatever you do, work through the arguments on your own to discover which ones you think ultimately succeed, if any; and if you conclude that none are successful, see if you can improve upon them, or try to work out your own theory. Getting at the truth is, after all, what we’re all ultimately after!


1. Reimer, Marga, “Reference”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/reference/.

2. Frege, G., 1952, “On Sense and Reference”, in P. Geach and M. Black, eds., Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 56-79.

3. Evans, G. 1982, The Varieties of Reference, Oxford: Blackwell.

4. Russell, B., 1918, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism” in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, D.F. Pears (ed.), La Salle: Open Court, 1985, 35-155.

5. Neale, S. 1990, Descriptions, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press Books.

6. Kripke, S., 1980, Naming and Necessity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

7. Mill, J., 1973, “A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive”, in J. Robson, ed., The Collected Works of J. S. Mill (Volumes 7-8), Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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