Sunday, 6 September 2015

Graeme Forbes: “‘Istanbul’ contains eight letters.”


On the Fregean account, in pure quotation the quoted items refer to themselves…Thus, in [“‘Istanbul’ contains eight letters.”], the displayed city name refers to that name [refers to itself]…On the Tarskian account, surrounding some item i with quotation marks creates a name of which the marks are part and which refers to i. So [‘Istanbul’ contains eight letters] contains a name “’Istanbul’”…that refers to the word ‘Istanbul’…” (Graeme Forbes, 1996)

The name ‘Tony Blair’ has nine letters.”

On Graeme Forbes's account, the above ‘Tony Blair’ isn't just a name: it's also an inscription. We can then say, like Forbes, that ‘Tony Blair’ is a name (in the above) which refers to the word ‘Tony Blair’.

To make this clearer, we can say that the name “‘Tony Blair’” (to use Forbes' own system of quotation marks), rather than the word ‘Tony Blair’, must then have double quotation marks because what's in the double quotation marks (i.e., ‘Tony Blair’) is the word 'Tony Blair' the name ("'Tony Blair'") refers to. That is, in single quotation marks (namely, ‘Tony Blair’) which are themselves surrounded by outer quotation marks.

Forbes has created some kind of referential structure by making the name “‘Tony Blair’” (in double quotation marks) refer to the word ‘Tony Blair’ (in single quotation marks).

We still only have names and words and not any concrete/ objects referred to by the names (or words). We've created a referential structure which doesn't rely on concrete/abstract objects/conditions outside the statement.

It's not clear why we should have (or need) a name “‘Tony Blair’” which only refers to the word ‘Tony Blair’. It simply seems like a means to get us away from the self-reference of Forbes own inscriptions.

What’s intrinsically wrong with self-reference?

In Forbes’ own example

“‘Istanbul’ contains eight letters.”

it initially seems that ‘Istanbul’ can hardly be seen as a name at all. In that example the name (with double quotes) “‘Istanbul’” refers to the word ‘Istanbul’ (with single quotes). Is it a name? If “‘Istanbul’” only refers to the word ‘Istanbul’, then why use the specific name “‘Istanbul’” at all? If no concrete/ abstract objects are referred to (at least in these examples), then we may as well substitute it with the made-up name “‘Slinmp’” ( which can refer to the word ‘Slinmp’). It makes no difference to the content of Forbes’s example in which a name refers to a word. The actual city of Istanbul is completely irrelevant to Forbes’s position.

Does that mean that my own “‘Slinmp’” can also be a name? It can refer, after all, to the word ‘Slinmp’. Though unlike Forbes’s “‘Istanbul’”, there's no actual concrete/abstract entities that can match up with the name “‘Slinmp’”. In that case “‘Slinmp’” is truly an inscription (which happens to begin with a capital letter); whereas the name “‘Istanbul’” could, I suppose, eventually (after it has passed through the word ‘Istanbul’) take us to the city of Istanbul. Though could it?

Perhaps Forbes’s choice of the name “‘Istanbul’” is just as arbitrary as my choice of “‘Slinmp’”. That is, just because we know of a city that's called ‘Istanbul’, that doesn’t make Forbes’s inscriptions “‘Istanbul’” and ‘Istanbul’ any less arbitrary. He's not, after all, using the inscription “‘Istanbul’” in the way that most people use the name ‘Istanbul’- viz., to refer to a city. However, Forbes could be using that inscription as an example of the rare case in which we simply use a word to refer to an inscription with a certain number of letters. That of course would be using the word ‘Istanbul’ not as a name, but only as a word/inscription. Or, in Forbes’s own terms, the word ‘Istanbul’ could also be known via the definite description "a bearer of eight letters".

Forbes could have also used the name “‘Drooting’”. That too has eight letters. There would have been no loss of content to Forbes’s general argument about names and words. His choice of “‘Istanbul’” as a name may simply put people off the tracks Forbes himself is trying to mark out. With my “‘Slinmp’” and “‘Drooting’”, on the other hand, there's no chance of a concrete/abstract referent because these words are simply meaningless arrangements of letters without content.

Thus in my example we can’t really have a referent of a name that's a word: we can only the inscription's self-reference. In my case

“‘Slinmp’ has six letters.”

we can say that the name “‘Slinmp’” refers to the word ‘Slinmp’.

Can the word ‘Slinmp’ also refer to the name “‘Slinmp’”? Why is the word a word and the name a name (in Forbes’ system) when we aren't talking in terms of any concrete/abstract referents of the words and names? Surely you can only have a name of a word if that word is itself also a name of something. (Or at least a word that refers to concrete/abstract objects other than itself.) Thus if Forbes's name refers to the word, why can’t that word refer to the name? If that were the case, then we wouldn’t be able get outside this world of inscriptions. (That's the case even if some inscriptions are called 'names' and others are called 'words'.) My (pure) inscriptions, on the other hand, are neither words nor names. That is, unless we take self-reference to be a genuine kind of reference.


Many philosophers don't accept self-reference as a kind of relation. (Or at least they don’t take self-identity to be a property of an entity - not even of an inscription.) If a relation or reference is anything, it must be a relation or reference to something other than itself.

Similarly, it may follow from this that if a reference-relation is to be genuine, then the referents of sentences, words, names, etc. must refer to something other than themselves. Again, this is certainly seen to be the case (by various philosophers) when it comes to analysing self-identity as some kind of genuine property. If self-identity (of persons or objects) isn't a kind of property, then perhaps self-reference isn't a kind of reference. Thus it would follow that purportedly self-referential sentences or names wouldn't have the property self-identity either.



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