The descriptivist theory of proper names is that the meaning or
semantic content of a proper name is identical to the descriptions
associated with it by speakers, while their referents are determined
to be the objects that satisfy these descriptions. Bertrand Russell
Gottlob Frege have both been associated with the descriptivist
theory, which is sometimes called the Frege–Russell theory.
In the 1970s, this theory came under attack from causal theorists such
as Saul Kripke,
Hilary Putnam and others. However, it has seen
something of a revival in recent years, especially under the form of
what are called two-dimensional semantic theories. This latter trend
is exemplified by the theories of David Chalmers, among others.
1 The descriptive theory and its merits
2 Kripke’s objections and the causal theory
3 Revival of descriptivism and two-dimensionalism
4 See also
The descriptive theory and its merits
A simple descriptivist theory of names can be thought of as follows:
for every proper name p, there is some collection of descriptions D
associated with p that constitute the meaning of p. For example, the
descriptivist may hold that the proper name
Saul Kripke is synonymous
with the collection of descriptions such as
the man who wrote Naming and Necessity
a person who was born on November 13, 1940 in Bay Shore, New York
the son of a leader of Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, Nebraska
The descriptivist takes the meaning of the name
Saul Kripke to be that
collection of descriptions and takes the referent of the name to be
the thing that satisfies all or most of those descriptions.
A simple descriptivist theory may further hold that the meaning of a
sentence S that contains p is given by the collection of sentences
produced by replacing each instance of p in S with one of the
descriptions in D. So, the sentence such as "
Saul Kripke stands next
to a table" has the same meaning as the following collection of
The man who wrote
Naming and Necessity
Naming and Necessity stands next to a table.
A person who was born on November 13, 1940 in Bay Shore, New York
stands next to a table.
The son of a leader of Beth El Synagogue in Omaha,
next to a table.
A version of descriptivism was formulated by Frege in reaction to
problems with his original theory of meaning or reference (Bedeutung),
which entailed that sentences with empty proper names cannot have a
meaning. Yet a sentence containing the name 'Odysseus' is
intelligible, and therefore has a sense, even though there is no
individual object (its reference) to which the name corresponds. Also,
the sense of different names is different, even when their reference
is the same. Frege said that if an identity statement such as
Hesperus is the same planet as Phosphorus" is to be informative, the
proper names flanking the identity sign must have a different meaning
or sense. But clearly, if the statement is true, they must have the
same reference. The sense is a 'mode of presentation', which serves
to illuminate only a single aspect of the referent. Scholars
disagree as to whether Frege intended such modes of presentation to be
descriptions. See the article Sense and reference.
Russell’s approach is somewhat different. First of all, Russell
makes an important distinction between what he calls “ordinary”
proper names and “logically” proper names. Logically proper names
are indexicals such as this and that, which directly refer (in a
Millian sense) to sense-data or other objects of immediate
acquaintance. For Russell, ordinary proper names are abbreviated
definite descriptions. Here definite description refers again to the
type of formulation “The…” which was used above to describe
Santa Claus as “the benevolent, bearded….’’ According to
Russell, the name “Aristotle” is just a sort of shorthand for a
definite description such as “The last great philosopher of ancient
Greece” or “The teacher of Alexander the great” or some
conjunction of two or more such descriptions. Now, according to
Russell’s theory of definite descriptions, such descriptions must,
in turn, be reduced, to a certain very specific logical form of
existential generalization as follows:
"The king of France is bald".
displaystyle exists x(K(x)land forall y(K(y)rightarrow x=y)land
This says that there is exactly one object ‘’x’’ such that
‘’x’’ is King of France and ‘’x’’ is bald. Notice that
this formulation is entirely general: it says that there is some x out
in the world that satisfies the description, but does not specify
which one thing ‘’x’’ refers to. Indeed, for Russell, definite
descriptions (and hence names) have no reference at all and their
meanings (senses in the Fregean sense) are just the truth conditions
of the logical forms illustrated above. This is made clearer by
Russell’s example involving ‘’Bismarck’’:
(G) ”The Chancellor of Germany...”
In this case, Russell suggests that only Bismarck himself can be in a
relation of acquaintance such that the man himself enters into the
proposition expressed by the sentence. For any other than Bismarck,
the only relation that is possible with such a proposition is through
its descriptions. Bismarck could never have existed and the sentence
(G) would still be meaningful because of its general nature described
by the logical form underlying the sentence.
Notwithstanding these differences however, descriptivism and the
descriptive theory of proper names came to be associated with both the
views of Frege and Russell and both address the general problems
(names without bearers, Frege’s puzzles concerning identity and
substitution in contexts of intentional attitude attributions) in a
Another problem for
Millianism is Frege’s famous puzzles concerning
the identity of co-referring terms. For example:
Hesperus is Phosphorus.”
In this case, both terms (“Hesperus” and “Phosphorus”) refer
to the same entity: Venus. The Millian theory would predict that this
sentence is trivial, since meaning is just reference and “Venus is
Venus” is not very informative. Suppose, however, that someone did
not know that
Hesperus and Phosphorus both referred to Venus. Then it
is at least arguable that the sentence (V) is an attempt to inform
someone of just this fact.
Another problem for
Millianism is that of statements such as “Fred
believes that Cicero, but not Tully, was Roman.”
Kripke’s objections and the causal theory
In his book Naming and Necessity,
Saul Kripke criticised the
descriptivist theory. At the end of Lecture I (pp. 64–70)
Kripke sets out what he believes to be the tenets of the descriptivist
theory. Kripke formally states a number of theses as the core of the
descriptivist theory, with these theses explaining the theory in terms
of reference (rather than the sense or meaning). As he explains before
stating the theory, "There are more theses if you take it in the
stronger version as a theory of meaning" (p. 64).
As he states it, the descriptivist theory is "weaker," i.e., the
claims it makes do not assert as much as a stronger theory would. This
actually makes it harder to refute. The descriptivist theory of
meaning would include these theses and definitions however, thus
refuting these would suffice for refuting the descriptivist theory of
meaning as well. Kripke formulates them as follows:
To every name or designating expression 'X', there corresponds a
cluster of properties, namely the family of those properties φ such
that [speaker] A believes 'φX'
One of the properties, or some conjointly, are believed by A to pick
out some individual uniquely.
If most, or a weighted most, of the φ's are satisfied by one unique
object y, then y is the referent of 'X'.
If the vote yields no unique object, 'X' does not refer.
The statement, 'If X exists, then X has most of the φ's
[corresponding to X]' is known a priori by the speaker.
The statement, 'If X exists, then X has most of the φ's
[corresponding to X]' expresses a necessary truth (in the idiolect of
(1) States the properties or concepts related to any given proper
name, where a name 'X' has a set of properties associated with it. The
set of properties are those that a speaker, on inquiry of "Who is
Barack Obama?" would respond "The President of the U.S., former
Senator of Illinois, husband of Michelle Obama, etc." (1) does not
stipulate that the set of properties φ is the meaning of X. (2)
stipulates the epistemic position of the speaker. Note (2) says
"believed by A to pick out".
(3) Takes the properties in (1) and (2) and turns them into a
mechanism of reference. Basically, if a unique object satisfies the
properties associated with 'X' such that A believes that 'X has
such-and-such properties', it picks out or refers to that object. (4)
states what happens when no object satisfies the properties (Kripke
talks in terms of taking a "vote" as to the unique referent).
(5) Follows from (1)-(3). If there is a set of properties that speaker
A believes to be associated with X, then these properties must be
already known by the speaker. In this sense they are a priori. To know
what a bachelor is, an individual must know what an unmarried male is;
likewise an individual must know who is 'The President of the U.S.,
former Senator of Illinois, husband of Michelle Obama, etc.' to know
who Obama is. (6) However is not a direct product of the theses.
Kripke notes "(6) need not be a thesis of the theory if someone
doesn't think that the cluster is part of the meaning of the name"
(p. 65). However, when the descriptivist theory is taken as a
theory of reference and meaning, (6) would be a thesis.
Taken as a theory of reference, the following would be true:
If someone fits the description 'the author who wrote, among other
things, 1984 and Animal Farm' uniquely, then this someone is the
George Orwell. (Thesis 3)
George Orwell wrote, among other things, 1984 and Animal Farm' is
known a priori by the speaker. (Thesis 5)
The idea in the second sentence is that one can't refer to something
without knowing what he or she is referring to. Taken as a theory of
reference and meaning, the following would be true:
The author who wrote, among other things, 1984 and Animal Farm, wrote
1984 and Animal Farm. (Thesis 6)
After breaking down the descriptivist theory, he begins to point out
what's wrong with it. First, he offered up what has come to be known
as “the modal argument” (or argument from rigidity) against
descriptivism. Consider the name ‘’Aristotle’’ and the
descriptions “the greatest student of Plato’’, “the founder of
logic” and “the teacher of Alexander.”
satisfies all of the descriptions (and many of the others we commonly
associate with him), but it is not a necessary truth that if Aristotle
Aristotle was any one, or all, of these descriptions,
contrary to thesis (6).
Aristotle might well have existed without
doing any single one of the things he is known for. He might have
existed and not have become known to posterity at all or he might have
died in infancy.
Aristotle is associated by Mary with the description
“the last great philosopher of antiquity” and (the actual)
Aristotle died in infancy. Then Mary’s description would seem to
refer to Plato. But this is deeply counterintuitive. Hence, names are
‘’rigid designators’’, according to Kripke. That is, they
refer to the same individual in every possible world in which that
This is the counterintuitive result of thesis (6). For descriptivists
Aristotle means “the greatest student of Plato’’, “the founder
of logic” and “the teacher of Alexander.” So the sentence “the
greatest student of Plato, etc., was the greatest student of Plato,”
is equivalent to “
Aristotle was the greatest student of Plato,
etc.” Of course a sentence like “x=x” is necessary, but this
just isn't the case with proper names and their descriptions.
Aristotle could have done something else, thus he is not necessarily
identical to his description.
The second argument employed by Kripke has come to be called the
‘’epistemic argument” or “the argument from unwanted
necessity.” This is simply the observation that if the meaning of
‘’Angela Merkel’’ is “the Chancellor of Germany”, then
“Angela is the Chancellor of Germany” should seem to the average
person to be a priori, analytic, and trivial, as if falling out of the
meaning of “Angela Merkel” just as “unmarried male” falls out
of the meaning of “bachelor.” If thesis (5) is to hold, the
properties of Angela Merkel should be known a priori by the speaker.
But this is not true. We had to go out into the world to see who the
Chancellor of Germany is.
Kripke’s third argument against descriptive theories consisted in
pointing out that people may associate inadequate or inaccurate
descriptions with proper names. Kripke uses
Kurt Gödel as an example.
The only thing most people know about Gödel is that he proved the
incompleteness of arithmetic. Suppose he hadn't proved it, and really
he stole it from his friend Schmidt. Thesis (3) says that if most of
the properties associated with 'Gödel' are satisfied by one unique
object, in this case Schmidt, then Schmidt is the referent of
'Gödel.' This means that every time someone (in the world where
Gödel stole the incompleteness theorem from Schmidt) says 'Gödel' he
or she is actually referring to Schmidt. This is far too
counter-intuitive for the descriptivist theory to hold.
Such arguments seem to have convinced the majority of philosophers of
language to abandon descriptive theories of proper names.
Revival of descriptivism and two-dimensionalism
In recent years, there has been something of a revival in
descriptivist theories, including descriptivist theories of proper
names. Metalinguistic description theories have been developed and
adopted by such contemporary theorists as
Kent Bach and Jerrold Katz.
According to Katz, “metalinguistic description theories explicate
the sense of proper nouns - but not common nouns - in terms of a
relation between the noun and the objects that bear its name.”
Differently from the traditional theory, such theories do not posit a
need for sense to determine reference and the metalinguistic
description mentions the name it is the sense of (hence it is
"metalinguistic") while placing no conditions on being the bearer of a
name. Katz's theory, to take this example, is based on the fundamental
idea that sense should not have to be defined in terms of, nor
determine, referential or extensional properties but that it should be
defined in terms of, and determined by, all and only the intensional
properties of names.
He illustrates the way a metalinguistic description theory can be
successful against Kripkean counterexamples by citing, as one example,
the case of ‘’Jonah’’. Kripke’s Jonah case is very powerful
because in this case the only information that we have about the
Biblical character Jonah is just what the Bible tells us. Unless we
are fundamentalist literalists, it is not controversial that all of
this is false. Since, under traditional descriptivism, these
descriptions are what define the name Jonah; these descriptivists must
say that Jonah did not exist. But this does not follow. But under
Katz's version of descriptivism, the sense of Jonah contains no
information derived from the Biblical accounts but contains only the
term "Jonah" itself in the phrase "the thing that is a bearer of
'Jonah'." Hence, it is not vulnerable to these kinds of
The most common and challenging criticism to metalinguistic
description theories was put forth by Kripke himself: they seem to be
an ad hoc explanation of a single linguistic phenomenon. Why should
there be a metalinguistic theory for proper nouns (like names) but not
for common nouns, count nouns, verbs, predicates, indexicals and other
parts of speech.
Another recent approach is two-dimensional semantics. The motivations
for this approach are rather different from those that inspired other
forms of descriptivism, however. Two–dimensional approaches are
usually motivated by a sense of dissatisfaction with the causal
theorist explanation of how it is that a single proposition can be
both necessary and a posteriori or contingent and a priori.
Causal theory of reference
Theory of descriptions
^ See e.g. Kripke,
Naming and Necessity
Naming and Necessity p.29
^ "Ueber Sinn und Bedeutung", Zeitschrift für Philosophie und
philosophische Kritik, vol. 100 (1892) pp. 25-50, p. 25
^ "On Sense and Reference", p.27
^ Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Basil Blackwell. Boston. 1980.
Russell, Bertrand. On Denoting. Mind. 1905.
Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Basil Blackwell. Boston. 1980.
Frege, Gottlob. On Sense and Reference. In P. Geach, M. Black, eds.
Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege. Oxford:
Soames, Scott. Reference and Description. 2005.
Katz, Jerrold. Names Without Bearers. 2005.
Chalmers, David. Two-Dimensional Semantics. in E. Lepore and B. Smith,
eds. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language. Oxford University
Philosophy of language
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Ferdinand de Saussure
Benjamin Lee Whorf
J. L. Austin
A. J. Ayer
G. E. M. Anscombe
P. F. Strawson
Willard Van Orman Quine
Causal theory of reference
Contrast theory of meaning
Descriptivist theory of names
Direct reference theory
Mediated reference theory
Theory of descriptions
Principle of compositionality
Sense and reference
Philosophy of information