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The description theory of proper names


To: Mary J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The description theory of proper names
Date: 30 October 2002 12:34

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your e-mail of 20 October, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'Explain Russell's theory of Descriptions and discuss the claim that the sense of a proper name is equivalent to a description of the object which the name picks out.'

Your example of 'The cat is on the mat' might be criticised, if one was being picky. It is simply not true that there is one, and only one cat. There are many cats, and indeed many cats currently sitting on mats. Critics of Russell's theory, such as Keith Donnellan would indeed argue that our ability to use definite descriptions in this contextually-dependent way shows that Russell's analysis is wrong. According to Donnellan, The cat is sitting on the mat' can be true even if the animal we are currently observing, or currently talking about, is not a cat, but merely a creature that looks like a cat, or which we have mistaken for a cat. The truth of the statement depends solely on the question whether or not *what* the creature (whatever it is) that we have succeeded in pointing out is sitting on is indeed a mat. (You will find Donnellan's article on the referential and attributive use of definite descriptions in a number of collections.)

This is relevant to the question of whether, or how, proper names should be analysed in terms of descriptions, since on Donnellan's analysis, one is not committed to the truth of all the descriptions associated with a name which one uses successfully to pick out an individual. If you accept Donnellan, however, then you are effectively abandoning Russell's theory of descriptions, and hence abandoning the 'description theory of names'

What exactly does Searle mean by the claim that a proper name functions as a 'name...on which to hang descriptions'? Our knowledge of individuals is like a complex filing system, more or less loosely organized into sets of descriptions. When we learn a remarkable fact such as 'Flann O'Brien is Rachel Dempsey', this involves a change to our mental filing system, merging two separate files into one. A not implausible view.

I don't think Russell would be too greatly worried by your 'Mr Gibbons' example. As in many other cases where sentences are used in ordinary language, one has to distinguish between the literal content of the utterance, and the particular use which the speaker is making of that utterance. Although there is much room for disagreement over particular cases (and this is relevant to Donnellan's argument) it seems clear enough that I can utter a sentence which both I and the hearer know to be patently false, with the intention of conveying some other true thought. 'I suppose I'll have to wait until the cows come home' is one that sprang into my mind. No-one would seriously contend that a Russellian analysis of 'the cows' is needed to convey the thought successfully conveyed by the speaker.

One serious lacuna in your essay, however, is that you make no mention of Kripke's radical criticism of the bundle of descriptions theory in 'Naming and Necessity' (originally published in Harman and Davidson 'Semantics of Natural Language' 1972, and reprinted by Blackwell).

Here is a very brief resume of Kripke's argument, using your example of Mary Talbot.

Let us suppose that you and your classmates were thoroughly confused about the identity of Mary Talbot, and all the various scraps of information that you were able to remember about Mary were in fact true of another former classmate, Cynthia Smith. Mary Talbot was never in fact your classmate: she was in the year above. But she and Cynthia always hung out together.

When you say, 'Mary Talbot was my classmate' is what you *mean*, in the sense of the literal content of your utterance, true or false? If the only way that a proper name can gain meaning is through associated descriptions - however much latitude we are prepared to allow - then by uttering the words 'Mary Talbot' you and your classmates are in fact successfully referring to Cynthia Smith. So your statement, according to this analysis, is true. Kripke would claim that this is not the case. The name 'Mary Talbot' gets its whole meaning from an event that occurred back in the past, when the daughter of Mrs Talbot was named 'Mary'. The name keeps that original meaning, even if in the course of time it accumulates more and more false 'information'. In saying, 'Mary Talbot was my classmate', you and your friends are, unwittingly, saying something false about Mary, rather than saying something true about Cynthia.

Kripke uses this kind of example to argue for what has come to be know as the 'chain of communication' theory of proper names. The meaning of a proper name depends upon the act of initial baptism and the subsequent 'chain of communication', even if in time, as in the game Chinese Whispers, information becomes so hopelessly muddled that we are unable to state one true thing about the actual bearer of the name.

All the best,