Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Kripke’s First Argument against Descriptivism

  1. ◊ Benjamin Franklin was not the first postmaster-general of the US.
  2. Benjamin Franklin ◊ was not the first postmaster-general of the US.

The modal operator’s scope in ii) is about Franklin himself, or the possibility that he might have done such and such. The first example is a de dicto possibility – about the possibility of the statement being true. ii) is de re possibility.

The point about i) and ii) is that we can be clear about the modal application in that its position tells us its scope. Despite the placement of the modal operator, the semantic value of the whole sentence remains the same. What is more important, from this Kripkean perspective, is that the semantic value of the name ‘Franklin’ remains unchanged in both i) and ii). This, of course, is going to affect the central argument about Kripkean proper names. However, this does not mean that the name must be somehow ‘empty’ if it allows us to change the scope of the modal operator.

What ‘content’ does the name have if not, say, a description? Its semantic value is the named object or person itself. Clearly this conclusion has a de re feel – it's about an object, not a statement. Indeed we will also see that it has an essentialist feel as well. In essentialist terms, we see that in both i) and ii) the object named must retain its semantic value no matter which world we place it in, as it were. In other words, the name’s semantic value remains fixed right across possible worlds. And if its semantic value is the object that is its referent, then the name holds fast to the object-referent it names across possible worlds. No matter which world the object is placed in, it will be held by its name despite the world’s differences and the different counterparts of the object itself. And in order for this to be the case, that object must retain its essence at all possible worlds at which it is placed.

Now in terms of the statement of possibility which includes a description rather than a proper name, the case is different. For example, it may only be at our world that the description ‘the inventor of bifocals’ is correctly assigned to Franklin. This, according to Kripke, makes this aspect of Franklin a contingent, not essential, property of the man. It is shown to be so by the introduction of possible world scenarios. In other words, the descriptions of Franklin will not pick out Franklin, our Franklin, across all possible worlds. So

The man who invented bifocals was not the first postmaster-general of the US.

does not make the same claim as the statement that uses a proper name. Whereas prima facie we think ‘the inventor of bifocals’ and ‘Franklin’ pick out the same person, that they do so is only a contingent fact. At our world they do so; but at other possible worlds they may – or do - not. The above, rather counter-intuitively, is not about our Franklin because it is a possibility-statement that does not use a proper name. It would need to use a proper name in order to secure stability and necessity of reference. The statement above tells us that it could be – or is – true because Franklin, the barer of the name ‘Franklin’, does – or may – not exist.

There is a possible argument against Kripke’s conclusion. We can read the above as if it has wide scope. Strangely enough, it is the case that wide scope refers to a modal operator embedded within a statement; not one about a whole statement. In that case, wide scope is about de re necessity and possibility, not de dicto necessity and possibility. So a re-reading of the above as a narrow scope de dicto statement can now be:

The inventor of bifocals ◊ was not the first postmaster-general of the US.

Now we have a statement with both a singular description and a de re claim about the inventor of bifocals. In other words, we have freed the description, ‘the inventor of bifocals’, from the possibility operator. What does this modal operator movement attempt to achieve? Firstly, we take the description to be about the inventor of bifocals at the actual world, but then we hold that semantic value as ‘constant’ at other possible worlds – worlds at which he is not the first postmaster-general of the US. The status of being the inventor of bifocals is retained, but not its necessary connection with being the first postmaster-general (which is the case at the actual world). Although the statement above uses a description, because that description lies outside the modal operator it has wide scope. We must therefore initially be talking about our inventor of bifocals, not a possible one at another world. Kripke argues that it is our Franklin himself who is the semantic value of the description – a res, however strange that is - it gives the description its semantic value. We can now say that this rephrased wide scope de re statement that uses a description now makes Franklin’s property being the inventor of bifocals a necessary one, whereas being first postmaster-general is merely contingent. This, prima facie, appears to be a purely arbitrary distinction on the descriptivist’s part.

But names do not have a narrow scope reading. That is, if the modal operator is placed to the left on the entire statement, the name will not have an equivalent narrow scope reading in that no matter where the name is placed in the statement, or how it is used, it will always have the same semantic value – the object-referent at the actual world as he appears across other possible worlds. This property of names holding fast to their referents is encapsulated by Kripke by giving them the title ‘rigid designators’. They rigidly designate because they always refer to the same object at every possible world at which that object exists, even if these worlds are different to ours and the object itself has different contingent properties.

The rigid designator idea is quite simple. It is about the stability of reference across possible worlds. However, unlike theories of reference, this has nothing to do with naming processes such as ‘causal reference’ or ‘direct reference’. We can say, now, that it is not a ‘theory of reference’ at all. It is about objects keeping their names; not about them getting their names. The ‘rigidity’ of names tell us nothing about how names get attached, as it were, to objects and persons. It has nothing to do, for example, with Kripkean ‘naming baptisms’ or direct causal contact between names and named objects. However, it does apply to the relation between names and named objects; but only once such objects have been named. From then on, a name and its object remain together across possible worlds. The primary purpose of Kripke’s rigidity thesis is to enable us to identify individuals across possible worlds.

So now we can say more about the following:

◊ Franklin was not the first postmaster-general of the USA.

The claim above is not only true about a possible Franklin or a Franklin ‘counterpart, it is also true of our own Franklin. These possible worlds are always taken within the context of our world. The above is true, but it has nothing to do with the possibility that someone at a possible world merely has the name ‘Franklin’. It is not about a name, or someone else named ‘Franklin’. It is not about finding a world at which a ‘Franklin’ was not the first postmaster-general of the US either. It is about the possibility that our Franklin might not have been the first postmaster-general of the US. And we investigate other possible worlds to establish this possibility. Again, it is not about the possibility about another Mr and Mrs Franklin who also named their child ‘Benjamin’ and that this child did not become the first postmaster-general of the US. It is not about names at all; it is about an object/person. More than that, it is about our person – the person named ‘Franklin’ and how he may (essentially) be at other possible worlds.

All this is an attempt to show that we cannot rely on any descriptive content for the name ‘Franklin’ to establish its necessary semantic value. At other possible worlds we could not rely on the description ‘the inventor of bifocals’, or any other description, to fix the name ‘Franklin’ or pick out the object Franklin. No description can fix what it is about Franklin that must remain constant across all possible worlds. Therefore, according to Kripke, names must not have content. What a name must pick out at every possible world is Franklin’s essence. This means that all the descriptions we have used of Franklin must only pick out his contingent properties (in our world). And, therefore, they may not pick out Franklin at all at other possible worlds at which he exists because he may not exemplify any of these contingent properties (which are the source of our descriptions).

(A quick digression. What are the essential properties of Franklin according to Kripke? It is here that philosophers start to talk about ‘origins’ [see Forbes, 1997]. For example, Forbes must be indirectly talking about a named man’s beginning in the womb at the moment the zygote is formed from a sperm and an egg.)

One conclusion to all this is that names are indexed to the actual world. No matter what we say about the name ‘Franklin’ and the person Franklin at another possible world, it will still be determined by our Franklin and therefore our name ‘Franklin’. That is because no matter what a possibility-statement says about Franklin, if it uses the proper name, rather than a description, within that statement it will be saying:

The object/person who is actually Franklin might not have been the first postmaster-general of the US.

Despite all the possible-world scenarios, they are still about our person – the actual Franklin. With descriptions within a possibility-statement, we will need to know which possible world is actually being spoken about. A proper name, on the other hand, is always indexed to the actual world. And a name is thus indexed because it only depends on the referent or object of a name, not a Fregean ‘sense’ or a description. It is, therefore, de re rather than de dicto; essentialist rather than non-essentialist; ontological rather than conceptual, etc.

Now we can take on board a possible counter-example to Kripke – referential uses of descriptions as offered by, amongst others, Donnellan [1966]. However, Kripke would argue that such descriptive references are seen to belong to the ‘pragmatics of use’ and have nothing to do with the semantics of descriptions. Such a pragmatic reference must be so because it is indeed the case that particular persons will use particular descriptions in order to pick out - and then fix - a particular named object. Of course they will. However, this has nothing to do with the semantics of proper names or descriptions. The semantic value of ‘Franklin’ must be the same for all users and at all times. This could not be the case with any single description, or even Searle’s ‘cluster’ of descriptions [Searle, 1967]. This universality and a-historical reality of a proper name is determined by the fact that its only semantic value is the named object-referent itself - and nothing more! It is, therefore, de re. Descriptions, on the other hand, are conceptual or de dicto in nature. Descriptions belong to the pragmatics of use in the sense that they are used practically by particular persons at particular times, not by all persons at all times. We can therefore say that semantics, or Kripkean semantics, is essentialist in nature, whereas pragmatics is non-essentialist or even anti-essentialist.

The thesis of rigid designators tells us that proper names are given their semantic value at our world and must retain that value at all possible worlds at which the named object exists. This means that a possibility-statement with a proper name has a fixed semantic value because that value is fixed at the actual world by an actual object or person. Therefore it is the person himself, as it were, who is found at different worlds (or his counterparts), not a mere similar.

However, Kripke has argued that rigidity is not just about modal contexts. In the following

Aristotle was fond of dogs.

the name is rigid without a mention of modality or possible worlds. And yet Kripke goes on to write something which does highlight the modal nature of proper names:

".... the thesis that names are rigid in simple sentences is, however, equivalent to the thesis that if a modal operator governs a simple sentence containing a name, the two readings, with large and small scope, are equivalent [1972/1980)."

To conclude and repeat: the whole thesis of the rigidity of proper names is not actually a theory about reference in the sense of our giving an object a name, etc. However, if one accepts the rigidity thesis, then it automatically commits us, or so it has been argued, to what has been called a ‘direct theory of reference’. And Kripke, of course, also offers us a direct - causal - theory of reference to follow his account of rigidity. The Kripkean conclusion must be, then, that reference must be either direct or descriptive.


Forbes, G – (1997) ‘Essentialism’, in A Companion to the Philosophy of Language, Blackwell Publishers
Kripke, S - (1972/1980) Naming and Necessity, Oxford: Blackwell
Searle, J – (1967) ‘Proper Names’, in Philosophical Logic, ed. P. F. Strawson, Oxford University Press

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