Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reference fixing by description

Biblioarchy and Anthony have commented on ‘reference fixing’ by description. Anthony objects that in order to fix the referent of 'Shakespeare' as 'the man who wrote the plays and poems traditionally attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon", we need to agree on who that was.
If we just leave it floating out there as possibly being one person, and possibly being another person, and possibly being several people, and possibly not being a person at all (maybe aliens wrote the plays), then we haven't fixed it.
Biblioarchy makes a similar point, saying
Some Oxfordians and many Stratfordians believe that more than one hand was at play on many of the texts. Also that they appear to be palimpsests of sorts, revised and rewritten over the years by 'The Author', Shakespeare, whomEver he was, and perhaps, a cadre of University Wits in the Fisher's Folly Days Mid 1580's. This would of course, completely demolish the Stratfordian time-line, setting it back a decade, and disqualify the Stratford man.
Well, the idea of ‘reference fixing’ is not mine. Kripke introduced it in Naming and Necessity, and Gareth Evans discusses it in The Varieties of Reference. Kripke’s point – there is an excellent summary of it in the SEP article on Reference - is that while we can determine the reference of a proper name by some uniquely satisfied description – for example, we can fix the reference of ‘Aristotle’ as ‘the last great philosopher of antiquity’, the semantics of the name cannot be identical with the semantics of the description. For ‘the last great philosopher of antiquity’ might well apply to Plato in a possible world where Aristotle died in infancy.

But these comments do suggest a deeper problem with the whole idea of fixing reference by description, given that primary sources do not give us a single description of a putative historical character, but rather a series of descriptions. What if there wasn’t a single author of the Shakespeare plays? What if one person wrote Hamlet, another person wrote the Tempest? Indeed, I believe Oxfordians have to insist that the authors are different, given a fairly certain dating for the latter play of after 1604, when De Vere died*. What if there wasn’t even a single author of any of the plays? All mathematicians know about Nicholas Bourbaki, who is not a person at all – the name is a pseudonym under which a collective of French mathematicians wrote a series of books about advanced set theory and algebra.

My own subject is Duns Scotus. Who was he? A hundred years ago, we might have fixed the reference of his name by the description ‘the author of De Modis Significandi’. But that would have been wrong, as Grabmann demonstrated in 1922 that this work was by Thomas of Erfurt, a fourteenth century logician belong in to the Parisian ‘modist’ school. The authenticity of the Questions on the Prior Analytics, once attributed to him, is also doubtful. And though his books on the Categories, and on the Sophisticis Elenchis, and of course the monumental Ordinatio are almost certainly authentic, it is clear that we have a series of different descriptions – ‘the author of the Ordinatio’, the author of the Lectura, and so on – rather than a single description.

Scotus' biographical details are even more problematic. We have a handful of details about his life. Records show that someone of that name was ordained at St Andrew's Priory, Northampton on 17th March 1291, from which we infer a probable date of birth of about 1265, given the minimum age of 25 for ordination. So we have the description “person named ‘John Duns Scotus’, ordained in 1265 etc’. We believe he was in Oxford in 1300, based on a single passage in the Ordinatio that I discuss here. His name is on a list of those who opposed King Philip’s attempt to depose Pope Boniface around 1303. We have a few other bits of information. But whether these different descriptions are all satisfied by the same person is little more than conjecture and probable inference. We don’t know for absolutely certain whether there was a single author of his individual works. His Questions on the Perihermenias comes down to us in two separate versions, one of which (Opus I) contains a fragment of what may be another work. It is not certain how much of this was edited or rewritten by his disciple Antonius Andreas. So even a single work has a series of descriptions corresponding to the differing codices or primary sources which have come down to us.

*Shakespeare made extensive use of narratives describing the wreck and redemption of the ship the "Sea-Venture" in Bermuda in 1609, and the events which ensued when the crew made it safely ashore.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

>> while we can determine the reference of a proper name by some uniquely satisfied description [...] the semantics of the name cannot be identical with the semantics of the description

Absolutely. Proper names, to quote Mill (who said this way before Kripke) "denote the individuals who are called by them".

I'm not disputing that a proper name *can* be defined by some uniquely satisfied description, nor that a proper name is not identical to that uniquely satisfied description. However, I *am* claiming that the description you have proposed for "Shakespeare" does not accomplish that. At least it does not accomplish it within the context in which you wish for me to apply it (namely, a context in which don't know who wrote the plays and poems in question).

Is this a problem with "the whole idea of fixing reference by description". Maybe sort of. I don't reject that one can fix a reference with a description, within a context. I do reject that one can fix a reference with a description in a way which is free of context.

But moreover, I am arguing that your particular description ("the man who wrote the plays and poems traditionally attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon") does not suffice to fix the reference within the context you wish to fix it (a context in which Oxfordian and Stratfordian and Baconian theories are all left under consideration).

5:00 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>I am arguing that your particular description ("the man who wrote the plays and poems traditionally attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon") does not suffice to fix the reference within the context you wish to fix it (a context in which Oxfordian and Stratfordian and Baconian theories are all left under consideration).

Perhaps this is one of those cases where what seems perfectly obvious to one person is incomprehensible to another. Gareth Evans gives the example “the man who invented the zip”, which is a reference fixing description, and then says we can call him ‘Julius’. Another example is the person who viciously murdered prostitutes in the East End of London in the late 19C, who we call ‘Jack’ (the Ripper). Similarly, it is quite clear and obvious to me that, given someone must have written the Shakespeare plays, and on the assumption that a single person wrote those plays, which is not particularly heroic, then we can dub that person ‘Shakespeare’. The question whether that is the meaning of ‘Shakespeare’ is a separate one which should not be confused with whether we can reference fix at all. Given that method of fixing, it is then perfectly reasonable to ask whether Shakespeare (in that sense, i.e. whoever wrote the plays) is Shakespeare of Avon, the son of the grain merchant, or whether the Earl of Oxford, or Bacon, or anyone else.

10:15 am  
Blogger David Brightly said...

>> Kripke’s point – there is an excellent summary of it in the SEP article on Reference - is that while we can determine the reference of a proper name by some uniquely satisfied description – for example, we can fix the reference of ‘Aristotle’ as ‘the last great philosopher of antiquity’, the semantics of the name cannot be identical with the semantics of the description. For ‘the last great philosopher of antiquity’ might well apply to Plato in a possible world where Aristotle died in infancy.

Is this saying that the semantics of a proper name must be independent of the contingent aspects of the world? If so, this is a strong constraint on what the semantics might be, leaving room only for a deflationary account such as 'Frodo-Frodo', I would guess. Not that I find this unattractive.

4:44 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>leaving room only for a deflationary account such

On the contrary, Kripke uses this to justify the idea of 'rigid designator', an idea that has a strong affinity with theories of direct reference.

Nice to see you back, David.

5:03 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

"on the assumption that a single person wrote those plays, which is not particularly heroic"

As you pointed out yourself, though, this assumption contradicts the Oxfordian theory.

"The question whether that is the meaning of ‘Shakespeare’ is a separate one which should not be confused with whether we can reference fix at all."

Fair enough. I'm going to chalk it up as not understanding this whole "reference fixing" bit.

8:12 pm  
Blogger J said...

Kripke didn't quite get Russell on def. description (or Russell's cackling at Mill). Russell realized a description involved uniqueness, and a little equation (which Kreepke never got) and was not a necessary relation but empirical, broadly speaking. In short, Saulie lost that little battle (as Searle realized), but he's too dogmatic and conservative to admit it

12:09 am  
Blogger David Brightly said...

Thanks, Ed, and a Happy New Year to you. I guess I should resolve to try once more to understand Kripke's rigid designators. They have always struck me as something that had to be laid down by fiat to make the possible worlds picture of modality work. The weight of objections usually brings me to a grinding halt fairly quickly, but I'll try the SEP article again. It's not one of the best, I think, and on a difficult topic.

4:14 pm  

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