Defend what you think is the best account of Proper Names

The best account of proper names is provided by a version of Searle's intentional cluster theory of descriptions.   Searle proposed that what picks out the referent of a proper name is not a single description, as proposed by Russell, but a whole collection of descriptions and other contextually relevant information.   In addition, he argued that this cluster of descriptions is not something that grants an objective sense of meaning to the name, as was argued by Frege.   Rather, the cluster of descriptions is internal to the mind that does the referring.   What ensures that we both pick out the same referent (if and when we do) is the social / conventional nature of language (and proper names).  

Both Mill and Kripke maintain that the meaning of a proper name is provided by the referent that the name picks out from the world if there is no referent, there is no meaning.   Frege, Russell and Searle, on the other hand, believe that the meaning of a proper name is provided by the description(s) that pick out a unique referent from the world (whether they do or not).   Mill, Frege, Russell and Kripke all believe that the meaning of the proper name is something that is objective something that is there in the world independently of the beliefs of any particular user of the name.   A user of a name picks out from the world whatever the name's meaning designates, regardless of whether that was the user's intention or not.   Frege specifically claimed that his Sinn was something that was objective.   And Russell more or less followed that lead.   Kripke argues for a causal-chain basis for the meaning of proper names.   In Putnam's words, they all maintain that "meaning just ain't in the head".   Hence the difficulties these theories experience with such referring descriptions as "The man over there drinking champagne" when in fact it is water he is drinking.   Searle's theory of proper names, on the other hand, maintains that the meaning of a proper name is provided by the totality of the "intentional content" that the subject associates with the name.   Contra Putnam, Searle maintains that meaning is entirely in the head.

In lecture II of his Naming and Necessity, Kripke offers a critique of the cluster theory that has generally been considered to have refuted the theory.   But in his response to Kripke in his Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind, Searle argues that Kripke has misunderstood the theory.   Kripke starts his critique of Searle's theory by summarizing it 6 theses (p.71).   Searle does not dispute Kripke's summarization, merely Kripke's interpretation of the summary.   So I"ll borrow here Kripke's summary as a starting point:

1) to every name or designation expression "X", there corresponds a cluster of properties, namely the family of those properties φ such that A believes "φX".

2) One of the properties, or some conjointly, are believed by A to pick out some individual uniquely.

3) If most, or a weighted most, of the φ's are satisfied by one unique object Y, then Y is the referent of "X".

4) If the vote yields no unique object, 'X' does not refer.

5) The statement, "If X exists, then X has most of the φ's" is known a priori by the speaker.

6) The statement, "If X exists, then X has most of the φ's" expresses a necessary truth (in the idiolect of the speaker).

(C) For any successful theory, the account must not be circular. The properties which are used in the vote must not themselves involve the notion of reference in such a way that it is ultimately impossible to eliminate.

Against Thesis 2, Kripke argues that even though their cluster of descriptions does not uniquely pick out a unique "Feynman", the average person still refers with that name to the one and only Feynman [Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 February 15, 1988), American physicist known for the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics.]   Against Thesis 3, Kripke provides the counter-example of Godel and Schmidt.   If the only description one has for the proper name "Godel" is "The man who first proved the incompleteness of arithmetic" and it turns out that, contrary to popular belief, Schmidt is this man, then Schmidt would then be the referent of "Godel".   This, as Kripke argues, is contrary to the normal understanding of the referent of the name "Godel".   Against Thesis 4 is the obvious fact that some names are meaningful even though the description associated with it does not pick out a unique individual as was shown in response to Thesis Two. Also, the name can refer even if no one meets the description, as for example the name "Godel" would still refer to the same man, even if counter-factually the proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic turned out to be flawed in some fashion.   Against Thesis 6 Kripke presents the argument that even if we assume that the referent of a name like "Hitler" is in actual fact uniquely picked out by a cluster of descriptions, it does not follow that Hitler must have any of the features given by those descriptions.   Against Thesis 5, Kripke argues that since it is not necessary that Hitler have any of the properties that are used to pick him out uniquely, it is not possible that A know that Hitler has any of these properties a priori.

Searle's response argues that a plausible version of the theory can nullify each of Kripke's objections.   Searle formulates his cluster theory in the context of his theory of intentionality.   To grasp Searle's notion of intentional content it is essential to recognize that the content of a given mental act is not (normally) covered by what the subject might say about it.   Hence, Kripke's notion that the relevant cluster of descriptions can be found by questioning a suitable population is fatally flawed.   The relevant cluster of descriptions involved in the meaning of any proper name is significantly broader than Kripke thinks.   Rather, the reference-fixing cluster consists of the totality of "intentional content" that the subject associates with the name in question.   The referent will be whatever entity actually fits a weighted bulk of this content.   Moreover, for Searle, such content can vary widely from speaker to speaker.   Thus the cluster of descriptions is not to be regarded as giving the meaning of the proper name, where "meaning" is construed as something like a definition.

In response to the problem of unwanted necessity (Thesis 6), Searle's argument is that it is indeed necessary that Aristotle has a significant portion of the properties that the speaker associates with the name "Aristotle".   But the associated descriptive content is not in any way "Synonymous" with the name.   It merely fixes its reference.   In response to the "rigid designator" problem (Thesis 3), Searle points out that one normally assumes a rigidified reference-fixing description unless it is specifically altered by the counter-factual presumption at issue.   Hence, "Aristotle" refers, in all possible worlds, to the individual who actually has such-and-such properties.   In response to the problem of ignorance and error (Thesis 2), Searle argues that given the larger cluster dictated by his intentionality theory, the problem of ignorance and error simply does not arise.   For any subject, associated with "Feynman" will be the description "The individual whom others in my conversation call "Feynman" ".   This normal member of every cluster of descriptions explains why Kripke's causal-history theory appears to work so well.   It is not because of any external causal chain that a subject's use of "Einstein" refers to who it does, but because of the intention of the user to refer to the same individual as others in his/her conversations community.   This chain of intention can be traced back to the initial Kripkian baptism just as easily as can Kripke's causal-history chain.   But it also explains some of the examples that Kripke's theory has difficulty with.   Mistakes in the intention to refer to the same referent as one's conversational partners can result in actual changes in referent.   The example of the changed referent for "Madagascar" is cited by Gareth Evans.

We each create cognitive pigeon-holes whenever we discern a pattern in our experiences, or when we are told there will be a discernable pattern in our experiences, or whenever we find any other reason for wanting to keep a bunch of information in one "place" under one label.   We create these pigeon-holes for reasons of cognitive economy.   They function as collection buckets so that we can treat the contents of the bucket as one cognitive element, rather than having to treat all of the individual elements within the bucket individually.   You can think of a pigeon-hole as a container for all of the perceptual experiences that you have of the pattern that the bucket is intended to represent, along with all of the propositions you become aware of about that pattern.  

The sort of cognitive pigeon-hole that is relevant for this discussion of Proper Names I refer to as Description Concepts.   (I distinguish these from other pigeon-holes entirely on the basis of convenience of discourse, and not on any functional difference in the nature of the cognitive pigeon holes involved.)   What distinguishes Description Concepts from other cognitive pigeon-holes is that they are intended to be about one single entity ("entity" in a loose sense Manchester United is an "entity" in this sense).   Of course, all of this is predicated on the assumption that we are capable of discerning single "entities" from out of the stream of sensible data that floods our input channels.   (That is a topic for an essay on the nature of perception.)   I consider it to be description concepts that supply the cognitive foundation for Searle's intentional cluster theory of Proper Names.

By attaching a label to the pigeon-hole, I provide the meaning of that label.   The meaning of the label is the contents of the pigeon-hole.   The contents of the pigeon-hole is the description concept.   The meaning of a proper name is therefore established by a definitional connection between the name and the description concept (the extended cluster of descriptions contained in that particular cognitive pigeon-hole).  

Hence the description concept I label "Aristotle" collects together all of my experiences and other information I know or come to know (or can deduce, induce, or adduce) about the entity I choose to call, or have learned to call "Aristotle".   What I mean by "Aristotle" is the total content of that pigeon-hole the description concept.   I may associate more than one label with any given concept (like "Aristotle", "Father of Classical Logic" or "Last of the Greek Masters").   Whichever label I use (even if it might look like a description) means the entire contents of the pigeon-hole.   By "Aristotle" I mean all that I currently believe (both true and false, remembered and long forgotten) about the individual picked out by my description concept.   Included in that list is quite naturally the fact that other people call this individual "Aristotle", and it is my intention to refer to the same individual as these other people.   Also, the fact that this individual is an actual individual, with actual properties, and it is my intention to refer to that "Same" individual in counter-factual and modal scenarios in other words, across multiple possible worlds (whatever "Same" means in that context).

Suppose, counterfactually, that it really was a group of Plato's students who were responsible for the body of work which we associate with "Aristotle".   What then?   My description concept "Aristotle" contains far more than just propositions about the author of certain works.   I have also seen several busts of Aristotle, and know a little Greek history in which a character named "Aristotle" plays a role.   Should the label "Aristotle" remain attached to the person of whom the busts were carved, or remain attached to the group of Plato's students who authored those works attributed to "Aristotle"?   Who taught Alexander the person of the busts, or the team of students?   It may be the case that "There was a philosopher called Aristotle" is false because the model for the busts was not a philosopher.   In the absence of a lot more distinguishing information, it is undecidable which is the correct way to split up the contents of the pigeon hole I currently have labelled with "Aristotle".   And this, I think, fits well with our intuitions in this regard.

The intentional nature of the theory also allows for differences between what my perceptions tell me and what my intentions are.   For example, I may believe that "gold" is yellow, malleable, ductile, conducts electricity, dissolves in aqua regia, and so forth.   But I can also include in my description concept the proposition that all of these observable properties derive from some underlying (and perhaps as yet unknown) more fundamental properties.   My intentional content then incorporates the intention to refer to whatever material it is that best integrates our collective knowledge of physics and chemistry.   Thus allowing for a Lockean distinction between nominal and real essences of things.

The fact that Searle's theory is subjective means that there is no reason to belabour the notion of "competence" in the use of a name.   As long as I can use the name to refer to the same particular as you do, it does not matter how much or how little information is contained within the "full intentional content" of my description concept.   The fact that I can use the name "Feynman" without knowing how to distinguish Feynman from Gell-Mann merely shows my intention to refer to the same individual as you do with that name.   I can thus play a role in transmitting the name-to-referent relationship without having any more information about "Feynman" than that you referred to him by that name.   And the fact that I now have the pigeon-hole labelled "Feynman" allows me to "hunt and correct" in my picking out of a referent as I acquire more information about him.

The meaning of the proper name is hence normally much broader than critics of the cluster theory admit, and permissibly much narrower than demanded by theories based on "understanding" or "comprehension".   Understanding this extended and personal foundation of the description cluster makes it clear that all of the criticisms of a descriptivist approach to proper names derive from a seriously impoverished understanding of what constitutes the relevant cluster.

Searle's theory also makes the problem of "empty" names like "Santa Claus" trivially easy to resolve.   There is nothing in the notion of an intentional content (description concept / cognitive pigeon-hole / cluster of descriptions) that demands the actual existence of what is being described.   Contained in my description concept tagged "Santa Claus" is everything I believe (true and false, currently remembered and long forgotten) about some entity called by others "Santa Claus".   That this content picks out no actual referent in the real world is an almost irrelevant detail.   A detail I need not actually be aware of.

Finally, the addition of the notion of cognitive pigeon-holes to Searle's "Total intentional content" approach to the meaning of Proper Names renders the theory generalizable to the meaning of all words, not just Proper Names.   Any word in the language becomes just another label for another cognitive pigeon-hole, within which we collect all the information we believe is relevant to the concept in question.   So there is no necessity for multiple theories to explain the meaning of different classes of words that apply to different contexts of discourse.   Santa Claus and Einstein (proper names), quarks and hippogriffs (nouns and names in general), red and loudly and sour and softly (adjectives and adverbs), run and play and cry and vote (verbs) - all are provided meaning by the same theory.   This renders the theory significantly more universal than was, say, Russell's theory of descriptions.


Campbell, Richard;   "Proper Names", Mind, New Series, Vol 77, No 307, (Jul 1968) pp 326-350

D"Cruz, Mark;   A Theory of Ordinary Proper Names, Mind, New Series, Vol 109, No 436, Oct. 2000, pp 721-756

Frege, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob;   "Ã'Æ"ber Sinn und Bedeutung", in Zeitschrift fÃ'Æ"Ã"r Philosophie und Philosophische Kritik 100: 25-50; English translation reprinted as "On Sense and Meaning" in Collected Papers on Mathematics, Logic and Philosophy, trans. by M. Black, V. Dudman: Geach, H. Kaal, E.-H. W. Kluge, B. McGuinness, and R. H. Stoothoff, New York: Basil Blackwell. 1984. ISBN: 0-6311-2728-3. Pg 157-177

Kripke, Saul Aaron;   Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1980. ISBN 0-674-59845-8.

Ludlow, Peter;   "Descriptions", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL=<>.

Mill, John Stuart;   A System of Logic, University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, 2002, ISBN 1-4102-0252-6

Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology Expanded Second Edition, Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff; Penguin Books, USA, Inc. 1990; ISBN-0-453-00724-4.

Reimer, Marga;   "Reference", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2007 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Russell, Bertrand Arthur William;   "On Denoting", in Mind 14. 1905. pg 479-493.

Russell, Bertrand Arthur William;   "Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description", in Mysticism and Logic. Doubleday, New York, New York.. 1957

Russell, Bertrand Arthur William;   Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. Allen and Unwin. London. 1919.

Russell, Bertrand Arthur William;   The Problems of Philosophy.   Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.   ISBN 0-19-511552-x.

Searle, J. R.;   "Proper Names", Mind, New Series, Vol 67, No 226, (Apr 1958), pp 166-173.

Searle, J. R.   Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Langauge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1969.

Searle, J. R. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1983.

Wettstein, Howard;   "Turning the Tables on Frege or How is it that "Hesperus is Hesperus" is Trivial", Philosophical Perspectives, Vol 3, Philosophy of Mind and Action Theory, 1989. pp 317-339

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