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Philosophers Today – Saul Kripke: Naming and Necessity

May 24, 2019

For todays post I am going to discuss a bit about Saul Kripke. What is remarkable about his work, particularly that revolving around naming, is how he draws out such deep analyses and subtle analyses about what would appear to be a simple subject. Yet for all of this analysis he does try to bring us back into line with the more common sense view of naming. His target is, or was, the theory of descriptions view of naming, that had analysed the process of naming things as being reducible to a set of unique specifying descriptive propositions about the named thing. Against this, and in line with common sense, Kripke wanted to return us to the more common sense Millian view of naming that it is a denotative process. The problem in Mill was that some of the details of how this denotative process works were left out of his analysis. Kripke proceeds to provide these details.

Critique of The Theory of Descriptions

First he launches a severe critique of the theory of descriptions and what amounts to its dubious descriptivist reduction:

According to descriptivist theories, proper names either are synonymous with descriptions, or have their reference determined by virtue of the name’s being associated with a description or cluster of descriptions that an object uniquely satisfies. Kripke rejects both these kinds of descriptivism. (Wiki)

Contingent A Priori and Necessary A Posteriori Truths

Second he emphasises the notions of contingent a priori and necessary a posteriori truths, as a means of highlighting how the naming process brings in features of necessity never properly considered by followers of the theory of descriptions, who are largely people who take as their primary ontology logical atomism. To give one example is the classic hesperus is phosphorus problem. Both name venus, one as the morning star, the other as the evening star. At some time many saw these as different objects, but when the discover from here is made that they are the same objects, the proposition hesperus is phosphorus becomes a truth. But clearly it is not an a priori truth, as it is known after the fact, yet it is also clearly a necessary truth once it is known. Thus it is an example, in Kripkes theory, of a necessary a posteriori truth. In general we can say of these truths that they are:

facts that are necessarily true, though they can be known only through empirical investigation. (Wiki)

The whole point of this phase of Kripkes project was to break up these presumed clear distinctions between necessity and contingency, a priori and a posteriori and indirectly of analytic and synthetic truths also. The reason for this was to lead on to how a notion of necessity can be connected to the process of naming, and should be connected to it, if we are to be true to our common sense intuitions regarding this process.

Names as Rigid Designators with a Causal History Reference

The next phases is the introduction of the notions of names as rigid designators connected rigidly to the objects they name or denote through a causal history theory of reference. The originality here was to move beyond the maligned notion of ostensive definition. Pretty much all that Mill had to appeal regarding the workings of denotative naming, and that had been criticised by figures such as Wittgenstein. To do this Kripke had to introduce a modal logic form of argumentation and an appeal to a causal history of naming, ending in a baptism, whereby the people who “baptised” the person with that name had a direct contact with them, and they passed on that meaning content in the name through a causal line all the way down to us. So the name rigidly designates the object named in all possible worlds, and we have a connection, at least indirectly with this object via a causal transmission of this name down the generations from those who were directly acquainted with the object of the name.

So if we talk about Aristotle, in summary, we are talking about the Aristotle as rigidly designated that we know of via the causal line of the name being transmitted to us down the generations from someone who had direct contact with Aristotle. Here is how Kripke summarises his view in Naming and Necessity in a later work:

I held that even in determining reference in the actual world – and this is a different issue – we do not generally use properties which we believe to be satisfied by the objects to pick them out. Rather some picture like this is to be held. Someone initially ‘baptizes’ the object, picking out the object perhaps by pointing to it, or perhaps by its properties, or perhaps by some other device. Then (I follow Mill here) speakers wish only to preserve the reference of the name, and as the name is passed from link to link, if one person wishes to use it in the same way as he heard it, he uses it with the same reference as the man from whom he heard it. The name gets spread throughout the community, and down thorough history, with only the reference preserved… (Reference and Existence, pp 9)

The motivation for holding this view was to get back in touch with a common sense intuitions of the naming process based on the many absurdities in many cases that he points out, that the theory of descriptions leads us to, in not being true to naming as we commonly use it.

Names as Hooks onto Reality

It could be argued that he has merely moved the problem of understand something such as ostensive definition or a form of direct knowledge by acquaintance back to the original baptism of the named person or object. And that the use of possible worlds logic is a way of sidestepping this issue. Personally I think we need to go further here to complete this process and take the literal and ontologically basic view that names hook on to the objects they name. They don’t refer, represent, or something such as this, the name is fundamentally hooked on to the object in some way more than metaphorical. As in this way we can undercut the whole problem of having to bridge a gap in meaning between the isolated atoms and the surrounding world, for there is never such a gap in the first place, in some areas there is literal direct contact. And our understanding and use of names, and the meaning about the world we can learn via naming all indicate this need for a direct contact of the name with the real object. Thus there is a direct contact between language and reality, and we refuse to accept the presumption that language must always be one step removed from reality representing, symbolising, mirroring, picturing, or corresponding to it in some strange unknown and seemingly unknowable way.

These ideas came to me many years ago, just as a natural consequence from reading Kripke’s work, I gave Kripke the credit for this whole idea, but I think I realise now that this is something I have added on to it myself. His work has been an inspiration to me in my philosophising. He was the natural logical progression for me after my time spent understanding the logical atomism of Bertrand Russell. I have some qualms with the use of modal logic. I still have a difficulty accepting the tenability of many possible world scenarios, and this is something I can get into more in an upcoming post covering another philosopher David Lewis, who is very much into this line of thinking.

Kripkenstein and Conventionalism

This post has only covered the concepts developed by Kripke in his work Naming and Necessity and it remains for me to consider his views in his works: Reference and Existence and Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. In the latter what he has to say about Wittgenstein and the sceptical dilemma for conventionalism makes for an interesting contrast with David Lewis. Firstly, to clarify, the conventionalism here is the conventionalism about meaning given the problem of how to define the meaning of a rule without merely referring to some other rule in a circular way. Kripke credits Wittgenstein with suggesting a way out with appeal to social contexts and communities of language users, playing language games. (This, by the way, could be the critical error in human thought of the 20th century that has led to many problems with relativists and postmodernists. It goes back much earlier than the errors of Foucault and Derrida and the like.)

Kripke and Lewis

Kripke himself, has given his own way out of this circle with his theory of names as rigidly designating the objects they name, while Lewis, claims there is no problem of scepticism here at all, and proceeds to argue for ways in which language can be grounded solely in convention. It is claimed by many that:

Conventions are formed by agreement, agreements are made in language, so language must precede convention, not be grounded in convention. 

Lewis’s response is to deny that conventions require anything like an agreement. Rather, on his view, conventions are regularities in action that solve co-ordination problems. We can stumble into such a regularity without ever agreeing to do so. And such a regularity can persist simply because it is in everyone’s best interest that it persist. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

So we have a redefinition of Conventions, based on a notion of regularities that persist because it is in people’s best interest. The problem is pushed back to defining regularity and interest. And for me it is not very convincing. But that is not what I want to get into at this stage. I am more interested in what motivates Lewis’ project and how it illustrates his continued commitment to a logical atomistic style ontology. The contrast is fascinating because where Lewis is keen to isolate entities in order that they can only be related contingently to other things, in line with a standard empiricist methodological approach to natural science, Kripke is reintroducing necessity into the heart of what seem to be the most empirical domains, such as that of naming objects. I don’t know if this kind of debate has ever took place between these two figures, but I intend to have a go at hypothesising how it might work out on another day, as a way to consider some more of Kripke’s ideas and to introduce some of the ideas of Lewis.


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