Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Intentionality and Proper Names

The Maverick Philosopher has an insightful post on modes of being, haecceity and proper names. Proper names are the real difficulty for a theory of intentionality. We can express the difficulty by means of the following ‘aporetic tetrad’. (I define ‘empty name’ as a proper name that does not signify an existing object).

1. An empty name signifies something
2. Every thing is an existing thing
3. A name does not signify a concept
4. A (significant) term signifies a concept or an object.

Taken together, the four are inconsistent. If (1) an empty term signifies something, and if (2) every thing is an existing thing, then an empty term signifies an existing thing. But (3) that existing thing is not a concept, so (4) an empty name signifies an existing object. But (from the definition of ‘empty name’) an empty does not signify an existing object. Contradiction.

Yet each of the four propositions has a strong claim to our acceptance. (1) Surely the semantics of an empty name are no different from a non-empty one. We can’t tell whether there was such a person as John the Baptist by analysing the meaning of the name as used in the New Testament. (2) There is plenty of evidence for the ‘Brentano thesis’ that I have discussed frequently. (3) There are plausible arguments against proper names signifying concepts – see Maverick’s argument, for example. (4) The distinction between concept and object is practically a given. No contemporary philosopher of language has seriously challenged it, as far as I know.

There are three known resolutions to the tetrad, according as philosophers have denied proposition 1, 2, or 3 respectively. Direct reference theorists deny (1). They hold (implausibly, to my mind) that an empty name does not signify. To the argument that we cannot tell whether a name (e.g. ‘John the Baptist’) is empty from its semantics alone, they reply that this is ‘Cartesianism’. If there is no such person as John the Baptist, direct referentialists claim that we know this, even though we utter things like ‘we do not know whether the name ‘John the Baptist’ signifies or not’. The Maverick and other Meinongians-in-denial deny (2), by driving a wedge between being a thing, and being a thing that exists. And (3) people like Mark Sainsbury, and indeed Edward Ockham himself, argue that proper names signify ‘singular concepts’.

In posts for this month (March 2011), I will put forward some arguments in defence of singular concepts. More later!

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