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Names, Descriptions and Causal Descriptions. Is the Magic Gone?


Some of the fundamental lessons of the so-called revolution against descriptivism that occurred in the 70s are negative and it is not immediately apparent what kind of semantic theory should emerge as regards proper names, the alleged paradigms of genuinely referential terms. Some of the claims about names, most notably Ruth Barcan Marcus’ characterization of names as tags, appear to be too picturesque to provide the basis for a positive theory and, without a theory, it would seem that the referential link between name and bearer is established by pure magic. Some authors have appealed to the causal-historical picture to construct a positive theory, and have endorsed causal descriptivism, a variety of descriptivism that incorporates causal factors. I argue against causal descriptivism and I assess the demand for a positive semantic theory of names.

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  1. Of course, the change of perspective was not meant to apply only to a specific type of expression, for the paradigm that the revolutionaries challenged was a universal theory of how reference, the relation that connects linguistic expressions with the pieces of the world they are about, is possible. So the breakaway affected also indexicals, demonstratives and kind terms.

  2. See Donnellan 1970 and Kripke 1980. Those arguments, which have come to be known ignorance and error arguments, are illustrated by the ‘Feynman’/‘Gell-Mann’ case (Kripke 1980, p. 81) and by the ‘Columbus’ case (Kripke 1980, p. 85).

  3. I thank Michael Devitt for pressing me on this issue.

  4. ‘Typically’ because as Scott Soames has argued some names can be used without being acquired from other speakers. He mentions an example discussed by Jonathan McKeown-Green in which a writer has been told of a region in Ireland in which the residents of different towns see to it that there is always exactly one person bearing the name ‘Patrick O’Grady’. Soames and McKeown-Green contend that the writer’s use of the name refers, when, for instance, on arriving at a town’s pub she proclaims ‘I am looking for Patrick O’Grady whom I am willing to pay for an interview for my new book’. (Soames 2005, p. 301).

  5. This is why I have argued that bestowing a name should be seen as a process, for it requires success in establishing a practice (a practice that need not be social). See Martí (2015), especially Sect. 4.3.

  6. Approximately, because there is almost universal agreement that the description would have to be considerably more complicated, since it would have to include reference to linguistic conventions and conditions on the successful transmission of words from link to link. For instance, Fred Kroon opens his defense of causal descriptivism by pointing out: “I see no need in this paper to say much about the kind of causal descriptions that play a reference determining role according to causal descriptivism. It is evident that causal descriptions of the form ‘the individual referred to by uses of the name N from which I acquired the use of N’ will count, but much more than these should be assigned a role,” and he then proceeds to indicate why the description will be considerably more complicated (Kroon 1987, p. 1, ft. 1. See also, 2004 for further discussion and defense of the view).

  7. See also Orilia 2010 (especially Chap. 5) for a defense of a variety of causal descriptivism.

  8. For other criticisms of causal descriptivism, see Raatikainen 2006 who argues that the view fails to respond to the motivations that speak in favor of the classical descriptivist stance. More recently, Mario Gómez Torrente (forthcoming) has criticised causal descriptivism on the basis of the its inability to represent adequately cases of referential indeterminacy. In his discussion Gómez-Torrente proposes also several alternative, and specific, possible renderings of causal descriptions, something that is hard to find among the proponents of the view.

  9. I use the label ‘metasemantic’ with some trepidation, for the category is extremely heterogeneous. Metasemantics, or foundational semantics, explores how expressions are assigned to their meanings, but such an inquiry may include answers to historical, sociological and even etymological questions that have little impact on philosophical theories about meaning and, if they are characterized as metasemantic, it is just by virtue of not being semantic. Or it may include answers to questions about the truth conditional contributions of certain kinds of expressions, questions that are clearly at the foundation of semantic theory. It is not entirely clear where the description of how names are introduced and transmitted falls, nor whether that description has different aspects falling under different categories. See Simchen 2017, especially ft. 1, for a succinct characterization of different metasemantic projects.

  10. And indeed this is one of the reasons Kroon insists that ‘the individual referred to by uses of the name N from which I acquired N’ will not be enough: “I may be the first to introduce the term N” (1987, p. 1 ft. 1).

  11. “… the causal theory of reference is the view … that the only thing wrong with causal descriptivism is that it holds that the folk know the causal descriptions that determine the reference of the name” (Jackson 2010, p. 115). Of course the non-descriptivist does not think that descriptions fix the reference of a name, but that is independent of the issue of knowledge.

  12. The concern about complication arises also here. The processes and conditions of successful introduction of a name are rather complex and hence the description of those conditions would be extremely complicated.

  13. Such a view is controversial. It has been explored and defended by Stanley and Williamson (2001). Their arguments are challenged by Ian Rumfitt (2003) and Michael Devitt (2011).

  14. See Martí 2017 for a discussion of how this distinction affects recently proposed views that treat proper names as predicates.

  15. Another misconception as regards Marcus’ contributions consists in interpreting her stance as a precursor of the notion of rigidity. I have argued against this misconception in Martí 2012.

  16. And I am not completely sure how much Devitt believes a unified account to be likely or expected.

  17. I thank Catherine Elgin and Carl Hoefer for a helpful discussion on this point.

  18. Parts of this paper were delivered at the APA Eastern Division Meeting session on Ruth Barcan Marcus, in December 2012 and at the Warsaw Context, Cognition and Communication Conference in 2016. I thank the audiences for their comments. I am also extremely grateful to Michael Devitt, Carl Hoefer and two anonymous referees for their extensive and helpful comments on a previous version. The research for this paper has been supported by the Spanish MINECO’s grant FFI2015-70707-P and the Diaphora Project (H2020-MSCA-ITN-2015-675415).


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Funding was provided by Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (ES) (Grant No. FFI2015-70707-P) and H2020 European Research Council (Grant No. H2020-MSCA-ITN-2015-675415).

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Martí, G. Names, Descriptions and Causal Descriptions. Is the Magic Gone?. Topoi 39, 357–365 (2020).

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  • Proper names
  • Descriptivism
  • Causal descriptivism
  • Ruth Barcan Marcus