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Philosophy for the masses: the ‘sense’ of a proper name

A series of posts for those with a general interest in philosophy, designed to lay out some of the more esoteric issues philosophers have been squabbling about over the years and why they are vexed by them.

One of the many gifts that the German mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege bequeathed to modern philosophy was the distinction between the ‘sense’ and the ‘reference’ of a proper name. Indeed, one of the papers that stands out as paradigmatic of the modern analytical tradition in philosophy is Bertrand Russell’s 1905 paper On Denoting, which took issue with Frege’s treatment of the topic and arguably helped usher in the professionalization of discipline seen in the 20th Century (to mixed results, imho).

In that classic 1892 paper Über Sinn und Bedeutung (On Sense and Reference), Frege distinguished between the referent of a proper name (the object it is the name of) and the ‘sense’, which roughly speaking is the thought one has when one is thinking about the object. For Frege and others following him, there was also a relationship between the sense and the referent – but I am going to leave the question of the determination of reference for another, separate post.

Frege was arguing against a theory of names put forward by John Stuart Mill, which was that the meaning of a name is simply the referent – which has the upshot that two different names for the same object mean the same thing. However, Frege observed, this would mean that all identity statements would be trivial; i.e. that if the names ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ name the same object, then ‘Clark Kent is Superman’ means the same as ‘Clark Kent is Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman is Superman’. But this is not true – identity statements can be informative. They shouldn’t, on a correct theory of the meaning of a proper name, come out as tautologies.

So, pulling us in one direction for distinguishing between sense and reference is that identity statements (even if they ‘really are’ tautologies when we think about the reference of the names) don’t seem to be that way on their face. This then leads one to the conclusion that there is some other way of understanding a name on its face, as it were.

One prominent reading of Frege was that he identified the sense of a name with a definite description – for example, ‘Aristotle’ means ‘The teacher of Alexander the Great’. However, as a theory of sense, one of they key drawbacks of this is that then to say ‘Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great’ is in fact to say ‘The teacher of Alexander the Great was the teacher of Alexander the Great’ which is also a tautology. Indeed, if you identify the sense of the name as anything which can be also be said to be of an object (like a description, or indeed any property), then attributing that to the object will come out as a tautology.

This is the central reason why I believe the question of the sense of a proper name – the thought one is having when one uses the name – is so intractable and will prove to be so for years to come. If we deny that the meaning of a proper name is anything but the object, then we have the problem of identity statements being tautologies. However, if instead we think of a name as meaning the object (or a non-specific object) but having certain identifying properties, then attributing those properties to the object becomes a tautology.

Now, it has always seemed to me that the answer to this puzzle is going to have to either lie on the ‘descriptivist’ side – because I can’t even think what it would be to have a thought about a specific object without thinking about that specific object having certain properties… I mean, try thinking about your car or house but without them having the property of being a car or being a house – or in completely changing the way philosophers have treated subject-predicate sentences, like ‘John is bald’ (sorry, John).

It is actually quite amazing/distressing how far you can get in philosophy just by saying  relatively benign things, like “If ‘John is bald’ is true, then there must be an object (John) that has a property (being bald)”. My inner Wittgenstein* suspects that everything starts going wrong when we over-interpret that simple and seemingly innocuous observation, which then goes on to do a whole lot of metaphysical damage. In what I intend to be the next post in this series – the problem of universals – I hope to show how this can happen somewhat spectacularly**.

*And believe me if you thought having inner angels and demons is tough, try having an inner Wittgenstein as well

**Or at least, as spectacularly as anything happens in modern analytic philosophy

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