By Samantha Goh
In this essay, I aim to evaluate whether Kripke’s direct reference theory of proper names or Russell’s descriptivist theory of proper names offers a better analyses of the meanings of the sentences (A) “Sam is not dead” and (B) “I am not dead”, as spoken by Sam. I will first discuss Kripke’s theory and explain how it takes (A) and (B) to mean the same thing due to them having the same reference. I will then highlight an objection to Kripke’s theory, namely that (A) and (B) do not have the same meaning because the speaker can plausibly believe/know that (B) is true, without believing/knowing that (A) is true. And third, I will give my account for the different meanings of (A) and (B), by showing that it is not necessary for the terms “Sam” and “I” to have the same meaning even if they have the same referent. I will then explain why Russell’s descriptivist theory of proper names offers a better analysis of the meaning of (B) because it is able to show how (A) and (B) differ in meaning by showing how the terms “Sam” and “I” differ in meaning. Lastly, I will argue that Russell’s theory faces the problem of being unable to guarantee self-knowledge when using the indexical “I”, and propose a solution to this problem – namely, treating the term “I” as a logically proper name.
According to Kripke’s direct reference theory of proper names, sentences (A) and (B) have the same meaning, when spoken by Sam, as both sentences express the same proposition and thus have the same truth-value. Kripke takes the meaning of a sentence to be its reference, where the reference of a sentence is the truth-value of the proposition expressed by the sentence. Kripke believes that some expressions refer “directly” to the object, without being mediated by a sense or a definite description (Luco, 2016). When Sam says the sentence (A) “Sam is not dead”, the proper name “Sam” contributes only its referent to the meaning of the sentence. Since proper name “Sam” refers directly to the speaker Sam in the actual world, (A) expresses the proposition <Sam, the speaker in the actual world, is not dead>. With regards to sentence (B) “I am not dead”, as spoken by Sam, the word “I’ is an indexical because its reference varies with the context of utterance. For example, when Sam and Darren both say “I am not dead”, they make the same utterance but obviously mean different things – this is because the utterers, or the context of utterance, differs. The context of utterance is the extra-linguistic situation in which an expression is uttered/used by a speaker. Examples of indexicals include English words like “I”, “tomorrow”, “today”, “then”, and “now” (Luco, 2016). Although Kripke does not explicitly talk about indexicals, Kripke might say that proper names can reasonably be thought of as indexicals due to their similarities in the way they acquire their references. When Sam says “I am not dead”, the referent of “I” is determined by the object ‘pointed’ to at the starting point of the causal chain, and the causal chain that fixes the referent of the name begins with ostension. When you use the word “I”, it seems immediately obvious (in that context) that you are ‘pointing’ to yourself, even if the act of demonstration is not an actual gesture. In other words, if Sam actually exists, the speaker Sam is the one being referred to by “I” when she says that “I am not dead” – that is, the terms “Sam” and “I” have the same reference. Hence, when Sam says (B), it expresses the same proposition as (A), that <Sam, the speaker in the actual world, is not dead.>. As both (A) and (B) essentially express the same proposition, and since a sentence’s meaning is just the reference (i.e. truth-value) of the sentence, both (A) and (B) will have the same meaning for Kripke.
The main problem with Kripke’s theory is that he takes meaning to be just the reference of an expression – Kripke argues that “I” and “Sam” have the same referent and, thus, the same meaning. However, this seems wrong since Sam can know to be true but not . The only difference between (A) and (B) are the words “Sam” in (A) and “I” in (B). Hence, according to the Principle of Compositionality, the difference in meaning between (A) and (B) must be derived from the different meanings of “Sam” and “I”. The Principle of Compositionality states that the meaning of a sentence will depend on the meanings of their parts (i.e. of the words it comprises), and the particular way that the parts are arranged (Luco, 2016). Frege’s idea of “sense” captures this distinction between “Sam” and “I” clearly.. Frege argues that some expressions may have the same referent but still have different meanings; for example, “The Morning Star” and “The Evening Star” are two singular terms that have the same referent (the planet Venus) but different senses – hence, their cognitive values and meanings are different. The way that we acquire knowledge of “The Morning Star” is different from the way we acquire knowledge of “The Evening Star”; the way you would acquire knowledge that “The Morning Star is The Morning Star” is true is different from the way you would acquire knowledge that “The Morning Star is The Evening Star” is true. Frege uses the idea of cognitive value to argue that there are differences in the meanings or senses of co-referential expressions, which are two terms which refer to the same thing (Kemp, 2013, p.167). Similarly, Sam can know that “I am not dead” without knowing that “Sam is not dead” because the cognitive value of one sentence is different from the cognitive value of the other. Frege argues that, if any two sentences have different cognitive value, then they cannot have the same meaning. However, since Kripke takes meaning to just be reference, there is no space in his theory for the notion of Fregean sense. Kripke might respond to this by saying this is not a problem for him because his theory is just a theory of what “Sam” means and what “I” means – that is, Kripke might think that it is not necessary for him to prove that “Sam” and “I” have different meanings for his theory to hold. However, Kripke cannot simply just deny that two sentences can have the exact same meaning while having different truth values; two sentences cannot mean the same thing when one expresses a true proposition while the other expresses a false proposition, because the truth value of a proposition depends on the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, if we accept Kripke’s theory that the terms ‘I’ and ‘Sam’ have the same meaning due to their same referent, we cannot explain the difference in meaning between (A) “Sam is not dead” and (B) “I am not dead”, as spoken by Sam.
Compared to Kripke’s theory, Russell’s descriptivist theory of proper names might be able to offer a better analysis of the meanings of sentences (A) and (B), because Russell believes that ordinary proper names simply abbreviate definite descriptions. For Russell, the meaning of a proper name is the description associated with it by the speaker, and the reference of a proper name is whatever ‘satisfies’ that definite description (Luco, 2016). Therefore, Russell might say that (A) and (B) do not have the same meaning as both sentences express different propositions (which will hence lead to different truth-values). In order to analyse (A) and (B), Russell claims that we must first express them in terms of their definite descriptions. A definite description is a complex singular term that refers to exactly one object (Luco, 2016).
Definite description analysis of Sam saying: (A) “Sam is not dead”:
Sam says: there is exactly one unique person who is not dead AND she calls this unique person “Sam”.
Definite description analysis of Sam saying: (B) “I am not dead”:
Sam says: there is exactly one unique person who is speaking this sentence AND this unique person believes that she is not dead AND this unique person is not dead.
According to Russell’s semantics, it seems that (A) and (B) would have different meanings since they express different propositions, which stem from having differing definite descriptions. When spoken by Sam, (A) expresses the proposition , which will have the same meaning (truth-value) in every possible world where Sam exists. Let us suppose that Sam suffers from amnesia and thereby forgets her own name. When amnesiac Sam utters the sentence (A), Sam would still be referring to this unique person called “Sam” and believe that this person called “Sam” is not dead (even if Sam was unaware that she was actually referring to herself). However, when amnesiac Sam utters the sentence (B), she expresses .
One problem that Russell’s theory faces is that it does not guarantee self-knowledge when using the term “I”; it does not prove that the use of the definite description of “I” necessitates that Sam the speaker knows that she herself is speaking. I take self-knowledge to mean knowledge or awareness about one’s reflexive self-reference – that is, knowledge of the fact that you are referring to yourself when you are using the word “I”. When Sam uses the indexical “I”, Sam cannot be mistaken that she is actually referring to herself and must be aware that she is not referring to some other person. However, when Sam says (B), there is nothing to show Sam’s awareness that she is actually referring to her own self when uttering the sentence “I am not dead”. Hence, when Sam says (B), it is possible that Sam does not know who “I” refers to – this is a problem because whoever uses the word “I” needs to know who he/she is talking about. We can better understand this problem by looking at Kemp’s criticism of Russell: Kemp says that there do seem to be logically proper names, but Russell’s theory cannot explain this. A logically proper name must be a name such that one could not be mistaken as to which object is its bearer (Kemp, 2013, p.48). Logically proper names are singular terms that are genuine referring expressions (i.e. expressions that are directly referring without being mediated by description) (Kemp, 2013, p.47). One example of a logically proper name is the type of expression known as demonstratives, which are indexical expressions like ‘this’ or ‘that bird’ that require a demonstration to secure a referent (Kemp, 2013, p.168). The word “I” is a lot like a logically proper name, in that the speaker cannot be mistaken about the existence and identity of the speaker herself. When you use the word “I”, you are ‘pointing’ to yourself – although it is not by gesture, it is sort of obvious in the context. This is because the word “I” can only refer to the speaker who expresses it, and the speaker who expresses it must be existing when he or she expresses it – that is, we assume that non-existent things cannot talk in the actual world (Luco, 2016). This poses a problem for Russell because the word “I” would just be another singular term since it refers to one object in the world, and Russell believes that all singular terms are essentially just definite descriptions that only contain predicates. Russell does not think that “I” is a logically proper name because he is not sure that we can never be mistaken about the existence or identity of the self (Kemp, 2013, p.48). However, it seems to be the case that, if you cannot even know your own existence or identity, you cannot use the word “I”.
A possible solution for Russell’s problem is to incorporate the idea that the word “I” is a logically proper name into his theory. The right theory must, firstly, be able to explain how sentences (A) and (B) are different because it is not necessary that “Sam” and “I” have the same meaning, even if they have the same referent. Additionally, it must recognize that the use of “I” requires an element of self-knowledge. When Sam speaks (A), the word “Sam” in (A) just abbreviates a description, and this description allows for the possibility that Sam the speaker does not know or believe that “Sam is not dead”. In contrast, the speaker Sam cannot fail to believe or know that “I am not dead” because the “I” just immediately refers to who is speaking, and the speaker would know that. If it is true that the speaker Sam cannot be mistaken that she is actually referring to herself when she uses the term “I”, then “I” would qualify as a logically proper name. This is because anyone who uses the word “I” cannot be mistaken as to who it is that they are referring to and must know who it is that they are referring to. Moreover, when you use “I” as a logically proper name, you can only know that you refer to yourself through knowledge by acquaintance, which thereby guarantees self-knowledge. ‘Knowledge by Acquaintance’ is the direct, conceptually unmediated knowledge of objects and universals, while ‘Knowledge by Description’ is indirect, conceptually mediated knowledge (Kemp, p.173). Knowledge by acquaintance allows me to know (by acquaintance) that I refer to myself whenever I use “I”; every time I use “I”, I am acquainted with the referent of the word “I” and it somewhat immediately demonstrates to me the person who is speaking the word “I” right now. Therefore, by qualifying “I” as a logically proper name and gaining knowledge by acquaintance, we can guarantee self-knowledge (i.e. knowledge of who you are referring to) when we use the word “I”.
In conclusion, Russell’s descriptivist theory of proper names seems to offer a better analysis of the meaning of sentence (B) because it accounts for the difference in meanings between sentences (A) “Sam is not dead” and (B) “I am not dead”, as spoken by Sam. Kripke’s direct reference theory of proper names is too narrow in the sense that it only considers meaning to be just reference. This renders Kripke unable to explain why the terms “Sam” and “I” could mean different things, even though they have the same reference. This problem is highlighted by Frege, who argued that there is more to meaning than just the reference of an expression – namely, its sense. Although Russell also shares the view that meaning is just reference, his belief that singular terms and ordinary proper names abbreviate definite descriptions allows him to account for the difference in meaning between the terms “Sam” and “I”. However, Russell’s theory is not without limitations as it is unable to guarantee self-knowledge when using the term “I”. This seems perplexing as the use of the term “I” entails having an awareness of the fact that you are referring to yourself. We can resolve this problem by incorporating the idea that the word “I” is a logically proper name into Russell’s theory and by gaining this knowledge through acquaintance – these revisions of Russell’s theory will ultimately enable it to guarantee self-knowledge when the speaker uses the word “I”.
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