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.


Can a good Confucian be selfish?

Casi asked:

Could one be selfish and a good Confucian at the same time?

Answer by Tony Boese

I would say that one definitely cannot be selfish and a ‘good Confucian’ at the same time.

There are four prime ethical precepts in Confucianism: Ren, Yi, Li, and Zhi. Of these, Ren and Yi are the cardinal moral values. Indeed, though it is relatively hard to run afoul of Confucianism, violating Ren and/ or Yi would be the most direct route towards doing so. These four become Wuchang, or the Five Constants, with the addition of Xin.

A somewhat simplified explanation of these is as follows: Ren is the obligation to be altruistic and humane towards other individuals. Yi is the obligation to remain righteous in action, and to maintain a disposition of moral goodness. Li is they system of norms and propriety for everyday action. Zhi is the ability to accurately discern what is right and good, and what is the inverse, in the actions of others. Xin is the standard of integrity in thought and action.

None of these are particularly pro-selfishness; however, Ren and Yi are quite clearly diametrically opposed to selfishness. That selfishness is misaligned to altruism should be relatively self-evident provided one knows the meanings of the words in play. Righteousness, in a vacuum, might not be clearly opposed to selfishness. One could somewhat easily frame a selfish act or disposition as still honorable or in keeping with some take on a moral code – especially by an consequentialist. However, this is largely a cheat. In a Confucian context, righteous action does not include selfish action.

A perusal of different parts and parcels of Confucianism furthers the case that selfishness and proper Confucianism are inconsistent. Consider the classical Sizi, which are four virtues of high esteem in Confucianism. They are: Zhong (or Loyalty), Xiao (or Filial Piety), Jie (or Continency), and Yi (Righteousness). Loyalty is simply and obviously not a selfish thing. Neither is Filial Piety. Here we see righteousness again, and the same analysis will apply. Indeed, the only aspect of Confucianism that would get even somewhat close to a selfish thing is the sexual bits of Continence in a ‘keeping yourself from the world’ sort of way. This, however, is an undesirably narcissistic and generally weak attempt to shoehorn a pro-selfishness reading of Confucian morality.

Not to over-hone the point, but even in those more contorted and bastardized applications of (allegedly) Confucian precepts don’t get as far as selfishness. I refer to the political uses of Confucianism, principally an emphasis on Nationalism and Anti-capitalism as seen in Maoism. Though not as commonly known as the general tenets of Confucianism in a religious and philosophical context, it is no secret that Confucianism is also a political school of thought. It, mixed with the Legalism, which it at first replaced, is what ultimately lead to the development and flourishing of Maoism.

At first blush, Nationalism might seem to lean fairly heavily into the selfishness camp. In Nationalism, there is most assuredly a preference to and glorification of ‘us’ and ‘ours,’ and as such one might think of the whole population as a selfish thing; however, this hardly gets one though to interpersonal selfishness. Indeed, Nationalism asks each citizen to put the ‘us’ over the self, which is a very non-selfish position. Anti-capitalism is pretty much anti-selfishness. I grant that equating capitalism and selfish practice might not be perfectly noncontroversial, but I think the similarities are enough to maintain the link for our purposes here.

Honestly, even if one could make a cogent argument that implicated some aspect of Confucianism in supporting selfishness, the argument would not be sincere nor would it be a context-sensitive understanding of the matters at hand. For instance, an argument that says there is no selfishness, and that altruism is done for the warm-and-fuzzies and this is actually selfish at heart might appeal to intuition and experience. However, this is looking too much at the trees and thus missing the point that his would not be true of a good Confucian, and is probably not an argument that would even occur to a good Confucian, because a good Confucian would be altruistic with or without warm-and-fuzzies.


Tree in the forest revisited

Christine asked:

If a tree falls in the forest when nobody is around, does it make a sound?

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Christine,

There are a few answers to this question depending on what it is supposed to asking. Here are some of them.

A physicist would answer no, of course not. A pressure wave only becomes sound when consciousness works it magic and transduces it into a series of experiences. It is even questionable whether a falling tree makes a sound even when there is someone around, since the only evidence we have for sound is first-person reports.

A panpsychist might say yes, of course it does, because there is always someone around. Were there not, there could be no forest in the first place. They might also answer no, since the somebody who is around might not have ears.

A sceptic might say that the question is incoherent. It assumes the reality of the forest, an image on our retina, and thus also the reality of the pressure waves, an image on our eardrum, then questions whether there is a pressure wave when a tree falls that would have been heard as a sound had somebody been around to hear it. The answer is obviously yes. If we doubt that the sound is there, even in its potential as a pressure wave, then we might as well ask whether the forest is there when nobody is around, or whether our boyfriend is there when we’re not around.

A mystic might say, with the usual ambivalence, that it would all depend on what level of analysis we are working at. All the above answers would be correct, and there would be more.

If it is a question about logic, about what we can learn by simply working it out, then the unfalsifiability of solipsism on its own prevents us from reaching a firm conclusion. We can learn from the question, but we cannot answer it except by reference to a tautology. If the forest is there then so must be the pressure wave, and the sound may or may not be there depending on whether anybody is around.

My own view is that it is not a challenging question. Once we assume the existence of the forest we must assume the existence of pressure waves with the potential to be heard or not heard. Clearly if there is nobody there they will not be heard as sound. This is not a metaphysical problem but a muddled question.

For a more metaphysical question we would have to drop the assumptions and ask: Is anything at all there when nobody is around? Is anything there even when somebody is around? What is this power that we have to hear sounds? And who is it that is listening? And so on.


Quine’s attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction

Gershon asked:

Do philosophers still believe in the analytic-synthetic distinction? Did Quine in his attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction go too far or did he get it about right?

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

Here is how Willard O. Quine put the challenge, in his famous paper, Two dogmas of empiricism, published in 1953:

"It is obvious that truth in general depends on both language and extralinguistic fact. … Thus one is tempted to suppose in general that the truth of a statement is somehow analyzable into a linguistic component and a factual component. Given this supposition, it next seems reasonable that in some statements the factual component should be null; and these are the analytic statements. But, for all its a priori reasonableness, a boundary between analytic and synthetic statements simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith."

We first need some context. Quine was reacting to the then prevalent tradition in philosophy of science, logical positivism. The logical positivists in turn were interested in furthering David Hume’s famous dismissal of metaphysics in favor of math and empirical science (Hume was one of the most influential British empiricists of the 18th century). Here is Hume, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1748:

"If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

Hume, in other words, recognized only two types of meaningful statements: he called them ‘relations of ideas’ and ‘matters of fact.’ Today we would say that the first pertain to logic and mathematics, the latter to the natural and social sciences. Everything else is ‘but sophistry and illusion.’ (With all due respect to Hume – of which I have a lot! – it needs to be highlighted that the entire Enquiry contains no math and very few matters of fact, and yet it would really be a pity to commit that masterpiece to the flames.)

The logical positivists formalized Hume’s fork and emphasized the distinction between analytic statements (true by virtue of their semantic meaning) and synthetic ones (true in virtue of observation or experiment). A classic example of the first type of statement is: ‘All bachelors are unmarried,’ since ‘unmarried [man]’ is synonymous with ‘bachelor.’ More importantly, though, all of logic and mathematics are also into this same business of producing analytic truths. Examples of synthetic truths, by contrast, are statements such as ‘Saturn has rings,’ or ‘my house has two bedrooms.’

The reason the contrast between analytic and synthetic statements matters is this: all synthetic truths are a posteriori, i.e., arrived at by empirical means. But analytic statements fall into two categories: those that are true by definition (the bachelor case) and those that can yield non trivial a priori truths, such as the Pythagorean theorem, for instance. Quine, who was a pretty radical empiricist, was bothered by the possibility of a priori truths, and consequently also did not much like the idea of analytic ones.

His famous critique of the ‘dogma’ of the analytic-synthetic distinction, however, hinges on a very technical matter, and one that leaves a number of philosophers not entirely convinced. Basically, Quine argued that in order to claim that an analytic statement is truly such one has to provide an account of synonymy, since it is the latter concept that does the actual philosophical work: for instance, when we say that ‘All bachelors are unmarried’ we understand this as an analytic truth precisely because, as stated above, we mentally equate the terms ‘bachelor’ and ‘unmarried [man],’ i.e., the two terms are synonymous. But whence synonymity? According to Quine, at some point, even the notion of synonymity itself needs to be anchored by some sort of empirical fact, for instance about marriage, or men. If that’s the case, then the apparent solidly impenetrable barrier separating analytic and synthetic statements is no such thing and all truths, at bottom, are synthetic. This is Hume on steroids, in a sense.

As usual in philosophy, there have been thorough and numerous responses to Quine’s claim. For instance, Paul Grice and Peter Strawson pointed out that Quine’s skepticism about synonymy quickly leads to skepticism about meaning itself, which in turn leads to the problematic conclusion that one cannot actually determine whether a translation of a given sentence is or is not correct. This was a bullet that Quine later was apparently happy to bite rather than dodge, in his Work and Object (1960), where he presented the idea that translations are, in fact, indeterminate. Hilary Putnam argued that Quine’s critique actually confuses two different targets: analytic statements and a priori truths, which are not co-extensive. John Searle pointed out that even if Quine’s attack is granted some force, it doesn’t follow that the notion of analyticity is in fact useless.

I’m with Searle here: Quine’s analysis was an example of how philosophy makes progress by questioning previous assumptions (in this case the idea that there is a sharp distinction between analytic and synthetic truths) and providing reasons to think that things are different (and usually more complicated) then previously thought. But even if we admit that ‘All bachelors are unmarried’ eventually does connect to some empirical fact of the matter necessary to anchor the meaning of the phrase, it is somewhat daft to claim that there are therefore no interesting distinctions between that sort of sentence and more obviously synthetic ones like ‘Saturn has rings.’ Moreover, it seems that mathematics and formal logical truths still stand very much in the realm of analyticity, Quine’s stamping of his feet notwithstanding.


Things or processes as fundamental?

Jed asked:

Can anyone here explain process philosophy?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Here’s a simple explanation.

From the earliest days (the Presocratics), philosophers have been divided as to whether the world ultimately consists of things (‘substances’) or processes.

On the substance view, things are primary and process (change) secondary. Change is due to interaction of unchanging things. For example atoms in the void (Democritus), or ‘No thing comes to be nor does it perish’, change happens by ‘mixing together and dissociating’ (Anaxagoras).

On the process view, process is primary, things secondary. Change is fundamental and unceasing, whilst things are merely temporary stabilities or patterns in the eternal flux. This was Heraclitus’ view (‘all things flow’). Famously he said that nobody can step into the same river twice: a river isn’t so much a thing as a temporary pattern in the constant process of flow, itself part of the water cycle (evaporation, clouding, raining, flowing). Other processes include growth, decay, heating/ cooling, thinking.

Aristotle sided with substance metaphysics, and this became the Western paradigm. Aristotle was posthumously adopted and ‘baptized’ by the Church, and his views became dogma, with lively debates about how the divine and earthly substances were united in the body of Jesus etc. Later, Descartes pitched in, suggesting there are two basic substances res extensa and res cogitans (matter and mind). The notion of mind as a substance was controversial and has now rather faded away, but matter held its ground as substance. Atomic theory supported the notion for two hundred years.

But by the 20th century the game was up. Atoms were found to be mostly empty space, and subatomic ‘particles’ seem to have no size at all, being merely loci of high energy in quantum fields, and even without definite positions, but rather existing in states of quantum superposition. Bertrand Russell truly said that the ‘matter’ of modern physics was no more substantial than anything we might be invited to witness at a seance. Modern physics supports the process view.

The time was riper for revival of process philosophy, which had continued, in a minor key, after the Presocratics, in the views of Leibniz, Bergson, William James and others. And so Russell’s colleague, Whitehead, championed process philosophy (Process and Reality, 1929).

His system is the most developed version of process philosophy but is hard going, including purposeful development (‘becoming’) of the world, and of God, moment by moment, and experiential events called ‘actual entities’ as the basic world elements.

A better, readable, general introduction to process philosophy is Rescher N (2000) Process philosophy: a survey of basic issues (Pittsburg UP).

To date process metaphysics hasn’t had the attention that substance metaphysics has enjoyed over the centuries, and so is less well developed than materialism or idealism, but I fancy it will survive and thrive, becoming a serious rival to substance metaphysics as it was with the Presocratics.

A point worth noting is that time scale is important in deciding whether to call something a thing or a process. Thus, a rock, over a human lifetime, hardly changes, and we think of it as a thing. But over a billion years, it forms (eruption/ solidifying, or sedimentation), erodes, disappears, in short is a temporary stability in a geological process. Similarly, in terms of attoseconds, a drop about to fall from a dripping tap seems to last forever as an enduring thing. Things are just part of very slow processes, and processes include very short-lived things.