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...

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The Cluster Theory and the Causal Theory

The second lecture constituting Naming and Necessity involves a thorough analysis and critique of Searle’s cluster version of the descriptivist theory. Kripke identifies six theses of this theory: First, to every name or designating expression X, there corresponds a cluster of properties, C. Second, one of those properties (or some conjointly) are believed by the speaker to uniquely pick out some individual object. Third, if most (or a weighted most) of the cluster of properties C are satisfied by one unique object Y, then Y is the referent of the name X. Fourth, if no unique object is picked out (satisfies the cluster of properties C), then X does not refer. Fifth, the statement “If X exists, then X has most of the cluster of properties C” is known a priori by the speaker. Sixth, the statement “If X exists, then X has most of the cluster of properties C” expresses a necessary truth (for the speaker).

Kripke offers a number of specific examples to show that each of these theses is wrong. He does this by showing that having descriptions in mind is neither necessary nor sufficient for reference. There are plenty of cases, he says, in which one refers to someone even though one has no, or no true, descriptions that uniquely pick out a particular object. For example, it might well be that I have no descriptions...

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Names and Identity

Having rejected the descriptivist theory and reiterated that names are rigid designators, Kripke proceeds to claim that identity statements involving names are in fact necessary, not contingent. Names refer semantically and are not dependent on descriptions that speakers have in mind (the referent of a name is independent of epistemological factors). Therefore, although one might come to discover truths about someone, including truths about identity (which means one does not know those truths a priori), those identity truths are necessary. For example, if it is true that Cicero is Tully or Gaurisanker is Everest, then even though a speaker might not have known it, the identity holds, and because names designate the same object in all possible worlds, then the identity statement will be true in all possible worlds (that is, it will be necessarily true). Just as identity, which is metaphysical, is not the same as identification, which is epistemological, so necessity is not the same as a prioricity.

In the third lecture, Kripke extends this understanding of names and necessary identity statements to natural kind terms, that is, names of kinds of objects rather than names of individual objects. Just as one might have certain descriptions associated with a name that is used to refer to a particular individual (for example, one uses “the most famous student of Plato” to talk about Aristotle), but those descriptions do not constitute the semantic reference...

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Additional Reading

Davies, Martin. Meaning, Quantification, Necessity: Themes in Philosophical Logic. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. Davies discusses Saul Kripke’s work in the context of modal logic and its connections with meaning, truth, and reference. Fairly technical.

Devitt, Michael. Designation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981. Devitt extends Kripke’s views on reference by trying to flesh out his causal theory of reference.

Dummett, Michael. Truth and Other Enigmas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. Collection of essays on logic and language, including an influential critique of Kripke’s view of reference.

Forbes, Graeme. The Metaphysics of Modality. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. A clear introduction to modal logic that includes explanations of Kripke’s contributions.

French, Peter A., Theodore E. Uehling, Jr., and Howard K. Wettstein, eds. Studies in the Philosophy of Language. Vol. 2 in Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Morris: University of Minnesota Press, 1977. Excellent anthology of papers on various issues related to meaning, reference, and names. Kripke’s “Speaker’s Reference and Semantic Reference” is included.

Humphreys, Paul, and James H. Fetzer, eds....

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