Names, Descriptions, and Assertion

  • Ray BuchananEmail author
Conference paper


According to Millian Descriptivism, while the semantic content of a linguistically simple proper name is just its referent, we often use sentences containing such expressions “to make assertions…that are, in part, descriptive” (Soames 2008). Against this view, I show, following Ted Sider and David Braun, that simple sentences containing names are never used to assert descriptively enriched propositions. In addition, I offer a diagnosis as to where the argument for Millian Descriptivism goes wrong. Once we appreciate the distinctive way in which this account fails, we can better appreciate the very modest role that associated descriptive information plays in the pragmatics of proper names.

According to the traditional descriptivist theory, the semantic content of a proper name is given by a definite description (or cluster of descriptive information) that speakers associate with it; the name referring to whoever, or whatever, uniquely satisfies that descriptive information. As against this view, Kripke famously argued that, (a) speakers do not typically, and need not ever, associate uniquely identifying descriptive information with the names with which they are competent and (b) even in that rare case in which a speaker does have uniquely identifying descriptive information in her possession, it still does not follow that her use of the name refers to the unique entity that satisfies that information. For these reasons, as well as equally familiar Kripkean considerations concerning the rigidity of names, few theorists these days are sympathetic to the traditional descriptivist account.

Kripke’s arguments gave rise to a widespread endorsement of Millianism—the view that the semantic contribution of a name is exhausted by its referent. But even if we agree with the Millian that the descriptive information associated with a name does not enter into the semantic content of an utterance containing it, this information might nevertheless play an essential role in the pragmatics of names. Indeed, in recent years, a number of theorists have argued in favor of a view we might call Millian Descriptivism—a view according to which proper names have a “Millian semantics,” but “a partially descriptive pragmatics of assertion” (Soames 2008, p 283). Moreover, these theorists have argued that their favored pragmatic theory of names helps to explain some of the most well-known problems with Millian accounts of proper names.

In what follows, I argue that Millian Descriptivism should be rejected. More specifically, I argue that the descriptive information we associate with a proper name no more enters into what we assert by our utterances involving it, than it does the literal, compositionally determined, semantic content thereof. As we will see, once we appreciate the distinctive way in which the Millian Descriptivist account fails, we can better appreciate the very modest role that associated descriptive information plays in the pragmatics of proper names.



I would like to thank the organizers and all of the participants of the 2013 Conference on Language and Action at the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica for extremely helpful feedback on a presentation of an earlier draft of this chapter. I would also like to thank Hsiang-Yun Chen, Josh Dever, Sinan Dogramaci, Matt Evans, Hans Kamp, Bryan Pickel, Gary Ostertag, and David Sosa for discussion of issues in the theory of reference relating directly to this material. I owe a very special thanks to Gary for comments on an earlier draft that significantly improved the final chapter. All of the normal qualifications and disclaimers are in order.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

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