## Friday, May 20, 2011

### Crane on singularity

In an earlier post I looked approvingly at Tim Crane's views on singularity, and promised to follow up with some things I don't like so much.  Now what I don't like so much is Crane's characterisation of failed reference.  He says that "a thinker can think about a particular object and yet fail to refer to that object in thought", and that “There are many cases where thinkers appear to be having singular thoughts in this sense even though the object of the thought does not exist: aiming to refer to a specific object in this case fails to ‘hit’ the target object" (my emphasis).

On the contrary.  As I have argued here, a proper name individuates: it tells us which individual a proposition is about.  It is easy to show (a) that it cannot fail to do this, once understood, and (b) that it has no other function.

Proof:

(a) A proper name individuates by telling us which sentences are verified by a single subject.  The sentences "Frodo is a hobbit ... Frodo has large feet" together say that some hobbit has large feet, i.e. a single thing is both a hobbit and has large feet, and not that some thing is a hobbit and that some thing (possibly a different thing) has large feet.  You simply haven't understood how the proper name works if you think that both sentences could be true without being true of a single thing.  I say a bit more about this here.

(b) This is all that proper names do.  (i) They have no descriptive sense.  They tell us which individual a sentence is about by telling us which individual it is the same as.  The 'Frodo' of the second sentence above tells us that if the second sentence is true, it is true of the same thing as the first sentence, if true, is true of, and no more.  This is exactly how proper names individuate in stories, and it is clear they can do no more than this.  Nor can they do any more even if the story is true, and all the names 'refer'.  (ii) They have no 'extra-linguistic' sense. As I argued here, if any piece of language has an important communication function, we should be able to tell whether it has an important communication function. One of the most important features of communicating with someone is that they should know they are being communicated to. Therefore, if non-empty proper names communicate information that empty proper names don’t, we should know this, and we should be able to tell whether a name was empty or not.  But we can't do this.  We do not know for certain whether the Christ Myth theory is true or not, and thus we don't know whether the name 'Jesus' is empty or not.

There is nothing that a proper name could try to do, that it does not do.  A proper name tells us which character is being written about, and it does this successfully whether in a story ('King Arthur found a sword') or in a piece of history ('King Albert burned the cakes').  Thus Crane's idea that it could possibly fail to accomplish anything is a mistake.

David Brightly said...

Ockham would say that 'Frodo' refers to Frodo but Frodo doesn't exist, whereas Crane would say that 'Frodo' fails to refer. Isn't this a terminological difference over exactly how we should use 'refers'?

On p5 Crane says 'Reference is a relation to an existing thing, by definition; aboutness is the mere representation of some thing in thought, whether or not it exists.' Ockham says 'a proper name individuates: it tells us which individual a proposition is about'. So maybe Ockham's 'reference' is Crane's 'aboutness'?

Edward Ockham said...

Hello David glad to see you back.

>>Ockham would say that 'Frodo' refers to Frodo but Frodo doesn't exist

Yes, and also that absolutely nothing is Frodo, since Ockham is not a Meinongian and does not hold that Frodo is a non-existing something.

>>Isn't this a terminological difference over exactly how we should use 'refers'?

I think it is, except Crane has this notion of 'reference failure' which suggests he is confusing his notion of 'refers' with the Ockhamist notion.

>>So maybe Ockham's 'reference' is Crane's 'aboutness'?

Possibly. I suspect he would agree that 'Frodo' represents Frodo, and that 'Frodo' represents something, and is about something.

However, if he does think that a proper name tells us which individual a proposition is about, that is not consistent with the idea that it 'fails'. Unless he means that it can always succeed in telling us which, but that there fails to be such a thing. But I don't think he means that. His 'failure' is not just existence failure, but failure of something the name was 'trying' to do. I think his picture is ultimately incoherent. He, like many others who write about this subject, conflate the ordinary sense of 'refer', i.e. which-telling, with the technical sense, i.e. semantic relation to an extra-linguistic object.

David Brightly said...

Yes, I agree there seems something a little fishy about Crane's account. Talk of names sometimes failing to achieve an aim rather suggests he sees a somewhat bigger role for names than the minimalist position allows.

I have been dipping into some of Robin Jeshion's papers that Crane cites. Jeshion's 'cognitivism' and talk of 'mental files' I find congenial and close to my own inchoate ideas. I start with the thought that we largely use sentences to modify another's belief states. So I see a sentence like 'Frodo bore the ring' as analogous to a program fragment with operational semantics roughly: find the file labelled 'Frodo' and append the predicate 'bore the ring' to it. Of course, this ignores our awareness of deceit, but it conveys how the sentence is to update our belief state if we do take it as gospel. So proper names are in the first instance labels for personal mental entities. The problem is then to explain how sometimes my mental file coheres with yours sufficiently to give rise to the sense of reference to a single external object. I'm not aware as yet of any argument that this project is untractable.

Edward Ockham said...

>Jeshion's 'cognitivism' and talk of 'mental files' I find congenial and close to my own inchoate ideas.

See also Kent Bach. The problem with all these accounts is the psychologism.

>>The problem is then to explain how sometimes my mental file coheres with yours sufficiently to give rise to the sense of reference to a single external object. I'm not aware as yet of any argument that this project is untractable.
<<

Right: there's an important potential objection to the minimalist thesis here, that needs to be addressed.

I take it you are comfortable with why the name 'Frodo' refers to Frodo all the way through LOTR? I.e. anyone who thought that different instances of this name, in the sense it is used in that work, could possibly be true of different hobbits, hasn't understood the name?

The difficulty is to explain what happens when the same name, used in the same sense occurs in different texts. And to explain exactly what we mean by 'the same sense'.

I just noticed I hadn't posted, as I had intended, something on what the 'Two Towers' actually are.

David Brightly said...

I'd say that if you want to avoid talk of underlying 'semantic machinery' then 'constancy of referent' will have to be taken as axiomatic. Or better, perhaps, we assume the smallest number of referents needed to make the facts we have been given consistent.

Could you expand a bit on the psychologism objection? In OCTP Grayling says that psychologism is the acceptance of some or all of the following, all influentially rejected by Frege:
a) a belief that logical laws are 'laws of thought', ie, psychological laws;
b) a conflation of truth with verification;
c) a belief that private data of consciousness provide the correct starting point for epistemology;
d) belief that the meanings of words are ideas.
I imagine that c) and d) are the most relevant here, but I'd like to see the arguments.

Edward Ockham said...

>>Could you expand a bit on the psychologism objection?

(a) I think. The distinction between singular and general, I claim, is a logical one. The distinction that Crane seems to draw invokes psychological reasons.