sexta-feira, 29 de janeiro de 2016




Information about myself:
I am full professor at the UFRN (Brazil) and researcher for the CNPq. I made my PhD in Germany and post-doctoral sabbaticals of one year in München (with Friedo Ricken), Konstanz (with Wolfgang Spohn), Oxford (with Richard Swinburne), Berkeley (with John Searle). I Published some papers in international journals. But I will do it no more. I feel myself an outsider with no desire to be integrated in the mainstream philosophy, since I believe that at least regarding some central issues it has lost its abrangence and, under the the pressures of scientism, cristalized itself into scolastic disputes.

Minha poesia é tão hipermoderna que só daqui a cem anos, quando a espécie humana se alçar ao nível ômega, ela será capaz de compreendê-la!  Quanto à minha filosofia, essa então nem se fala. Essa vai até o osso. Sua força é como a da explosão de uma supernova. Ela é tão profunda, tão profunda mesmo, que espécimes do gênero humano, especialmente aqueles por muitos anos adestrados na miopia do academicismo cientificista da pigmeica filosofia contemporânea não conseguirão enxergar dela mais do que traços embaçados.
Por isso, ao temerário que pretender imergir em sua profundidade abissal eu previno: muito dificilmente conseguirá retornar outra vez à superfície sem explodir por efeito da despressurização. Pois a distância entre a minha filosofia galáctica e quase toda a minúscula filosofia de nossa época é tão grande que não se mede em quilômetros, nem em léguas, nem em milhas... mas em anos-luz! Por isso resolvi denominá-la "filosofia clássica pós-analítica e anti-contemporânea."


Advanced draft for the book on PHILOSOPHICAL SEMANTICS

Appendix to chapter 1

How do Proper Names Really Work?

 (Cutting the Gordian Knot)

As Wittgenstein once said, our aim in teaching philosophy should not be to give people the food they enjoy, but rather offer them new and different food in order to improve their tastes. This is my intention here. Personally, I am strongly convinced that I have a better explanation for the mechanisms of reference that characterize proper names; but to convince others seem to be the really difficult task. This difficulty is greater because I am swimming against the mainstream – in this case, the externalist-causalist-anti-cognitivist view regarding the reference of proper names.

   There is a further reason why the neodescriptivist theory of proper names that I intend to summarize here is particularly hard to accept. It is because the question of how proper names refer has always been the touchstone for theories of reference. More than forty years ago, when Saul Kripke, Keith Donnellan and others rejected descriptivism for proper names, they opened the way for externalist, causalist and potentially non-cognitivist views, at least concerning the reference of indexicals and general terms. Now, if I reach my goal, which is to re-establish pure descriptivism regarding proper names, the doors will be open to re-establishing descriptivist-internalist-cognitivist views regarding other terms and language in general. This means that we will once more have to change the whole topography of our philosophy of language. However, since the new orthodoxy is already well-entrenched – it has led a good life for the past forty years – and a myriad of good and bad arguments have been developed in its favor, the challenge is naturally huge. If I limited myself just to answering the most relevant arguments, I would still need to write an entire book to make a persuasive case for a descriptivist approach to proper names. But if I consider the potential disorder that pure neo-descriptivism may produce in all these ‘well-established’ views about reference, a thousand-page book answering all the relevant arguments and trying to restate the descriptivist-internalist-cognitivist perspective would still not be considered sufficient. Keeping this warning in mind and trusting in the reader’s discernment, in what follows I offer a short summary of my own view on proper names.[1]

A meta-descriptive rule for proper names

According to descriptivism proper names are abbreviations of definite descriptions. And according to the most explicit formulation of descriptivism for proper names – the cluster theory as presented in the works of John Searle – a proper name abbreviates a cluster of descriptions. The different senses we can give to a proper name we are using result from our having in mind some never previously determined sub-cluster of a whole cluster of co-referential descriptions.[2] Thus, as Frege already saw, I can mean ‘the greatest disciple of Plato and the tutor of Alexander’ with the name ‘Aristotle’, while you can mean by it ‘the tutor of Alexander who was born in Stagira’; moreover, we will both know that we are referring to the same person, since we share at least one description.

   In my view, the problem with this formulation of the cluster theory is not that it is wrong, but that it has limited explanatory power. The most serious problem is that the descriptions belonging to the clusters remain completely disordered. How important this is becomes apparent when we remember that the descriptions belonging to these clusters are what Wittgenstein called ‘expressions of rules’: description-rules that should in some way aid us to identify the bearer of a proper name. The problem with cluster theory is that it gives us no method to decide which description-rules belonging to a cluster have more relevance for the identification of a name’s bearer. So I think that it is a handicap of the traditional formulations of cluster theory that they do not adequately account for this.

   This said, my working-hypothesis was that speakers of our language implicitly appeal to some kind of meta-descriptive rule. This tells us the conditions necessary for the relevant descriptions belonging to the proper name’s clusters to be satisfied so that we can apply the corresponding proper name. I intend to show that this addition is possible and that it greatly enhance the cluster theory of proper names.

   The first thing to do is to find the relevant descriptions. My proposal is inspired by J. L. Austin’s method of quasi-lexicographic examination of ordinary language, which I here understand as an examination of what encyclopaedias have to tell us about the proper names figuring in them. The result is that we can clearly distinguish two kinds of description-rules that help us to identify the bearer of a proper name, which I call the auxiliary and the fundamental descriptions.

   I begin by examining auxiliary descriptions. They can be defined as those that are only accidentaly associated with a proper name. Regarding the name ‘Aristotle’, they can be exemplified by: ‘the master of those who know’ (as a metaphorical description used by Dante); ‘the greatest disciple of Plato’, ‘the teacher of Alexander’, ‘the founder of the Lyceum’ and ‘the man called “Aristotle”’ (as accidental, but well-known descriptions); ‘the lover of Herphyllis’ and ‘the grandson of Achaeon’ (as accidental and relatively unknown descriptions); ‘the philosopher mentioned by the professor in the last class’ (as a contextually dependent, adventitious description).

   Some of these auxiliary descriptions were often mentioned as examples by the old descriptivists. But this is misleading, since they can be of negligible semantic relevance. An indication of this secondary role is given by encyclopaedias. They typically begin by presenting what I call fundamental descriptions: those non-accidental descriptions that usually tell us the ‘when’, the ‘where’ and the ‘why’ of the bearers of proper names. We can define the fundamental descriptions as being of the two following types:

(A) Localizing description-rule: the description that localizes an object in space and time, identifying its spatio-temporal career.

(B) Characterizing description-rule: the description that indicates what we regard as the most important aspects of the object, showing the reasons we have for applying the proper name to it.

   Indeed, encyclopaedias usually give us first the spatio-temporal location and then the main reason why we use a proper name; only later do they give a more detailed exposition in which auxiliary descriptions can be found. Having found what seem to be the two most fundamental kinds of description-rules, and after considering different alternatives, I came to the following meta-descriptive rule for establishing the conditions of application of any proper name:

MD-rule for the application of proper names:

In any possible world in which a proper name ‘N’ has a bearer, this bearer must belong to some most proximally relevant class C, so that it sufficiently and more than any other object satisfies the conditions set by its localizing description-rules and/or its characterizing descrition-rules. (Auxiliary des­crip­tions may be added to this).

   I will illustrate my suggestion with the name ‘Aristotle’. The most proximally relevant class C to which Aristotle belongs is that of a human being (he cannot be a stone or a computer, and C serves to narrow the number of referents to consider). The condition of type (A) for Aristotle can be summarized in the definite description ‘the person born in Stagira in 384 BC, who lived the most productive part of his life in Athens, visited Lesbos and died in Chalcis in 322 BC…’ The condition of type (B) for Aristotle can be summarized in the definite description ‘the philosopher who developed the great ideas belonging to the Aristotelian opus…’[3] (That these conditions are the most basic is supported by any reliable encyclopaedia). Thus, by applying the meta-descriptive rule to the cluster of descriptions summarized under the name ‘Aristotle’ we finally get what we may call its proper rule of identification. (We can also call the MD-rule simply the form that each identification rule for a proper name must take in order to have a referential function). Consider this:

RI-Aristotle: In any possible world where there is a bearer of the name ‘Aristotle’[4], this bearer is the human being who sufficiently and more than any other person satisfies the conditions of having been born in Stagira in 384 BC, lived the main part of his life in Athens and died in Chalcis in 322 BC and/or been the philosopher who developed the great ideas of the Aristotelian opus. (With the possible addition of auxiliary descriptions...)

   The same can be done with the clusters of descriptions associated with the most varied proper names, such as ‘Paris’, ‘Tower of Pisa’, ‘Amazon River’, ‘Uranus’, ‘Sweden,’ and, of course, also with the many proper names of unknown people, although in the last case in a more dispersive way.

   The application of the meta-descriptive rule to the name ‘Aristotle’ in order to obtain its identification rule allows us to answer Kripke’s modal objection, according to which descriptivism is false, since no description is warranted to apply to the existing bearer of a proper name. As he states, there could be possible worlds where Aristotle lived 500 years later or where he died as a child, never writing anything about philosophy.[5] However, these possibilities are no threat to the rule stated above, since this rule is based on an inclusive disjunction. Aristotle could have lived 500 years later in Rome, as far as he sufficiently satisfied the characterizing description related to his work, for example, writing the whole Aristotelian opus. And he could have died as child insofar as he sufficiently satisfied the localizing description, for example having been born in Stagira in 384 B.C. as the son of the court physician.

   Since our identification rule for Aristotle demands only sufficient satis­faction of an inclusive disjunction of the two fundamental descriptions (which does not establish any precise amount of anything), the two above considered possibilities are easily conceivable as satisfying the rule of identification.

   Indeed, there are even proper names designed to satisfy only one description-rule of the disjunction, like the names ‘universe’ (understood as all that exists) and ‘Z’ (understood as the name of the center of a circle), or to satisfy one term of the disjunction more than the other, as in the case of a numbered planet of the solar system. The only inconceivable alternative is that neither the localizing nor the characterizing description-rule is to any degree satisfied. Such a case was playfully conceived by John Searle in the following example:

If a classical scholar claimed to have discovered that Aristotle was no philosopher and wrote none of the works attributed to him, but was in fact an obscure Venetian fishmonger of the late Renaissance, then the ‘discovery’ would become a bad joke.[6]


   Certainly, no sane person would agree with Searle’s classical scholar. Such an illiterate man could not be our Aristotle. And the obvious reason is that the fishmonger does not satisfy in any acceptable degree the two fundamental descriptions.

   Two important elements of the MD-rule for proper names need some clarification. They are what we could call the conditions of sufficience and predominance.

   Consider first the condition of sufficience. We can imagine a possible world where Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira… but died when he was seventeen, because his ship sink while he was crossing the Aegean on the way to study with Plato in Athens; he may have been an unfulfilled Aristotle, but we feel that even so he was still our Aristotle! The reason is that the identification rule is satisfied, insofar as the localizing condition is at least sufficiently satisfied, the fact being irrelevant that the other term of the disjunction isn’t satisfied at all. The opposite case would be that of a possible world where the only Aristotle were born 500 years later in Rome and wrote only the Metaphysics and the Nicomachean Ethics: we would still tend to identify him as our Aristotle.

   The second condition, predominance, shows its purpose when we imagine that in Stagira Nicomachus, the court physician, in 384 B.C. fathered two twin sons, both baptized with the same name: ‘Aristotle.’ The first Aristotle went to Athens when he was seventeen in order to study philosophy with Plato, and he wrote the entire Aristotelian opus. The second Aristotle had a less happy fate... He became a physician like his father and accompanied Alexander on his military campaigns, succumbing from hunger and thirst in the desert while they were returning from the East. Who would be our Aristotle? Of course, the first one. And the reason is that more than the second Aristotle he satisfies the fundamental conditions of the identification rule for Aristotle. The condition of predominance excludes the possibility that more than one referent satisfies the identification rule. If there is more than one referent that satisfies the identification rule to the same degree, even if in differently ways, our criterial device for the application of a proper name will break down. So, for example, if in a possible world there is a human being with two heads who was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira… both having inevitably a similar life and career and both having written the whole Aristotelian opus together, it would be senseless to ask who is our Aristotle, since proper names by definition apply to only one bearer.

   I can already show the advantage of the condition of predominance, explaining why it is intuitive for us that a Twin-Earth Aristotle (who is qualitatively identical to our Aristotle) is not the ‘true’ Aristotle in a way that works better than Searle’s attempt.[7] The reason for this intuition is that our earth’s Aristotle better satisfies the condition of predominance. Although both satisfy the characterizing description-rule (both wrote the Opus Aristotelicum), because the spatial surroundings are similar, the Twin-Earth Aristotle also appears to satisfy the localizing rule. But beyond this, only the earth-Aristotle really satisfies the localizing description-rule, since he lived in the Greece of our earth, and not in the far distant Twin-Earth Greece. Because both earths belong to one and the same space, the localizing description-rule refers to a spatial location on the first earth and not to its copy on the Twin-Earth, notwithstanding the similar local surroundings.

   Finally, the trivial significance of the auxiliary descriptions comes to the fore when we consider that someone can satisfy them who does not satisfy the fundamental conditions, e.g., the millionaire Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis (1906-1975). He could not be our Aristotle, even supposing that he satisfied auxiliary descriptions like ‘the man called “Aristotle”’, ‘the tutor of Alexander’ and ‘the lover of Herphylis’. And the reason is that although he is a man called ‘Aristotle’, this Aristotle could not be the greatest philosopher of the ancient Greece; even if he taught his son Alexander (who really had this name), this Alexander could not be the greatest conqueror of Antiquity; and even if he had a mistress called Herphylis (he had many love affairs), she would not be a concubine from ancient Stagira. It does not matter how many auxiliary conditions this proper name satisfies, they will never suffice. We see them as irrelevant coincidences, showing that auxiliary descriptions can only be helpful when the fundamental descriptions are already applicable.

Objection of vagueness

At this point one could object that the identification rules derived from the MD-rule (or instantiating it) are too vague, particularly because they do not establish precisely how much of the inclusive disjunction must be satisfied in order to be sufficient, and because it is not precisely established how much more a possible competitor must satisfy the disjunction so that the identification rule can be applied with certainty.

   In order to answer this question we need to begin by remembering that vagueness does not mean (as is shown e.g. by the sorites paradox) the disappearance of boundaries. After all, it is quite easy to conceive of a possible world where we cannot quite know whether or not our Aristotle ever existed. This would be the case, for example, in a possible world where Aristotelian philosophy was never developed, and in Stagira a court physician named Nicomachus in 384 BC fathered an anencephalic fetus who died soon after birth, a child he had planned to call ‘Aristotle’... Would he be our Aristotle? We cannot tell.

   Having this in mind, the answer to the objection is easy. Our natural language is vague; if the semantic rules we discover could be truly applicable in empirically possible worlds, they must leave room for vagueness. And this is precisely what our identification rules do. Thus, far from being a deficiency, the vagueness of our identification rules is a merit. It is an evidence of their correctness, since all that their vagueness does is to mirror the semantic vagueness of our natural language, as the example of the anencephalic Aristotle shows, in which the condition of sufficiency breaks down because of its unavoidable vagueness.

   Saul Kripke correctly classified proper names as rigid designators, defined as applicable in any possible world where the bearer of the proper names exists. This is an insightful idea. But since in possible worlds there are cases in which we cannot know whether the bearer of a proper name exists, we must redefine the rigid designator as the term that applies in any possible world where its reference definitely (unambiguously) exists. So understood, the identification rule again makes the proper name a rigid designator – a point to which we will return later.


The proposed neodescriptivist theory of proper names allows us to gain a better understand of the meaning of proper names. Abstracting for now what can be meant by individual speakers when they use a name, we can say that the core meaning (sense) of a proper name is given by its fundamental description-rules, since jointly with the whole identification rule they are able to singularize the meaning of the name by identifying its sole bearer. These fundamental descriptions must be conventions sufficiently known, at least by what we may call privileged speakers (in many cases ‘specialists’), understood as those able to apply them. So, if you know that Aristotle was ‘the philosopher who wrote the Metaphysics’ and that he was ‘the person born in Stagira in 384 B.C. and who lived most of his life in Athens’, you already have some decisive informational meaning.

   Now, what about auxiliary descriptions? They are still able to give an aura of meaning to a name, which sometimes becomes visible, as in the case of ‘Plato’s greatest disciple’. Nonetheless, someone who only knows some complementary description conventionally associated with a proper name, like ‘Alexander’s teacher’ in association with ‘Aristotle’, whom he saw in a movie about the life of Alexander, does not really know anything relevant about the meaning of the name Aristotle. This is so, even if he knows something meaningful about him and can with help of this already manage to insert the name correctly in some vague discourse, making what I would call a parasitical kind of reference. Auxiliary descriptions have an auxiliary role of pointing to, of guiding the speaker, within a linguistic community, to the fundamental descriptions and in this way to identifying the bearer.

   Finally, one should not here confuse cognitive with emotive meaning. The cluster of descriptions associated with a proper name, particularly regarding the fundamental descriptions, gives its informative or cognitive content – what Frege called its sense (Sinn) – which has a conventional ground that is in some way implicitly or explicitly established as something able to be shared between speakers. But there are also things like memory-images, feelings, smells, which can be associated with a proper name (for example ‘the Pietà’, ‘Christ’, ‘Stalin’, ‘Majdanek’) but cannot be easily rescued by descriptions. I would say that they belong to the emotive dimension of meaning, which would be based on the often shared regularities of our psychological reactions instead of our implicitly established conventions. Frege called them illuminations (Beleuchtungen). I presume that the disseminated idea that not all our cognitive meaning can be linguistically translated in the form of descriptions originated in a failure to distinguish emotive from conventional meaning. By having conventional grounds, cognitive meaning is conventional and consequently always able to be expressed by descriptive means.

Ignorance and error

Possessing this general explanation of the meaning of proper names, we are prepared to give an answer to Kripke’s counterexamples of ignorance and error. They concern people who associate an indefinite description with a proper name, such as ‘a physicist or so’ with the name ‘Feynman’, and people who associate erroneous descriptions with a proper name, such as ‘the inventor of the atom bomb’ with the name ‘Einstein’ and ‘the creator of Peano’s axioms’ with the name ‘Peano’ (in fact these axioms were first discovered by Dedekind and then refined by Peano).[8]

   My answer is that the speaker is able to endow proper names like these with a merely parasitical referential role. For this it suffices to know a very marginal and insufficient description, insofar as one is confident that through its privileged users the linguistic community possesses the necessary knowledge of the fundamental description-rules to really apply the identification rule. This means that the speaker who knows such descriptions is already able to insert the word into discourse in a way that he expects can associate the name with its bearer somewhere in the communication network. Important for the work of this parasitical way of reference is that the description known by the speaker enables him to insert the proper name in an understandable way into sufficiently vague discursive contexts. This is the case of the Kripkian counterexamples presented above. One can correctly insert names associating them with indefinite or even erroneous descriptions into some discourse, insofar as at least the following two conditions are satisfied:

(a)  The description known by the speaker is convergent, that is, it is a description that at least in a sufficiently precise way correctly classifies the owner of the name (class C of the MD-rule).

(b) The speaker implicitly knows the MD-rule of proper names – this means that he must at least be aware that he does not know more than a bit of the meaning, which will make him careful enough when inserting the name in the discourse (he knows how little he knows).

   To give an easy example: I know almost nothing of the cognitive meaning of the abstract name ‘string theory’, since I am no physicist. But I know how little I know, and because of this I could even fool my students by giving some vague information about superstrings as incredibly small dancing filaments of energy producing all the matter and forces of the universe by means of the different frequencies of their vibrations… The ordinary context allows this, although in fact I am far away from understanding the mathematical details that are at the centre of this theory. This is why in a really demanding context, for example, in a discussion between physicists, I would not be able to say a word. Furthermore, without these privileged speakers and their adequate knowledge of meaning, my insertion of the word ‘string theory’ into the discourse would be vacuous, because no parasitical reference would not be able to exist.

   Consider now Kripke’s counterexamples. A person can insert the name ‘Feynman’ in sufficiently vague discourses, as far as her use is convergent – Feynman is correctly classified as ‘a physicist or so’ and therefore as a human being – insofar as she is implicitly aware of the MD-rule. A person can also use the names ‘Einstein’ and ‘Peano’ correctly in vague discursive contexts, maybe expecting to receive more information or even correction, as far as she satisfies conditions (a) and (b), correctly classifying Einstein as a researcher and Peano as a mathematician and both as human beings.

   On the other hand, when proper names are associated with divergent descriptions, being therefore incorrectly classified, the referential thread is apt to be lost. Thus, if speakers associate the name ‘Feynman’ with the divergent description ‘a brand of perfume’, the name ‘Einstein’ with the divergent description ‘a precious stone’, and with the name ‘Peano’ the divergent description ‘a musical instrument’, they will probably not be able to correctly insert these names into any discursive context, vague as it may be. We will not say that in using the name they are able to refer to its bearer, even in a parasitical way.

   Curiously enough, the same applies to general terms. If a fisherman means by a whale a great marine fish, this is incorrect, as the whale is a mammal, but convergent, since he classifies the whale correctly as a sea animal, which already enables him to insert the word in a colloquial discourse. But if a child believes that whale is the name of some mountain in the Appalachians, this is incorrect and divergent, making it unable to adequately insert the word into a discourse.


The most decisive point against Kripke’s view is that our neodescriptivist theory explains in a non-mysterious way why proper names are rigid designators, while definite descriptions are non-rigid designators.

   For us proper names are rigid designators, because their identification rules apply in any possible world where the proper name’s bearer exists. This is the real reason why they satisfy Kripke’s condition, according to which ‘a’ is a rigid designator if and only if it is false that some ‘a’ might not have been ‘a’. Indeed, it is impossible that the bearer of a name like Aristotle does not satisfy the identification rule for Aristotle. This is so because such a rule is what establishes all the possible combinations of singularized properties that a referent must have in order to be the only bearer of its proper name.

   To clarify this point we can express the proper name’s identification rule by means of a definitional identity sentence able to identify the bearer of the proper name through a complex associated definite description. For example:

‘Aristotle’ (Df) = the name that in any possible world in which it has a bearer applies to a human being who satisfies sufficiently and more than any other competitor the condition that he was born in Stagira in 384 B.C… dying in Chalcis in 322 B.C. and/or was the author of the main ideas of the Aristotelian opus…

This expression of the identification rule for Aristotle is an analytically necessary a priori statement, containing the complex definite description ‘the name that applies to someone who…’, which not only defines what is meant with the name but is also a rigid designator.

   The upshot is that, unlike the old descriptivism, the meta-descriptivist view does not risk destroying the rigidity of proper names; on the contrary, it explains their rigidity descriptively, since it explains under what conditions a possible world is home to the bearer of a name, so that if it satisfies such conditions, the name necessarily applies to it. The reference occurs by means of singularized properties that satisfy, we could say, criterial configurations generated by the rule – configurations that are seen as sufficient for its application. But these singularized properties and respective criterial configurations can change in multiple and varied ways, exempting essential properties understood as necessary and sufficient ones.

Names versus descriptions

Our approach also explains the contrast between the rigidity of proper names and the accidentality/flaccidity of definite descriptions. According to Kripke, differently from proper names, definite descriptions can have different bearers in different possible worlds. So, while the name Benjamin Franklin always refers to the same person in any possible world in which this person exists, the description ‘the inventor of bifocals’, which refers to him in our world, could refer to another person or even to no person in a different possible world. For Kripke this can only show that the ways reference is satisfied in names and descriptions are in some mysterious way essentially different.

   For me the forgotten relevant point to be noted is that definite descriptions are accidental only in their relationship with proper names. We can show the consequences of this first intuitively and then using Wittgenstein’s distinction between symptoms and criteria.

   Intuitively, the reason why most definite descriptions are accidental designators (such as ‘the inventor of bifocals’) is that when we apply them we associate them semantically in a contingent way with the identification rule of some proper name (such as ‘Benjamin Franklin’). Indeed, this association isn’t established by identification rules (and by our MD-rule) as necessary. Consequently, we can easily imagine possible worlds in which there is a mismatch between the objects possibly referred to by proper names and the objects possibly referred to by their attached definite descriptions, particularly when these descriptions are merely auxiliary ones (for example, in a world where someone named Habib invented bifocals and Benjamin Franklin didn’t exist).

   We can elaborate this explanation of the distinction between the rigidity of proper names and the accidental character of descriptions with the help of Wittgenstein’s distinction between symptoms and criteria. According to this distinction, a criterion, once accepted as given, warrants the application of a word, while a symptom, once accepted as given, makes this application only more or less probable. In their association with proper names, definite descriptions typically give us only symptoms for their application, even when they are not only auxiliary but fundamental. This explains why these descriptions are not applicable in all possible worlds where the bearer of a proper name exists. By contrast, what the complex definite description expressing the rule of identification of a proper name is able to generate in a multiplicity of ways are criteria like those that I have several times exemplified for the identification of our Aristotle in different possible worlds. One can say that in different possible worlds the bearer of a proper name can satisfy the same identification rule in different ways, by means of many different possible criterial configurations.

   There is a way to prove that my reasoning is correct, explaining a phenomenon that the causal-historical view is unable to explain. All that must be done is to find definite descriptions that are not semantically associated with any proper name. For in this case they will be expected to behave as rigid designators, applying to only one object in any possible world where this object exists. I will call then autonomous definite descriptions. Three of them are the following:

(1)   the 52nd Regiment of Fot,

(2)   the last Neanderthal man to die,

(3)   the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.

  They name respectively a social institution, a human being, and an event. Important is that they are all easily recognized as rigid designators. We can imagine possible worlds where the 52nd Regiment of Fot had a different organization and time of existence, where the last Neanderthal man to die survived the whole human race, where the Archduke was strangled by a group of insurgents instead of being shot by Gavrilo Princip. Even so, these descriptions, if applicable, will always be applicable to the same bearer. These definite descriptions are rigid designators, because the identification rules at least partially made explicit by them (with their localizing and/or characterizing description-rules[9]) and always able to pick out the same referent, without the danger of mismatching with referents picked out by the identification rules of corresponding proper names. The Kripkean view has no explanation for this phenomenon, except the ad hoc claim that all these descriptions are disguised proper names.

Autonomous definite descriptions

Finally, it is worth noting that the same MD-rule that we apply to the clusters of proper names should be valid for autonomous definite descriptions, as far as they are seen as rigid designators and singular terms independent of proper names. The difference is that usually not just part of the rule belongs to its explicit content (as a ‘connotation’), but also that these rules are often less complex. I can give as an example the identification rule for the ‘the 52nd Regiment of Fot’. It has the following (summarized) localizing rule:

 The 52nd Regiment of Fot existed from 1757 to 1881, having seen active service, particularly during the American War of Independence, in the Anglo-Mysore wars in India, and in the Napoleonic Wars.

 And the identification rule of the 52nd Regiment of Fot has the following (summarized) characterizing rule:

It was a highly regarded regiment whose troops were drawn chiefly from Oxfordshire, forming one or two battalions of light infantry, each comprising approximately 1,000 men.

   Of course the descriptions need to be only sufficient and predominantly satisfied in any possible world where ‘the 52nd Regiment of Fot’ exists. Auxiliary descriptions are also present, for example ‘the regiment that was never surpassed in arms since arms were first borne by men’. Similar would be the case of other free definite descriptions.

   On the other hand, definite descriptions like ‘the inventor of bifocals’, ‘the Alexander’s tutor’, ‘the founder of the Lyceum’… associated with proper names are seen in the real world as only auxiliary descriptions to be considered because of their ‘connotations’ as a poor complement to the identification rule of the associated proper names.

Modal objections

In my view, that the meta-descriptivist rule must be applied to the cluster of descriptions associated with any given proper name in order to build their proper identification rule is a powerful idea, able not only to surpass the causal-historical sketch but also to rehabilitate descriptivism and to give a more satisfactory answer to the objections against it. This is shown by its capacity to answer Kripke’s modal objections, according to which descriptivism is condemned since any description or group of descriptions can fail to refer, while proper names as rigid designators never fail to refer. For discussion here I choose three modal counterexamples.

   The first is Kripke’s memorable Gödel counterexample.[10] Suppose that Mary knows nothing about Kurt Gödel, except the description ‘the discoverer of the incompleteness theorem.’ Then suppose that in the Vienna of the thirties an unknown Viennese logician named Schmidt wrote the first paper to describe the incompleteness theorem, but died soon afterwards. Subsequently, his friend Gödel stole his manuscript and published it under his own name. According to Kripke, if the descriptivist theory is correct, Mary should conclude that ‘Gödel’ means the same as ‘Schmidt’, but it is obvious that Gödel remains in fact Gödel! And the reason, following Kripke, is that the reference is fixed by the baptism of the baby Gödel, followed by a causal-historical chain in which each hearer repeats the name with the intention to refer to the same person referred to by the speaker from whom he has heard it, until the outcome of Mary’s utterance…[11]

   However, this objection poses a threat only to Kripke’s own caricatured formulation of descriptivism. Our characterizing description of the name ‘Kurt Gödel’ can be summarized as:

a great logician who made some major contributions to logic, particularly the incompleteness theorem.

 This is already more than what Mary knows, since this description also points to Gödel’s other contributions to logic. Moreover, Kripke does not even consider the localizing description, which is:

the person born in Brünn in 1906, who studied in Vienna, emigrated to the USA in 1940 via the trans-Siberian railway, and worked at Princeton University until his death in 1978.

   As a competent speaker of the English language, Mary must unconsciously know the MD-rule; she must be tacitly aware that in order to conclude that Gödel was Schmidt, she would have to know much more than just attribute the discovery of the incompleteness theorem to Schmidt. Consequently, she refrains from concluding that Gödel is Schmidt. Moreover, Gödel cannot be Schmidt, since Gödel continues to satisfy the whole localizing rule and at least part of the characterizing rule. Nevertheless, we can perceive that something from the meaning of the name ‘Gödel’ was really transferred to the name ‘Schmidt’, which is made clear when we hear a mathematician scandalized by this finding, who hyperbolically claims: ‘No! The true Gödel was Schmidt!’

Furthermore, there are ways in which Gödel really could be Schmidt. Suppose that for some reason Schmidt murdered Gödel when he was a teenager and then assumed his identity. Then Schmidt studied mathematics in Vienna, conceived the incompleteness theorem, married Adele, emigrated to the USA in 1940 and worked at Princeton University until his death in 1978. In this case, we would all agree that Gödel was in fact Schmidt, the unscrupulous murder. But for what reason? Our answer is clear: because Schmidt now sufficiently satisfies the fundamental descriptions for the name ‘Gödel’, doing this much more than the unfortunate teenager whose name he stole. For Kripke, however, it seems that we should continue to refer with the name ‘Gödel’ to the person who was baptized with this name at the beginning of the causal-historical chain, namely, the true Gödel, and not Schmidt, independently of the fact that he does not sufficiently satisfy the main descriptions. But this runs counter to our intuitions. As you see, a counterexample can also rebel against its own creator.

   Consider now the case of semi-fictional names like Robin Hood. If these names are really semi-fictional, it seems that they must be associated with some descriptive content really applicable to the object along with the merely imagined descriptive content later added, although we are unable to definitely distinguish one from the other. – If they didn’t have any reality content that we suspected to be applicable, they would be called ‘purely fictional names.’ Our situation with these names is that of uncertain, insufficient knowledge.

   According to Kripke the story is different. It doesn’t matter whether a semi-fictional name has any trace of true descriptive content in it. Important is that the name met Kripke’s own causal-historical requirement of being at the end of an external causal-historical chain linking it with the baptism of its reference. Hence, independently of any bundle of descriptions known by us, the reference of the semi-fictional name remains warranted.

   Our answer is intuitively more balanced. As descriptivists, we would admit that a semi-fictional name can in fact be purely fictional.[12] We only guess that the name has a reference, since something of its content suggests that it is derived from a real person. However, this issue isn’t necessarily unsolvable. Suppose that someone discovers documents about a person named Robart Hude, who was an outlaw who championed the weak against the powerful and who lived in forests near Nottingham at the beginning of the 13th century, showing how his biography has given rise to the legend of Robin Hood. With this in mind, we will gain enough descriptions to implement both the correct localizing description – early 13th Century, near Nottingham – and the correct characterizing description – the outlaw who took from the rich and gave to the poor, originating the legend of Robin Hood. This would give us an improved descriptivist confirmation of the origins of Robin Hood as a real semi-fictional character, while the causal-historical ‘explanation’ would not be able to change anything.

   We can also find cases that leave the Kripkian explanation wanting. Imagine that someone discovers that in fact there was someone who inspired the first medieval writer who wrote the legend of Robin Hood, but that it was someone to whom none of the descriptions apply, namely, a loyal hound named Robin, who accompanied the bard on hunting trips in Sherwood Forest. Inspired by the nobility of his dog, always prepared to act loyally, the bard invented the story of Robin Hood. In this case it seems that a Kripkian should conclude that Robin Hood is the dog’s name, appealing to the historical chain beginning with the act of baptism of the puppy and the common intention of hearers to refer to the object first referred to by the bard using the name. But this would be senseless. On the other hand, our MD-Rule allows us to explain the case more clearly. This rule would show that in this case Robin Hood is discovered to be a purely fictional character, having nothing to do with the dog, since according to the identification rule the bearer of the name ‘Robin Hood’ should at least belong to the class C of human beings.

   To conclude, I want to briefly analyze an instructive counterexample proposed by Keith Donnellan.[13] Suppose, as he writes, that someone finds out that Thales was actually no philosopher, but a wise well-digger of Millet, tired of his profession, who once said ‘I wish all where water so I wouldn’t have to dig these damned wells’, having this sentence handed on equivocally to Herodotus, Aristotle and others as the view of the first Greek philosopher Thales that water is the principle of all things. Donnellan also adds to the story that the idea that all is water was indeed held by a hermit who lived in a time so remote that neither he nor his doctrines had any historical connection with us. We wouldn’t say that the hermit was Thales, even if he really satisfied the description. And the reason, according to Donnellan, is clear: Thales was at the beginning of the causal-historical chain and not the hermit.

   The answer offered by our neodescritivist view is that in some cases the description of the causal history is so important that it must be included in the characterizing description-rule. This is precisely the case of Thales, because what we find important in him is that he was at the start of Western philosophy, for outside this historical context the affirmation ‘Water is the principle of all things’ would simply be ridiculous. So, the real characterizing definite description belonging to the identification rule for Thales could be summarized as:

the person who originated the doxography found in Aristotle and others, which describes him as having been the first Greek philosopher, arguing that water is the principle of all things, that everything is alive, etc.

As for the localizing description, we know at least that Thales was:

the Milesian who lived from 624 to 547-8 B.C., and probably visited Egypt.

In view of this, if we return to Donnelan’s example we will conclude that according to our version of descriptivism the hermit could not have been Thales. And the reason is that Thales the well-Digger better satisfies both fundamental conditions. Just compare the two cases. The hermit does not satisfy any part of the localizing description; all that he satisfies is an incomplete portion of the characterizing description. On the other hand, Thales the well-digger completely satisfies the localizing description, because he lived in Miletus from 624 to 547-8 BC. And regarding the characterizing description, even if Thales was not a philosopher and never said that the principle of all things is water, he remains the person wrongly described in the doxography as the first Greek philosopher who said that all is water. So, despite everything, our Thales satisfies the fundamental descriptions much better than the hermit, being therefore the right bearer of the name.

   Aside from that, one should not forget that depending on the details that are added to or subtracted from this example, our intuitions can change, leading us to the conclusion that our Thales didn’t really exist and even to the conclusion that the hermit was Thales.

The failure of the causal-historical view

Finally, one word about the causal-historical view. I am not denying that there is often a direct causal-historical relation between the utterance of a name and the primary tags of a name’s bearers. Even descriptivists like P. F. Strawson did not deny this. After all, we live in a causal world and a true referential link must have some causal dimension. What I deny is the explanatory relevance of this. No one uses it as a form of explanation. If someone asks me who Aristotle was, I cannot answer: ‘follow my causal-historical chain with the intention that your chain is a continuation of mine.’ Moreover, in themselves the causal-historical links are inscrutable, except if in searching for them we appeal to something like correlative cognitions and therefore to descriptions; in this way we explained why Donnellan’s Thales wasn’t the hermit. If we had, for example, a cerebroscope showing that always when a speaker says the name ‘Aristotle’ really knowing about whom he is speaking there is a recognizable neurophysiological pattern in his brain, we could identify it as a link of the external causal-historical chain. But since we would need to appeal to the speaker’s cognition, we would be implicitly appealing descriptions, which shows that finding the causal-historical chain commits a petition principii by presupposing descriptivism. To make things worst, Kripke’s view of baptism is miraculous, since it is not based on any property of the referent. Brilliant and valuable as many of his other ideas are, if taken literally the causal-historical view is nothing but an empty circular fantasy provig once more that there are no shortcuts in philosophy.

[1] This is nothing but a bare-bones summary. A more complete formulation can be found in a much longer paper entitled ‘Outline of a Theory of Proper Names’, published as the second chapter of my book Lines of Thought: Rethinking Philosophical Assumptions (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).
[2] See John R. Searle: Proper Names. Mind 67 (1958): 166-173. (I adapted this from Susan Haack.)
[3] To be more precise, C is the nearest most relevant class that does not merge with the characterizing description. This is why C for the name Aristotle must be the condition of being a human being and not of being a philosopher. 
[4] I place the name in commas to indicate that it must be possible to be misleading about the true symbolic form of a proper name. Suppose that in a possible world there is only one philosopher who satisfies the fundamental conditions for being our Aristotle, but who is called ‘Pitacus.’ We would after all identify him with our Aristotle! Indeed, even in the actual world we cannot completely exclude the possibility that Aristotle was in fact called Pitacus… The description ‘the man called “Aristotle”’, popular in so-called metalinguistic theory, is only a well-known (accidental) auxiliary rule.
[5] Saul Kripke: Meaning and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 62 f.
[6] John Searle: ‘Proper Names and Descriptions’, in P. Edwards (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1967), vol. 6, p. 490.
[7] See Searle, Intentionality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 254-255.
[8] Kripke, Meaning and Necessity, pp. 81-89. He also thinks that the explanation by means of descriptions is circular: since if Peano is incorrectly explained by mathematicians as the creator of Peano’s axioms, explanation of this will take recourse to Peano again and, to make matters worse, without being true. But then how do we know that this is wrong? Because we always need to reuse the name and the gained information in order to search for more information on the name’s meaning and even to correct mistakes. This isn’t a circular movement, but an ascendant spiral movement by means of which our knowledge of meaning only increases.
[9] In the case of ‘the last Neanderthal man to die’, what really counts is whether the characterizing description applies. The localizing description is only the indication of a space and time that is variable in different possible worlds.
[10] Kripke, Meaning and Necessity, pp. 83-84.
[11] Note that this intention cannot have cognitive content, otherwise we would fall back into descriptivism. It can be nothing but a desire, a bet on the sameness of reference.
[12] For example: the supposed semifictional name originally used by Kripke was of the prophet Jonas. But most Bible scholars believe that he was in fact a purely fictional character. See, Naming and Necessity, pp. 67-68.
[13] Keith Donnellan, ‘Proper Names and Identifying Descriptions’, in D. Davidson & G. Harman (eds.), Semantics of Natural Language (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 373-5.