The causal theory of reference
My next series of posts are going to be about the causal theory of reference. As a preliminary, here is how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterises the theory.
The causal theory was adumbrated by Kripke (1980) as an alternative to the description theory of nominal reference. The central idea underpinning this sort of theory is that (the use of) a name refers to whatever is linked to it in the appropriate way, a way that does not require speakers to associate any identifying descriptive content with the name.From the article “Reference”, section “Causal Theory of Reference”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The causal theory is generally presented as having two components: one dealing with reference fixing, the other dealing with reference borrowing. Reference is initially fixed at a dubbing, usually by perception, though sometimes by description. Reference-fixing is by perception when a speaker says, in effect, of a perceived object: “You're to be called ‘N’.” Reference-fixing is by description when a speaker stipulates, in effect: “Whatever is the unique such-and-such is to be called ‘N’.” (As noted by Kripke (1980), the name ‘Neptune’ was fixed by description, stipulated by the astronomer Leverrier to refer to whatever was the planetary cause of observed perturbations in the orbit of Uranus.)
After the reference-fixing, the name is passed on from speaker to speaker through communicative exchanges. Speakers succeed in referring to something by means of its name because underlying their uses of the name are links in a causal chain stretching back to the dubbing of the object with that name. Speakers thus effectively ‘borrow’ their reference from speakers earlier in the chain but borrowers do not have to be able to identify lenders; all that is required is that borrowers are appropriately linked to their lenders through communication. However, as Kripke points out, in order for a speaker (qua reference borrower) to succeed in using a proper name to refer to the object/individual the lender was using the name to refer to, he must intend to do so. Thus, I may use the name ‘Napoleon’ to refer to my pet cat, even if the lender of the name used it to refer to the famous French general. For in such a case, I do not intend “to use the name to refer to the individual the lender used it to refer to.”