Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Proper Names

In a discussion of Chalcedonian Christology at Dale Tuggy's "Trinities", the question of how to interpret proper names came up. In the comments I argue (in retrospect somewhat unclearly and inadequately in parts) that, contrary to a common practice, proper names should not be treated as individual constants. As I said, my argument is uneven in quality, since a comment box is not the most useful venue for making a point like this. But a good portion of the argument has already been given in an accessible form by Tyler Burge, in his important paper, Reference and Proper Names. I don't quite agree with the Burge's own view -- I'm not convinced that the best non-individual-constant position is to say that proper names are abbreviated descriptions, although clearly they are related to descriptions in some way. But his attack on the constants view of proper names is, I think, exactly right. Proper names can be pluralized, quantified, predicated, and all sorts of other things one wouldn't expect if they were really captured by translating them as individual constants. Which suggests the following dialogue:

-How many Brandons are here?

There is only one Brandon here.

-Which of you is that Brandon?

I'm that Brandon.

-I've heard that every Brandon has the right account of proper names. Is that true?

Well, perhaps not; I am Brandon, and I do believe that proper names don't normally function like individual constants, and there are good arguments for it. But some Brandons might not agree.

-But those other Brandons would be different Brandons.

Very true. But that someone is a different Brandon than I am doesn't mean that he is not really Brandon. It just means that he's not me. Our sharing a name doesn't mean much.

-But surely talking about 'Brandons' requires us to say that there is some way in which all these Brandons are identical.

No; it just means that they've all been called, independently, 'Brandon'. This implies no more than the fact that both jadeite and nephrite are called 'jade'.

-But if 'Brandon' is a proper name, it should pick out only one person.

And so it does, if you use it to talk about one person in particular. But proper names have what Sommers calls 'wild quantity', and sometimes we don't use them to talk about one person in particular. And sometimes we get confused. Roxane, for instance, thought that 'Christian' picked out only one person, but through no fault of her own she was picking out both Christian and Cyrano; she couldn't distinguish between the two, even though they weren't the same person, and even though only Christian was Christian.

-In any case, if I were Brandon, I'd be happy to be a Brandon.

Yes, I find that being Brandon is nice. And think how bad the world would be if no Brandon existed.

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