Thursday, April 07, 2011

Reference, truth and fiction

David Brightly perceptively writes
Can we take a closer look, then, at the Ockhamist theory of proper names? One implication appears to be that, for understanding and deciding the truth of a set of sentences, eg, the Dido and Aeneas story, we can do without the notion of reference altogether. The story can be thought of as a pattern or template or specification with blank spaces or empty slots. The pattern is to be offered up to the world and if we can find objects that fit the slots then the story is true. Names serve merely to label the slots and convey what relations between the slot occupiers are to hold. There is a strong whiff of circularity here which will need to be addressed. Basically, the pattern matching has to be done non-linguistically. But the upshot appears to be that the finding of the objects that satisfy the story is what makes them the referents of the names, under the usual understanding of 'reference'. So we had things backwards all along. This makes some sense to me but it doesn't seem to gel with your 'proper names are descriptive, signifying 'haecceity''. Could you expand on that?
First point: we aren’t doing without the notion of reference. As I pointed out here, we sometimes need to ask which fictional character is being referred to. A GCSE paper may ask which character is being referred to, and the answer might be

(*) Shakespeare is referring to Gertrude.

This means that ‘refers to’ is logically instransitive. We can refer to a dragon by name, and we can grasp which dragon is being referred to, even though nothing is a dragon.

It follows that the truth-conditions of sentences like ‘Shakespeare is referring to Gertrude’ involve nothing in the world, at least as far as ‘Gertrude’ is concerned. The ‘reference’ in question is not some mysterious semantic relation between Shakespeare and some mysterious, non-existing fictional object. There is no such object and no such relation. “Shakespeare is referring to Gertrude” clearly has truth-conditions, but these can only involve word-word relations, and possibly authorial intentions. More about that later.

David’s second point is more problematic. What determines the truth of a set of sentences, such as in the Dido and Aeneas story? According to classical logic, the sentence ‘Fa’ is true when the logically proper name ‘a’ individuates or identifies or locates or ‘refers’ to a really existing object, and when the predicate ‘F-' is satisfied by that object. It is this account that David is probably alluding to when he says “The pattern is to be offered up to the world and if we can find objects that fit the slots then the story is true”. It means we must countenance semantic relations between proper names and the world, and between predicates and the world. I have denied the existence of any such relations. Understanding the meaning of a sentence cannot be dependent on the existence of any objects except language and the mind. Meaning is object independent. But then how do we explain truth? More later.

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4 Comments:

Blogger David Brightly said...

I'm happy to restrict 'reference' to intra-linguistic relations. Perhaps, to avoid confusion, we could use some other word to mean the common sense of 'reference' as a word-world relation? We will need to explain how we pre-theoretically accept such a relation.

>> It means we must countenance semantic relations between proper names and the world, and between predicates and the world. I have denied the existence of any such relations. Understanding the meaning of a sentence cannot be dependent on the existence of any objects except language and the mind.

Perhaps we could factor these seeming 'semantic' relations which are required for judgements of truth and falsehood into purely semantic, ie, reflecting meaning and understanding, relations between language and mind and further mind-world relations that
reflect experience?

10:25 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>I'm happy to restrict 'reference' to intra-linguistic relations. Perhaps, to avoid confusion, we could use some other word to mean the common sense of 'reference' as a word-world relation? We will need to explain how we pre-theoretically accept such a relation.

I use ‘relative reference’ for the former (my own terminology). A standard and liong-accepted terminology for the latter is ‘direct reference’ (or sometimes ‘Russellian reference’).

>>Perhaps we could factor these seeming 'semantic' relations which are required for judgements of truth and falsehood into purely semantic, ie, reflecting meaning and understanding, relations between language and mind and further mind-world relations that reflect experience?

The problem is that, while the truth of some sentences can be explained purely in terms of language and meaning, most cannot (e.g. ‘the earth is 60m miles from the sun’). This needs further comment.

Another problem is that, although it seems plausible that while reference-within-history can be explained as relative reference – how else? – there is a further kind of ‘demonstrative’ reference, often held up as a paradigm of direct reference, which is not so easily explained by the relativity theory. E.g. I point to a rose and say ‘this flower is red’. This does not require a story-background, indeed such a background is neither necessary nor sufficient. It seems as though grasp of which individual thing is referred to by ‘this flower’ requires a direct, intuitive etc. contact with reality. Thus demonstrative reference seems to be object-dependent or ‘Russellian’.

3:51 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

>> It seems as though grasp of which individual thing is referred to by ‘this flower’ requires a direct, intuitive etc. contact with reality.

Contact with reality is bound to come into the picture somewhere, isn't it? And all the easier if minds are embedded in reality. If the account of apparent direct reference is right there must be a pre-linguistic (='intuitive'?) mechanism for carving up the world into objects for matching with the story.

1. Suppose the Dido and Aeneas story is analogous to a set of simultaneous equations in two unknowns. It amounts to a specification of a pair of things which has no solution in real objects. In contrast, a story for 'Sun' (bright yellow disc slowly moving across sky, etc) does have a solution. Does this not work?

2. Surely no one suggests that even demonstratively derived direct reference is magically perfect, since identical twins Jack and John are so easily confused. Can't pointing to a twin and saying in effect 'Jack looks like this' count as a minimal story for specifying the referent of 'Jack'?

8:27 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Contact with reality is bound to come into the picture somewhere, isn't it?

Yes, but explaining exactly what that 'contact' is, is tricky.

9:20 am  

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