Proper Names


An Essay On The Theories Of Proper Names


Proper names have been hotly debated within the philosophy of language and linguistics. People, in their attempts to account for what proper names are, have constructed numerous theories; in fact, this debate can go all the way back to Mill’s theory of names. Within the modern times, there are two theories, namely, the descriptivist and causal chain theory. In this article, I discuss each theory. As well, I discuss John Searle’s critique of those theories, provide my own critique, and offer a new approach for the problem of proper names.

Table Of Contents

What Are Proper Names

The Theories Of Proper Names

John Searle On Proper Names

A Proper Critique Of Proper Names

Behaviourism and Proper Names

Summary On Theories Of Proper Names

What Are Proper Names?

A name more generally is something which has the relationship between an object and speaker, it is a way of designating the object through language. We might say, names are terms which help us create intersubjective inventories of the things within the environment, as opposed to having to constantly point out what it is we have in mind. But names more generally can be distinguished from proper names.

A proper name is something which designates a particular person, place, or thing. Not only does it designate a particular person, place, or thing, but it likewise designates a unique person, place, or thing; which is to say, it designates one and only one person, place, or thing. For instance the utterance, “John Searle,” when used by a speaker who wants to designate John Searle, is a proper name. And that proper name has one and only one unique reference.

Of course, we can have multiple tokens of “John Searle,” but the argument here is that it is a unique type. To explain the type-token distinction further, consider the following: a type references a categorical distinction about the quality of the words, whereas a token references an instance of any type.

A = Type

AAA = 3 Tokens of Type “A”

So, we have a unique type of name, namely, “John Searle,” which is unique by virtue of its historical position or unique properties of reference. And, to be clear, not all unique things have proper names, nor do all proper names pick out a single unique thing; that is, there can be collectives which may have proper names for their designation as well.

The Theories Of Proper Names

There are two dominant approaches to the theories of proper names; those being the descriptivist theory and the causal theory.

The descriptivist theory argues that proper names are associated with clusters of descriptions, whether they be definite or not. For instance, when someone utters the description, “the person who was a student of Socrates,” we immediately think of Plato. This would be a definite description of the thing we seek to reference with the proper name “Plato”. We can contrast this with a non-definite description: namely, “the philosopher who everyone learns about in university courses”. The non-definite description does not uniquely reference Plato, but it nevertheless is an accurate description of the way we understand Plato.

And so, a descriptivist can argue that the proper name is wedded to various descriptions, and that it is these various descriptive properties which allow proper names to exist. For example, it would be false to say, “the person who was a student of Socrates,” is Santa Claus; likewise, we cannot associate the description, “the philosopher who everyone learns about in university courses,” with Sigmund Freud.

The causal theory argues that proper names are proper by virtue of declaration. That is, we have deemed a name proper because we arbitrarily declared some object to be in correspondence with some name. This would be similar to the idea of something being socially constructed; which is to say, empiricism cannot be used to derive the proper name from the object, it must instead be arbitrarily produced and then projected onto the environment. And we then take this arbitrary declaration as a self-evident truth. But at any rate, this theory is different from the descriptivist theory insofar as there is a lack of a need for a description, yet it is similar to the descriptivist theory insofar as there is still a need for the representation of some object.

John Searle On Proper Names

John Searle has proposed a number of issues for both the descriptivist and causal theorist accounts of proper names in his paper on proper names and intentionality.

Proper name theories as they have thusly been construed have a massive complication; namely, their metaphysics. More specifically, when we begin to reflect on the ways in which people can split the world up, complications start to arise, which proper name theories have seemingly ignored; like what counts as an object for our worldview might radically differ from another person’s worldview, and so whether something is a proper name or not will depend entirely on our metaphysics.

Demonstratively speaking, a solipsist, that is, someone who collapses the subject-object distinction and adopts the view that everything is subject, has no objects to reference. Thus, the theory of proper names, although still valid, can only be applied to one and only one thing within such a worldview. And therefore, all names have to be proper names; only because a proper name designates a unique person, place, or thing, but the solipsist believes all persons, places, and things are consciousness; and so, all persons, places, and things are the same. Which means, either al names are proper or no names are proper, if it is to have unique reference.

Furthermore, the theory of proper names requires more of us than just linguistic entities; as the theory currently stands, it requires of us a representation for the object which we believe has a proper name. We cannot know of the object without a perception of it, and so the theory of proper names requires intentionality; yet the theory its self gives no account of said necessity.

More expressively put, the term which we associate with an object is not sufficient enough to designate the unique object of reference, and so there must be some extra intentional content that allows the hearer to successfully identify the unique object of reference. For example, the term, “Plato,” can be used in numerous ways that are proper, that is, wherein which they designate one and only one object; however, because the background context of our discussion is philosophical, you have the expectation that said term references the philosopher. It is this non-linguistic mental activity that needs to be accounted for in the theory of proper names.

In addition, Searle believes the causal chain of communication – (a theoretical concept in the causal theory) – cannot account for parasitic uses of proper names. The causal theory believes there was some baptism of a person to a name, such that “John” denotes “X” after the baptism. But there are instances where other speakers, who of which were not present at the initial baptism, nor have any perceptual representation of the object in discussion, can nevertheless utter “John” in the proper sense. They would not genuinely understand what the term means, and so would most likely have a faulty usage of the proper name “John”. Thus, the causal theory cannot account for parasitic uses; which is to say, the causal theorists have no special knowledge which allows them to know when a proper name has had a parasitic influence.

Ultimately, John Searle believes that both the descriptivist and causal theorists need to account for intentionality, because proper names have a lot to do with intentional content; in particular, he argues that we have networks of intentions which allow us to understand what it is precisely that we are discussing.

A Proper Critique Of Proper Names


The descriptivist have issues when it comes to the nature of descriptions. There are instances wherein which a description pertains not to any observable property of the thing in consideration, and there are descriptions that can be identical but likewise have different reference.

Let us take, first, the example of a description which pertains to no observable property of the thing in consideration. What precisely does this mean?

When people attend a horror movie, of which is notably horrifying, and inform their friends about the experience, they tend to adopt descriptions which characterize their experiences so as to describe the movie. For example, “there is this scene that is basically a panic attack,”. These descriptions pertain to subjective experience rather than the movie its self.

In the first example, “there is this scene that is basically a panic attack,” the property of panic attack cannot be attributed to the movie its self, clearly. Doing so would require us to make the mistake of interpreting non-literal speech as literal. And once we engage in this activity, then words will become meaningless. In this case, the perceptual context and social background informs us that the language is non-literal, since a literal application in this context would lead to something entirely false. Moreover, we can infer from the speaker’s intention that what they mean by their phrasing is: “some scenes have the ability to induce a deep level of fear”. But even this inference doesn’t describe in particular any properties of the movie. Only because the scene might not induce similar levels of fear in other people, and, thus, the description would be wrong. Much rather, it merely describes a possible relation that someone can have to some scene in the movie, as determined by the individual perceiver.

The point being, one can have a description of a subjective experience, and that subjective experience can be in relation to something; however, the description cannot denote the object its self, as the speaker who provides the description must give us enough background data to understand the context that the description is rooted in. And so, we can have descriptions which do not denote or describe the thing in consideration, but nevertheless reference the thing in consideration.

This violates the idea that descriptions relate to the properties and features of the objects or things in consideration, completely. And the same analysis can be applied to a unique referent; that is, you have provide a description about the nature of your experiences, and those experiences can be in reference to some unique referent: i.e., Plato.

Another problem with the descriptivist theory is definite descriptions. In the examples we discussed previously, we gave the description, “the person who was a student of Socrates,” and we said that this is linked to Plato. However, the descriptivist have an issue with the term “student,” because “student” can pertain to people who have simply read the works of Socrates. Comparatively speaking, a person reading Socrates is a student of Socrates in precisely the same way that student reading philosophy books is a student of philosophy.

Even furthermore, Socrates presumably had many students, so why ought we suppose the description pertains to Plato? And likewise, even if we modify the description to be, “Socrates most famous student,” the same problem from before applies. In particular, if Kanye West had read Socrates, then Kanye West would fit the modified description.

So, as they have thus far been presented, both the descriptivist and causal theorist need an account of intentionality. That is, what role is being fulfilled by the extra-mental content that theories of proper names have ignored so far.

Behaviourism And Proper Names

The theories we have so far discussed have focused on the theoretical aspects of proper names; meaning, each theory has attempted to explain proper names through reflection rather than empirical research. And I believe a behaviorist methodology could be of some benefit here.

A behaviorist would take a conditioning approach to learning, which usually means associative learning. Associative learning is when we have some response, like salivating, to a particular stimulus. For example, when a dog salivates when food is put in its mouth, it has engaged in object associative learning; more specifically, the dog has learned to associate salivation with the given food.

With the idea of stimulus and response, we can now go deeper into associative learning.

When an animal has a stimulus in front of them, of which they naturally respond to, that stimulus is called the unconditioned stimulus and the response is called the unconditioned response. Now, when we introduce a new stimulus into the picture, that is, when we feed the dog while at the same time producing another stimulus besides just food, we trained the dog. In particular, the dog will start to associate food with the new stimulus. This is called the conditioned stimulus, and the new response we get from the conditioned stimulus, which will presumably be salivation, is now called a conditioned response.

Applied to proper names, we get something similar with this paradigm. When we learn the meaning of a term, it entails that we have become conditioned to pair the sounds or symbols with some object. That is to say, the perception of the object is the unconditioned stimulus, and we then associate another stimulus, that being the proper name, with the unconditioned stimulus; therefore, producing the conditioned response. So, the proper name becomes a conditioned stimulus that evokes a conditioned response, except the response in this case is to recollect content from semantic memory.

Such an approach would fit well with John Searle’s theory of intentionality, but only if Searle is willing to wed materialism to his philosophy of mind. Because the stimulus response paradigm would allow Searle to talk about the different kinds of properties which evoke the various intentional states; whereas his current level of analysis seems to simply point out the need for intentional content rather than explain, in detail, the genuine intentional content which he believes to play an important role for proper names. And I say materialism because the idea of intentional states maps neatly onto the idea of brain states; for example, intentionality can be linked to the Default Neural Network.

Of course, this paradigm only gets us so far. Certainly, introducing it into the topic would be beneficial and useful, but we will then have another set of issues on our hands: namely, how do we separate non-intentional content in brain activity from intentional content. So, as optimistic as one might be about an empirical approach to proper names, there are nevertheless complications ahead.

Summary Of The Theories Of Proper Names

In conclusion, proper names are terms which have a unique referent, they designate one and only one particular thing, even though there might be multiple instances of the term which have varied meanings. The two theories that are rather popular in the literature, as presented previously, are the descriptivist and causal chain approaches. Both of these approaches are insufficient as neither can give an account of intentional content, as noted by Searle. And even without the account of intentional content, the theories have complications rooted within them as well, such as an inability to clearly designate the unique referent. Moreover, even Searle’s approach to proper names seems somewhat insufficient and could benefit from empirical stimulus-response paradigms. However, such paradigms come with their own complications and are not complete solutions.

The issue of how to account for proper names seems to be persistent and far from being solved.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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