Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Object-independent semantics

Vallicella alludes here to a distinction originally made by Gareth Evans between ‘Russellian’ and ‘Fregean’ understanding of propositions. He says (to Peter Lupu)
Your understanding of Kaplan is excellent. But for him propositions are
Russellian, not Fregean. If 'Mt Blanc is snow-covered' expresses a Russellian
proposition, then Mt Blanc itself, that massive physical object, together with
its snow fields and subterranean gopher tunnels, etc. etc. is a constituent of
the proposition. But I can't swallow the Russellian view; how could a finite
mind wrap itself around such a monstrous object?
On the Russell-Kaplan view (although Russell himself probably never consistently held such a view), the semantics of singular thought is ‘object dependent’. A thought about Mont Blanc actually contains Mont Blanc – with all its snow fields. That seems absurd for a number of reasons. How can a thought contain a physical object? How can a thought even be internally related to an object when the thought remains the same whether or not the object exists? Does the proposition ‘Etna is a volcano’ cease to be meaningful even if Etna is completely destroyed in an eruption? Surely not. Is the proposition ‘Caesar was a man’ meaningful even though Caesar does not exist? Surely it is.

The problem is to explain individuation. The name ‘Mont Blanc’ individuates. It tells us which large object is the subject of the proposition 'Mt Blanc is snow-covered'. It distinguishes that object from other similar objects such as Ben Nevis, Kilimanjaro, Everest and the rest. How do we give an object-independent account of the semantics of individuation?
The key, as I shall argue, is to explain the semantics of fictional names. The name ‘Aeneas’ distinguishes a character in Virgil’s epic from all the other characters mentioned in the Aeneid. If we can explain how that is possible, it will be possible to explain individuation in general, I believe.

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