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On the unification argument for the predicate view on proper names


The predicate view on proper names opts for a uniform semantic representation of proper nouns like ‘Alfred’ as predicates on the level of logical form. Early defences of this view can be found in Sloat (Language, vol. 45, pp. 26–30, 1969) and Burge (J. Philos. 70: 425–439, 1973), but there is an increasing more recent interest in this view on proper names. My paper aims to provide a reconstruction and critique of Burge’s main argument for the predicate view on proper names, which is still used by several current philosophers in defence of this view. I have called this argument the unification argument. I will present a stepwise interpretation and reconstruction of this argument, consider several possible responses to it and defend a specific response to it in detail.

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  1. Burge makes use of a formal truth-conditional semantics of the Davidsonian kind. C.f.: Burge (1973, pp. 425–426). But this commitment is not essential. C.f.: Hornsby (1976, p.227). Let us therefore broaden our horizon to any kind of formal truth-conditional semantics that has the resources to defend one or the other version of the predicate view.

  2. There was also some interest in Burge’s predicate view before the more recent renaissance. The following works contain critical examinations of Burge’s view: Boër (1975), Cohen (1980), Bach (1987), Bach (1987[1993]), Higginbotham (1988), Larson and Segal (1995), Segal (2001) and Bach (2002). An early defence of Burge against Boër (1975) is Hornsby (1976). Burge mentions Sloat (1969) as a forerunner of his view on the linguists’ side. C.f. Burge (1973, p. 429, fn 7).

  3. Elugardo (2002), Elbourne (2005), Matushansky (2006, 2008), Sawyer (2010) and Fara (2011).

  4. Some philosophers have claimed that proper names are deeply rigid designators, others that they are de jure rigid designators. In general a rigid designator is an expression that is such that its semantic referent in the actual world is identical with its semantic referent relative to every possible circumstance of evaluation. A deeply rigid designator additionally satisfies the condition that its semantic referent in the actual world is also identical with its semantic referent relative to every possible circumstance of evaluation that conceives this expression as uttered in this world with the same interpretation as in the actual world. This additional condition aims to draw a difference between ‘Alfred’ and ‘the actual bearer of ‘Alfred”. C.f.: Stanley (1997, pp. 556, 583, fn 43). A de jure rigid designator additionally satisfies the criterion that the reference of such a term is not fixed by the same sorts of descriptive semantic condition that fixes the reference of a definite description or that the reference of such a term is not determined by a further semantic value of this expression. So this condition aims to draw a difference between ‘Alfred’ and any expression of the form ‘the F’. C.f.: Kripke (1980, p. 21, fn 21), Stanley (1997, p. 557).

  5. A referring expression is a directly referential term iff it contributes an object to the propositional content of a sentence that contains such an expression. C.f.: Kaplan (1977[1989], pp. 494–495). But such a definition seems to presuppose a specific type of conception about the nature of propositions. Alternatively one might say: A referring expression x is directly referential iff necessarily, every sentence that contains x has object-dependent truth-conditions. That is, the truth of such a sentence depends in some sense on the satisfaction of conditions by the referent of a referential term. There are directly referential expressions like the indexical ‘I’ that are not proper names. One could add the further condition that proper names are directly referential terms with a constant character to solve this problem. That is, the linguistic meaning of such a term conceived as a function from contexts of use into objects has relative to every context of use the very same output. Therefore, the conception of a directly referential term aims to draw a difference between expressions like ‘I’ and ‘Alfred’ on the one hand and an expression like ‘The bearer of ‘Alfred” on the other hand. The mentioned additional condition also draws a difference between ‘I’ and ‘Alfred’. C.f.: Kaplan (1977[1989], p. 562).

  6. I slightly modified (1) and (3), but apart from that these are Burge’s original examples. C.f.: Burge (1973, p. 429).

  7. C.f.: Burge (1973, p. 437, my emphasis).

  8. C.f.: Elugardo (2002, pp. 474–475).

  9. A relatively similar detailed reconstruction of the unification argument is given in Elugardo (2002, pp. 474–483). But I think there are also certain relevant differences between Elugardo’s and my reconstruction, but I cannot go into the details of these differences here.

  10. Burge (1973, p. 429).

  11. Burge (1973, p. 430).

  12. C.f.: Hornsby (1976, p. 229).

  13. C.f.: Sawyer (2010, p. 207)

  14. C.f.: Elugardo (2002, p. 476).

  15. Leckie also believes that a non-systematic ambiguity view cannot account for the validity of the mentioned arguments; c.f.: Leckie (2011, pp. 5, 13).

  16. C.f.: Burge (1973, pp. 432–433).

  17. C.f.: Neale (1990, pp. 42–43).

  18. Burge (1973, pp. 429–430).

  19. Burge (1973, p. 437).

  20. There is a significant difference between ‘is a Chevrolet’ and ‘is a Napoleon’. The latter predicate can be used on some occasion to express the same property as the predicate ‘shares certain characteristic properties with Napoleon’. But this use of the noun ‘Napoleon’ is only restricted to its use in the predicative frame ‘is a ___’. The noun ‘Chevrolet’ seems to have a far more stable and conventionalist use as a predicative expression. We can use it with the mentioned meaning also in combination with different kind of determiners. We can for example says ‘Two Chevrolets’ and thereby mean two cars produced by the company Chevrolet.

  21. Different arguments with the same goal can be found in: Higginbotham (1988) and Segal (2001). In my opinion, Sawyer has argued in a convincing way that at least most of these arguments can be rejected by a defender of Burge’s view. C.f.: Sawyer (2010, pp. 214–219).

  22. C.f.: Bach (1987[1993], p. 140).

  23. In the following example we have a contrastive use of ‘Jim’ and ‘Peter’: ,If a woman carries on with a Jim and a Peter, it is quite likely that she either has some preference for Jim or for Peter’. ‘Jim’ and ‘Peter’ can be used as donkey-anaphora in this sentence.

  24. C.f.: Elbourne (2005, p. 180).

  25. This objection does not presuppose any specific analysis of so-called donkey-anaphora. Whether such expressions have to be treated as bound variables of a specific kind or not, the mentioned differences in use between complex demonstratives and proper names as so-called donkey-anaphora are independent from any such specific thesis. A sentence like ‘Every woman who loves an Alfred admires but does not love that Alfred’ provides a variation of our example (U3). This sentence has a reading that treats ‘that Alfred’ as donkey-anaphora. Nevertheless, this expression cannot be substituted with ‘Alfred’ without significantly changing the meanings and readings of such a sentence.

  26. C.f.: Segal (2001), Bach (2002), Elugardo (2002), Elbourne (2005) Matushansky (2008) and Fara (2011).

  27. In the face of this additional problem, someone might opt for a different response to the rigidity objection than the mentioned approach of ridigification. A famous alternative classical response to Kripke’s original modal argument is provided by the so-called wide-scope approach. According to this approach, a proper name like ‘Alfred’ always takes the widest possible scope in relation to any operator with which this name interacts. There are three reason why such an alternative response is problematic: Firstly, as Kripke already pointed out there seems to be a significant difference between the so-called modal argument and the argument from rigidity. The former is an argument about the semantic behavior of proper names if they interact with a modal operator, the latter is an argument that concerns the contribution of proper names to the truth-conditions of a sentence in general. Only the first kind of argument can be blocked by the wide-scope approach. Secondly, it seems to be an implausible and ad hoc stipulation to assume that names always take the widest possible scope in respect to any kind of operator with which the name interacts. Thirdly, the mentioned strategy cannot plausibly be applied to anaphoric uses of proper names in the scope of a modal operator. Because against this background the intuitively plausible anaphoric reading of a name like ‘Alfred’ in a sentence like ‘It is possible that there was a person named ‘Alfred’ at the party yesterday and Alfred drank a lot of wine’ cannot be explained anymore and is excluded on the basis of questionable theoretical reasons.

  28. One reason to doubt such a claim is the following: The name ‘Leningrad’ is not anymore a name of the city St. Petersburg, nevertheless we can use this name in specific sentences to refer to St. Petersburg. For example, in a sentence like ‘In 1944, Leningrad had more than hundred thousand inhabitants’ a referential use of ‘Leningrad’ is perfectly adequate. Nevertheless, it is not true that Leningrad is presently identical with any present bearer of the name ‘Leningrad’.

  29. C.f.: King (2006, p. 149).

  30. C.f.: Sloat (1969, p. 29).

  31. C.f.: Bach (2002, p. 75).

  32. C.f.: Bach (1987, pp. 149–156) and Bach (2002, pp. 84–88).

  33. While a sentence like ,It is possible that the bearer of ,Lance Armstrong‘ is not identical with Lance Armstrong’ has a true and a false reading, it is not the case that the sentence like ,It is possible that Lance Armstrong is not identical with Lance Armstrong’ has a true and a false reading. It only has a false reading, because of the semantic rigidity of ‘Lance Armstrong’. But if rigidity is only a pragmatic phenomenon and names are semantically equivalent with descriptions of the form ‘the bearer of ‘N’, there should be a possible context of use relative to which the mentioned sentence has a true reading.

  34. C.f.: Matushansky (2008, pp. 596–598).

  35. C.f.: Matushansky (2008, pp. 592–595).

  36. C.f.: Elbourne (2005, pp. 172–177).

  37. We intuitively conceive sentences like (2)–(5) as syntactically well-formed and meaningful. We can provide strong empirical evidence for this intuition. So it wouldn’t be a plausible option to claim that ‘Alfred’ has the same semantic representation in (2)–(5) that it has in (1), because on this basis (2)–(5) would not be well-formed sentences anymore. There would be of some syntactic and semantic type-mismatch in case of these sentences. An account that aims to overcome this problem by means of type-shifting-rules is proposed in Leckie (2011, p. 7).

  38. Names might be for example represented: (a) as individual constants, (b) individual variables, (c) specific generalized quantifiers, (d) complex predicates headed by the iota-operator (and possibly rigidified by Kaplan’s dthat-operator).

  39. C.f.: Kaplan (1978, 1977[1989]).

  40. There are certain uses of proper names like the referential use to past bearers of a name, the referential use to intended future bearers of a name or multiple occurrences of a name with different referents that seem to require some modifications of this account. But I cannot go into the details here.

  41. Specific acts of demonstration, specific descriptive appositions, and specific (manifest) object-related, descriptive or parasitic referential intentions are examples of such determiners of salience.

  42. The expression ‘called‘ in (V1a) is ambiguous. It can be used as expression of the relation that is the converse counterpart of the relation expressed by ‘is used by certain persons to refer to’ or it can mean the same as ‘is used by certain persons to address‘ or the same as ‘is named’. According to the first and second sense a thing can be called ‘Alfred’ without bearing this name or being named ‘Alfred’.

  43. Literally such a predicate it is not restricted to English: any thing called ‘bank’ in any language satisfies the condition ‘thing called ‘bank”.

  44. This example is used in Sloat (1969, p. 26) to make basically the same point.

  45. As consequence of this approach we would have to accept that the predicate ‘is a Chevrolet‘ has two distinct meanings.

  46. C.f.: Sloat (1969, p. 26).

  47. C.f.: Fara (2011, p. 6).

  48. C.f.: Burge (1973, pp. 428–430).

  49. Actually, Burge uses the expression ‘is true of ‘Alfred” instead of ‘is an Alfred’. But I think we should not take this choice too literally, because it would invert our problem. On the basis of this reading (27) would, as (25), not be a necessarily true equivalence. C.f.: Burge (1973, pp. 428, 430).

  50. This is a variation of Kripke’s famous circularity objection. C.f.: Kripke (1980, pp. 68–70) and Elbourne (2005, p. 177).

  51. C.f.: Burge (1973, pp. 429, 435).

  52. C.f.: Burge (1973, p. 435).

  53. Notice that ,is used to refer‘ is an expression for the act of referring as a constituent of a complete speech act and not of the relation of semantic reference.

  54. An anonymous referee of this journal has objected to the two proposed versions of an approach based on the equivalence (V3) that it is questionable whether it can handle names from foreign languages whose writing systems are radically different from English. It is true that such names do not have well-formed predicative counterparts. But there are two possible ways to provide a compensation for this situation. Firstly, one could make use of a standardized translation of an expression from the foreign writing system into our writing system and form a well-formed predicate on this basis. (That is the way how we normally cope with Greek or Russian names.) If such a translation is not possible or unwelcome, we could use the meta-linguistic counterpart ‘a bearer of the name ‘N” of a name-related predicate as a substitute for the latter and express the desired claims and contents on this basis. This move is licensed by (V3). This equivalence tells us that in the case of a name-related predicate like ‘is an Alfred’ the metalinguistic counterpart ‘is a bearer of the name ‘Alfred” is the conceptually more fundamental expression and can therefore satisfy every function of the semantically derived name-related predicate. For a defender of the predicate view who denies the conceptual priority of the mentioned meta-linguistic predicates uses of names of foreign languages whose writing systems are radically different from English seem to pose a problem if they cannot be adequately translated into our writing system.


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I would like to thank Ruth Kempson, Shalom Lappin, Gail Leckie, Wilfried Meyer-Viol, Peter Ridley, Peter Sutton and Mark Textor for interesting and helpful discussions. The comments of an anonymous referee of this journal were also very helpful. My research work on this paper was founded by the Alexander-von-Humboldt-Foundation.

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Correspondence to Dolf Rami.

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Rami, D. On the unification argument for the predicate view on proper names. Synthese 191, 841–862 (2014).

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  • Semantic Representation
  • Linguistic Meaning
  • Rigid Designator
  • Complex Demonstrative
  • Semantic Reference