A long-standing concern for philosophers has been the issue of meaning, not just the meaning of things such as the meaning of life or the meaning of freedom but also the meaning of words and sentences. What words and sentences mean, how they “have meaning,” and how speakers can use them to mean things have been debated as far back as Plato’s Cratylos (c. 388-368 b.c.e.; Cratylus, 1804). Many twentieth century philosophers addressed the issue of reference, how words refer to objects.
The Descriptivist Theory
Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity consists of revised transcriptions of three lectures given at Princeton University in 1970. The first lecture provides a brief historical survey of the descriptivist theory, particularly the version associated with philosophers Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, John Searle, and several others. This theory asserts that a speaker succeeds in referring to an object by having some descriptions in mind that the speaker associates with that object. For example, one is able to refer to Aristotle (the object) by having some descriptions in mind that one associates with that object (such as “the most famous student of Plato” or “the teacher of Alexander the Great”). The typical types of linguistic units that are used to refer to objects are names, pronouns, and definite descriptions (such as “the largest cat in the city”).
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the discussion about reference centered on whether the descriptions associated with reference had to be true of the object being referred to, whether a single description was sufficient for reference to succeed, and the intention of a speaker (for example, could someone refer to Aristotle without intending to, especially if reference required having descriptions in mind). This discussion was often framed in terms of whether or not names had meanings. Frege claimed that names have both a reference and a sense. For example, the name “Venus” refers to a particular object, but the name “Venus” means (or has the sense) “the second planet from the sun.” The major critic of the view that names had meanings was John Stuart Mill, who claimed that they served only a referential role. By the 1960’s, Searle had identified some difficulties facing the view of names held by Frege and Russell; he insisted that no single description could capture how names function. Rather, speakers have a cluster of descriptions that are associated with referring to an object. It is the descriptivist theory in general and this cluster theory in particular that Kripke rejects in Naming and Necessity.
Before proceeding to a discussion of Searle’s cluster version, Kripke draws several conceptual distinctions, distinctions that he views the descriptivist theorists as overlooking or failing to appreciate. One distinction is that between speaker reference and semantic reference, or what a speaker refers to when using a name and that to which the name itself refers. Although one might be referring to (or trying to refer to) one person by using a particular name, the name itself might very well refer to, or pick out, someone else. For example, if one says, “I really detest Plato’s Ethica Nicomachea,” one might be referring to Aristotle, the actual author, but the name “Plato” does not refer to Aristotle. By insisting on speakers having descriptions in mind for reference to succeed, descriptivists confuse this distinction, says Kripke.
A second distinction, related to the first, that Kripke draws is identity versus identification. The identity of an object (and of the semantic reference of a name) is a metaphysical issue. How people come to identify that object, its identification, is an epistemological issue. It might well be the case that one identifies Aristotle as the most famous student of Plato or the teacher of Alexander the Great, but those means of identification do not constitute the identity of Aristotle (or the semantic reference of the name “Aristotle”)....
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