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Proper names and the nature of self-reference


To: Damien B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Proper names and the nature of self-reference
Date: 4th November 2009 12:18

Dear Damien,

Thank you for your email of 25 October, with your essay for the University of London Logic module, entitled, 'Who am I? - A Logical Perspective'.

It is good to see that you are reading on this topic and thinking about the problems. However, the immediate problem I have with this essay is that I don't know what the question is. Your heuristic purpose (if I may presume to call it that) is to use the familiar sounding question, 'Who am I?' to get leverage on the general problem of reference.

As you will discover if you do more reading (I would recommend starting with Elizabeth Anscombe's essay, 'The First Person' in 'Mind and Language' Guttenplan Ed. Oxford 1975) the first person raises particular problems over and above the question of how one accounts for singular reference, or the reference of a proper name. I don't see any evidence from your essay that you have really thought about the special difficulties with the term 'I' (which is the main theme of my book 'Naive Metaphysics'). Indeed, you state at the beginning that you are not looking at the 'metaphysical' implications but simply exploring the logic of reference.

Even narrowing down the question to, 'What is reference?', or 'How do proper names refer?' offers the possibility of many different approaches. For example, as hinted in your essay, you could be looking at Strawson's critique of Russell's theory of descriptions, or the causal theory of reference put forward by Kripke and Gareth Evans (who later rejected the causal theory in 'Varieties of Reference') or Frege's distinction between sense and reference, or Donnellan's distinction between referential and attributive use of descriptions (and so on). In future, I would urge you to select examination questions for your essays, as these will give much needed focus.

However, for the purposes of my review, I will agree to play the game of asking 'Who is Damien?' and see where it takes us.

For me, the question isn't about 'I'. A piece of work has arrived by email which could be the work of one or more people, or possibly the first truly intelligent AI program kept under strict security at the Pentagon (how else would you test the program than enrolling it on an online philosophy course).

The problem is that I, the reader, need to refer to something as 'the author'. With only this piece of information to go on, together with similar pieces of information (other emails from 'Damien'). in what sense am I in a position to refer to *you* (assuming that you are, in fact, DB the sole author of this essay as you claim)?

Gareth Evans would say that I *don't know* the meaning of the term 'DB'. In Michael Dummett's phrase (from Frege: Philosophy of Language, Appendix on Kripke) when I use the term 'DB' (e.g. tell my colleague that I received an essay from DB) I am functioning as a 'tape recorder'.

Suppose, by pure chance, that my colleague does know DB very well (having met DB on a recent trip to the US) and satisfies Evans' conditions for fully grasping the meaning of the term, 'DB'. Then I succeed in conveying information which I myself do not fully understand. (This is, in effect, Evans' response to Putnam's point about the 'division of linguistic labour'. What Putnam ignores is that there is a distinction to be drawn between those who use a term with authority and those who act more or less as 'tape recorders' or links in the chain of transmission of information.)

What I do know is given by a description, which in effect means that the proposition expressing my knowledge involves universal/ existential quantification. Lacking the knowledge required to use the term 'DB' (which my colleague possesses) I am not in a position to make singular reference to DB.

(As noted above, this view is contested by Putnam, Kripke and the early Evans.)

I would like to set the record straight about Mill, whom you mention. Mill gets regularly lambasted for his seemingly naive claim that names have denotation but no connotation. As any good Fregean knows (or Russell, or Evans, or Kripke etc.) there has to be a 'route to reference'. There has to be something by virtue of which the name 'DB' refers to DB. Names don't work by magic.

But this isn't a question which Mill even raises. He is making the sober point that proper names, as given, do not carry any accepted descriptive content. As you point out, in addition to historical derivations of names (of which a competent speaker can be largely ignorant) there are all sorts of good or bad associations with names (you are my first 'Damien' and you do have my sympathies). The distinction you were searching for is Frege's distinction between sense and force. General names, as well as proper names, have associations which do not contribute to the truth conditions of propositions containing them, but which nonetheless convey the speaker's mood or attitude, the 'force' of the speaker's assertion.

As you can see from my comments, this hasn't been altogether a successful essay, but as I said above there is plenty of evidence that you are reading relevant material. When you make your first attempt to write an essay in answer to a specific exam question, you will notice the difference!

All the best,