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The use-conditional indexical conception of proper names

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In this essay I will defend a novel version of the indexical view on proper names. According to this version, proper names have a relatively sparse truth-conditional meaning that is represented by their rigid content and indexical character, but a relatively rich use-conditional meaning, which I call the (contextual) constraint of a proper name. Firstly, I will provide a brief outline of my favoured indexical view on names in contrast to other indexical views proposed in the relevant literature. Secondly, two general motivations for an indexical view on names will be introduced and defended. Thirdly, I will criticize the two most popular versions of the indexical view on names: formal variable accounts and salience-based formal constant accounts. In the fourth and final section, I will develop my own use-conditional indexical view on names in three different steps by confronting an initial version of this view with three different challenges.

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  1. Some examples: Bach, Fine, Donnellan, Kaplan, Kripke, Perry, Sainsbury, Salmon and Soames.

  2. C.f.: Burks (1951), Burge (1973), Cohen (1980), Sommers (1980), Zimmermann and Lerner (1991), Recanati (1993), Pelczar and Rainsbury (1998), Dever (1998), Pelczar (2001), Elbourne (2005), Cumming (2008), Matushansky (2008), Sawyer (2010) and Tiedke (2011).

  3. C.f.: Burks (1951), Cohen (1980), Sommers (1980) and Sawyer (2010).

  4. E.g.: ‘That Alfred‘or ‘That bearer of ‘Alfred’’.

  5. E.g.: ‘The present bearer of ‘Alfred’’.

  6. Typically, two expressions are considered as semantically equivalent if they make the same contribution to truth-conditional content. But if we accept additional non-truth-conditional aspects of meaning, and I will argue for such an additional layer of meaning in this paper, truth-conditional equivalence is only a necessary condition for semantic equivalence.

  7. Pure indexicals like ‘I’ are conceived of as simple individual constants in Kaplan (1978, 1989).

  8. True demonstratives like ‘that’ are represented as complex expressions of the form ‘dthat[the ϕ]’ in Kaplan (1978, 1989).

  9. C.f.: Kaplan (1978, pp. 86–97; 1989, pp. 541–553).

  10. C.f.: Predelli (2005, p. 20; 2012, p. 550).

  11. This view is inspired by Predelli (2012, p. 555).

  12. A simple formal variable account represents names at the level of logical form by specific individual variables. Like the account defended in Cumming (2008). A complex formal variable account represents names at the level of logical form by means of specific complex singular terms that may contain an unbound individual variable. Burge and Elbourne, for example, have claimed that the name ‘Alfred’ is semantically equivalent to ‘The x:[Alfred (x) ∧ x = y]’. C.f.: Burge (1973) and Elbourne (2005).

  13. It is quite popular to use the notion of salience in connection with an indexical account based on KLD to solve the problem of shared names. One example of such a view claims that the name ‘Alfred’ is semantically equivalent to dthat [the most salient bearer of the name ‘Alfred’]’.

  14. C.f.: Perry (2001, pp. 102–105).

  15. That is Kaplan’s name for specific names. I follow Sainsbury (2012) and use the other label in the following.

  16. Kaplan (1990, p. 111).

  17. Kaplan (1990, p. 108).

  18. That is, if we translate sentences like (1) and (2) into a formal language, we have to represent their different meanings by means of different formal representations with different truth-conditions.

  19. Alternatively, one might claim that a quotation name like “’Peter’” can only be used to refer to generic names. But such a restriction seems to be implausible and ad hoc. The quoted passage from Kaplan at least suggests that Kaplan himself does not explicitly hold such a radical view, because he uses quotation names there to refer to both kinds of names.

  20. I use the relation expressed by ‘x is an instance of y’ to capture the essential ontological connection between specific and generic names.

  21. This view is similar to a view that holds that propositions are primary bearers of truth-values and that sentences that express propositions are only in a derived sense true or false.

  22. We do not multiply the readings of (1) and (2) to four readings (three false and one true reading), if we regard the expressions ‘name’ and ‘bearer’ as systematically ambiguous. Two logically possible readings are excluded as semantically not well-formed. Therefore, a sentence like (1) now has a true and a false reading.

  23. C.f. Kaplan (1990, p. 111).

  24. This was pointed out to me by Peter Sutton.

  25. C.f.: Kripke (1980, pp. 82–92).

  26. I have slightly modified Sainsbury’s general distinction between descriptive and object-related intentions for my purposes. Sainsbury uses this distinction to clarify a distinction made by Kripke between two ways of introducing a proper name into use. See: Kripke (1980, p. 96) and Sainsbury (2005, pp. 106–107).

  27. A person may enter a stage, a spot-light may shine on him and he gets announced by someone who utters ‘We are very proud to present you Peter James’. In this case it is very plausible to assume that the name is used accompanied by an object-related referential intention. Furthermore, in a meeting someone may point to a specific person and say ‘Peter James is our representative in London’. Again, it seems to be plausible to assume that ‘Peter James’ is used with the mentioned kind of intention.

  28. Like in the following example: Lance Armstrong, the guy who won the Tour the France seven times, is a bold liar.

  29. There are people that are talking about the famous philosopher John Perry. Someone overhears the conversation and says: Who is John Perry?

  30. Cases of this kind that concern the introduction of a name are presented and discussed in: Sainsbury (2005, pp. 107–122).

  31. Thanks to my colleagues at King’s College London, Peter Ridley, Peter Sutton and Mark Textor, for pressing me on this point.

  32. I am also sympathetic to the view that descriptive acts of identification can have different forms. The use of a descriptive apposition might be sufficient in a certain contextual setting for this purpose, but a speaker might also determine the reference of a name in a descriptive way by means of a so-called individual concept. It is plausible to assume that we store information about different individuals with whom we interact in a direct or indirect way. We might call these stores of information individual concepts. There are now different ways to determine the referent of a name by means of an individual concept: The original causal source, the dominant causal source or the object which satisfies most of the stored information can be determined as the referent of a name by means of a specific descriptive act of identification.

  33. Parasitic acts of identification are acts where a speaker identifies the referent of his use of a name by means of exploiting some preceding act of reference by himself or other speakers. In general, these are acts of identification where the reference is “borrowed” from some preexisting use of a name.

  34. The name ‘Vulcan’ is a standard example of this sort. C.f.: Sainsbury (2005, pp. 87–90).

  35. Some complications are provided for such a conception by certain recorded or written utterances that contain the expression ‘I’. C.f.: Predelli (2005, p. 48).

  36. C.f.: King (2012, pp. 367–369).

  37. A similar example is provided in: Burge (1973, pp. 435–436), Geurts (1997, p. 321) and Cumming (2008, p. 526, 535).

  38. Similar examples are provided in: Geurts (1997, p. 321).

  39. According to this view, (3) has the logical form: ∃x∃y(Mary (x) ∧ Paul (y) ∧ Joined the Diogenes Club yesterday (x) ∧ Joined the Diogenes Club yesterday (y) ∧ Nice person (x)). C.f.: Cumming (2008, pp. 535–536).

  40. A Fregean theory of definite descriptions holds that definite descriptions are complex singular terms that can either refer to a single object or to no object at all. An atomic sentences that contains a definite description that does not refer to a (single) object is according to this view neither true nor false. C.f.: Hawthorne and Manley (2012, pp. 181–184).

  41. C.f.: Elbourne (2005, pp. 97, 169–173, 180–181).

  42. According to this view, (4) has the logical form: ∀x∀y(((Boy (x) ∧ (Girl (y) ∧ Mary (y))) ∧ Love (x,y)) → Admire (x, (ιz)(Mary(z) ∧ z = y))). C.f.: Burge (1973, p. 433), Elbourne (2005, pp. 97, 169–173, 180–181).

  43. C.f.: Cumming (2008, pp. 525–526).

  44. C.f.: Burge (1973, p. 432, 435–436).

  45. An example of this sort is: At least one man thinks that he has lost someone.

  46. An example of this sort is: Every farmer who owns a donkey, beats it.

  47. C.f.: King (2012, pp. 368–369).

  48. The view on names proposed by Elbourne has to face an analogous problem that is discussed below.

  49. C.f. Hawthorne and Manley (2012, pp. 93–94, 99–100).

  50. C.f. Hawthorne and Manley (2012, pp. 122–136).

  51. There are also sentences that have a similar structure to (4), but intuitively do not have the proposed anaphoric reading: Every man, who loves a girl named ‘Mary’, will invite Mary for dinner. For most people this sentence only has a reading relative to which ‘Mary’ refers to a single person. C.f.: Elbourne (2005, p. 180).

  52. C.f.: Hawthorne and Manley (2012, p. 11).

  53. In the context of our examples the expression ‘is a Mary ‘and ‘is a bearer of the name ‘Mary’’ can be conceived as semantically equivalent.

  54. C.f.: Burge (1973) and Sawyer (2010).

  55. C.f.: Cohen (1980, pp. 149–150) and Bach (1993, p. 140).

  56. C.f.: King (2006, pp. 148–149).

  57. The following well-known example given in Bach (1993, pp. 146–147) has two similar readings: If presidents were elected by alphabetical order, Aaron Aardvark might have been president. Firstly, there is a reading of this sentence relative to which ‘Aaron Aardvark’ is used to refer to a specific person. Secondly, there is a reading of this sentence relative to which ‘Aaron Aardvark’ is used as an elliptic version of the indefinite expression ‘an Aaron Aardvark’.

  58. C.f.: Predelli (2012, p. 548; 2013, pp. 6–7) and Zimmermann (2012, p. 2361).

  59. char(e) = the character of the expression ‘e’, char(e)(c) = the content of ‘e’ with respect to c. C.f.: Predelli (2013, p. 13).

  60. C.f.: Zimmermann and Lerner (1991, pp. 353–355).

  61. C.f.: Recanati (1993, pp. 138–143).

  62. C.f.: Pelczar and Rainsbury (1998, pp. 294–298), Pelczar (2001, p. 138) and Tiedke (2011, pp. 715–718). See also: Matushansky (2008, pp. 591–595) for a cross-over of the views given by Recanati (1993) and Pelczar and Rainsbury (1998).

  63. C.f.: Kripke (1980, pp. 90–97), Zimmermann and Lerner (1991) and Sainsbury (2005, pp. 106–124).

  64. C.f.: Textor (2010, p. 112). A variation of an example suggested by Hans Kamp is the following: The tyrant utters: I hereby name every male baby that was born in my empire yesterday Vladimir.

  65. An example of a name with two different origins that link this name to one and the same object is the following: By coincidence two different tribes, which have no contact with each other, name the very same mountain ‘Ateb’. The name is used by both tribes independently for a certain while, but then it happens that the two tribes get in contact and a war breaks out. One of the tribe wins and the remaining people merge to one tribe. Against this background, the two existing name-using practices concerning the name ‘Ateb’ merge to one practice. An example of a name with two different origins with two different objects is the following: There are twins that live in two different villages. The inhabitants of both villages are not aware of the existence of the other twin. One village introduces and establishes the use of the name ‘Goldilocks’ for one twin. The other village uses the same name for the other twin. At a certain time one of the villages is destroyed completely in a war and one of the twins dies unnoticed during this war. The remaining inhabitants of the destroyed village become inhabitants of the other village and the two name-using practices concerning the name ‘Goldilocks’ merge to one practice with one referent.

  66. C.f.: Pelczar and Rainsbury (1998, p. 254).

  67. C.f.: Recanati (1993, pp. 138–140) and Perry (2001, pp. 102–113).

  68. I think, Perry is right if he conceives naming-conventions as permissive conventions. C.f.: Perry (2001, pp. 103–105, 109) and Korta und Perry (2011, p. 75). If a certain object x is the bearer of a name ‘N’, then it is possible to use the name ‘N’ to refer to the object x in felicitous way. Naming-conventions are on this basis certain norms that regulate the felicitous use of specific names. But it might be doubted whether instances of such a convention or norm can be exploited either on the basis of the ambiguity view or the indexical view to determine the referent of a single proper name. This explanatory use of these conventions does not make sense to me, because I do not see that there is a reference determining link that can be provided by such a convention. I think, they can at most be used to constrain adequate referents of a proper name.

  69. This objection was pointed out to me by an anonymous reviewer.

  70. ‘cw’ refers to the possible world of the context c; ‘ca’ refers to the agent of the context c; ‘ct’ refers to the time of the context c.

  71. A similar example is used in Korta and Perry (2011, p. 75).

  72. I am following Predelli (2012, pp. 557–560; 2013, pp. 192–196), who uses a very similar strategy to solve the corresponding problem in the case of bare-boned demonstratives.

  73. C.f.: Taylor (2003, pp. 6–8). This default expectation concerns a specific range of relative closeness: But the use of multiple occurrences of a single demonstrative expression as arguments of the identity predicate are exceptions. (Thanks to Christian Beyer for reminding me of this point).

  74. C.f.: Dever (1998, § This default expectation depends on a specific closeness constraint: It concerns occurrences that are relatively close to each other, but not too close to each other. If, for example, two occurrences of a single name are arguments of the very same predicate like in ‘Robert hates Robert’ or (5), then the default expectation is different. (Thanks to Peter Ridley for reminding me of this data).

  75. It seems to be more difficult to apply such an approach to salience-based indexical views. Because it might be questioned that it is meaningful to relativize the salience of a certain object to an occurrence of a proper name in a sentence.

  76. This conception is also compatible with so-called mid-sentence shifts of the context of use, but it is not committed to such shifts to account for the mentioned data.

  77. In this essay, I will leave the question open whether there are any good reasons to restrict the class of semantically correct empty uses of names to systematically empty uses.

  78. In the case of atomic sentences both uses produce either false or neither true nor false sentences.

  79. C.f.: Predelli (2012, p. 557).

  80. This is an example borrowed from Ziff (1977, p. 321). It was pointed out to me by Mark Textor.

  81. See Kripke (1977, p. 263; 1980, p. 25, Fn.3) for a famous example of an improper use of a name based on misidentification.

  82. C.f.: Saul (1997, p. 103) and Zimmermann (2005, p. 55–62).

  83. C.f.: Zimmermann (2005, pp. 56–59; 61).

  84. C.f.: Predelli (2013, pp. 133–137).

  85. It is important to notice that the situation is significantly different in the case of misidentification examples pointed out in Kripke (1977, p. 263; 1980, p. 25, Fn.3). In such cases there are two different relevant objects in play that might be conceived as referents of a proper name and only one of them can plausibly be conceived of as the semantic referent of a name.

  86. S is true relative to the context of use c iff [s]c, < cw, ct > = T. C.f.: Predelli (2013, pp. 7–8).

  87. C.f.: Predelli (2013, pp. 13–14, 187).

  88. C.f.: The same strategy is proposed for similar reasons concerning the analysis of bare-boned demonstratives in Predelli (2012, pp. 551–556; 2013, pp. 189–192).

  89. C.f.: Predelli (2013, p. 187)

  90. C.f.: Sainsbury (2005, pp. 64–75) and Rami (2013).

  91. An anonymous reviewer raised the question how the layer of contextual constraint relates to pragmatic presuppositions. In Hawthorne and Manley (2012, pp. 230–231), for example, an analysis of names is very briefly sketched that holds that a sentence like ‘Alfred is a nice guy’ pragmatically presupposes contents that can explicitly be expressed by ‘Alfred is a bearer of ‘Alfred’’ and ‘Alfred exists’. They distinguish a gap-happy version of their approach, where a presupposition failure induces a truth-value gap on the truth-conditional level, from a gap-hostile version, where a presupposition failure has no influence on the truth-conditional layer of meaning, and a mixture of both approaches. If we aim to translate our use-conditional approach into the terminology of presupposition theory, the result would be a mixed approach; because presupposition failures in the case of those presupposed contents that are expressible by sentences of the form ‘N is a bearer of ‘N’’ do not affect the truth-value of a sentence that triggers this presupposition; while in the case of presupposed contents that are expressible by sentences of the form ‘N exists’ do affect the truth-value of a sentence that triggers this presupposition. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether our use-conditional account is only a presuppositional account in disguise. According to the use-conditional account, people might be completely ignorant about the contents that are triggered by names according to the presuppositional account. They might not possess the concept of a bearer of a name and might nevertheless be in the position to use a name in a meaningful way if their uses objectively satisfies the requirements set by the contextual constraint. The outlined account does not set any requirements for shared contents (=common ground) between speaker and hearer to explain meaningful, felicitous and truth-apt uses of proper names.

  92. This second condition of (CC)(c) seems to distinguish the Leningrad-case from the Madagascar-case. But probably there is alternative and more systematic way to distinguish these two kinds of cases. I leave this question for future research.

  93. An anonymous reviewer objected to the proposed formulation of the contextual constraint of proper names that it seems extremely ad hoc and that it leaves one without much sense of theoretical unification and explanation. Granted, the disjunctive nature of (CC) is undeniable: Firstly, (CC) specifies three completely different mechanisms of reference determination. Secondly, it captures three different cases of proper referential uses of names by means of different sub-conditions. I think, I have argued for the corresponding distinctions in a convincing way. Maybe, both lists are still incomplete. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be a systematic way to provide a unification. Proper names aren’t instances of a natural kind, they are linguistic artefacts that are used for specific communicative purposes. The disjunctive nature of the contextual constraint only reflects the various purposes that names fulfil in natural language. In the light of the institutional nature of natural language it should not be a surprise that unification is not always possible. It is one of the Wittgensteinian lessons about natural language that we should not in general expect some kind of unification or deep explanation if we are interested in how natural languages work and how their expressive tools function. The only kind of unification in the case of names that seems to be possible is at the truth-conditional level. At this level names have a uniform behaviour and they resemble in this respect the truth-conditional behaviour of demonstratives and other indexicals that are rigid designators.


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I would like to thank the following people for helpful discussions and comments: Stephen Barker, Christian Beyer, Louis DeRosset, Stacie Friend, Daniel Gutzmann, Hans Kamp, Wilfried Keller, Ruth Kempson, Wilfried Meyer-Viol, Peter Ridley, Wolfgang Spohn, Peter Sutton, Mark Textor and Ede Zimmermann. I also profited from helpful and interesting comments of two anonymous reviewers. Very special thanks to Mark Textor, Peter Ridley and Christian Beyer for their help and support.

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Rami, D. The use-conditional indexical conception of proper names. Philos Stud 168, 119–150 (2014).

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