Naming and Necessity

by Saul Kripke

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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

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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”). According to Kripke, descriptions that one has in mind might fix the reference of a name in some contexts, but they certainly do not determine the reference of the name nor the identity of the object named (and they definitely do not, he says, give the meaning of a name, since names do not have meanings).

In Kripke’s view, names are rigid designators. To understand the importance of this claim, one must understand the notion of possible worlds. The world has a particular structure and history. However, things could have been or could be different. Although in fact (in this world), Richard Nixon won the 1968 U.S. presidential election, he might not have. Indeed, it is possible that Nixon might never have entered politics at all. Each of these possible but not actual situations (often called “counterfactual situations”) can be spoken of as a “possible world.” Although in the real world, Nixon won the 1968 election, in a possible world, he did not. In Naming and Necessity, Kripke says rigid designators is a term that designates the same object in all possible worlds. Therefore, although the definite description “the winner of the 1968 U.S. presidential election” designates Nixon in this world, in one possible world, it designates Hubert Humphrey (in a world in which Humphrey beat Nixon), and in another possible world, it designates Barry Goldwater. Therefore, the description “the winner of the 1968 U.S. presidential election” is not a rigid designator because it designates different objects in different possible worlds. Names, however, says Kripke, are rigid designators; they designate the same object across different possible worlds. In other words, the name “Nixon” (or “Richard Milhouse Nixon”) always refers to the same person. How else could people make sense of counterfactual claims about him? The reference stays put, so to speak, while the descriptions change.

The Cluster Theory and the Causal Theory

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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 associated with the name “Feynman” that will pick out a unique object. Perhaps my only description in mind is “some physicist or something.” Nevertheless, the name “Feynman” refers to Richard P. Feynman, not to someone else. Therefore, having certain descriptions in mind is not necessary for successful reference. In addition, they are not sufficient, as Kripke’s Gödel example illustrates. Suppose that all the descriptions (or cluster properties C) are satisfied by a unique object, but the unique object is not the person to whom the speaker is trying to refer. Suppose that the descriptions (the cluster properties C) are, unbeknownst to the speaker, satisfied by Schmidt, not Gödel. Does the name “Gödel” now refer to Schmidt? Kripke answers in the negative. The speaker’s beliefs about Gödel and about Schmidt might have been false, but “Gödel” refers to Gödel and not to Schmidt.

Having shown the descriptivist theory to be “wrong from the fundamentals,” Kripke outlines a different view of reference. This view, known primarily as the causal theory of reference, focuses on three factors: first, the initial baptism of an object (where there is a causal connection to an object such that the name is associated with that object); second, the historical passing on of that name, such that later uses of the name are historically linked to the initial association of name and object; third, the intention to have speaker reference correspond to semantic reference (the speaker having the intention to refer to the same object as did the person from whom the speaker acquired the name). The first factor emphasizes the causal component of objects; the second factor emphasizes the public nature of language, including reference; and the third factor emphasizes the use that speakers make of names in the act of referring.

Names and Identity

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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 of the name, one might also have properties associated with a natural kind term that nonetheless do not uniquely pick out that kind. For example, the phenomenal properties of being yellow, malleable, and shiny might be the properties used to talk about gold, but they are not definitive of gold. They might be helpful in terms of identification, but they do not secure identity. Instead, there exist certain essential properties that are necessarily true of the kind (for gold, these properties are its atomic number; for tigers, their genetic structure).

The impact of Kripke’s critique of the descriptivist theory of reference has been, for most philosophers, to demolish it. Although various responses and criticisms have been leveled against Kripke’s claims, for the most part, the causal theory has become the widely accepted view of reference. Philosophers in other areas, such as philosophy of biology and philosophy of law, appeal to the causal theory in making claims outside concerns about language. Some professional philosophers have raised concern over the question of whether and to what extent his views, especially regarding possible world semantics, were independent of the work of Ruth Barcan Marcus.


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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. The New Theory of Reference: Kripke, Marcus, and Its Origins. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1998. This is a collection of papers that focuses on the controversy of whether, and to what extent, Kripke’s view of reference, especially its connections to quantified modal logic, was anticipated by the work of Ruth Barcan Marcus.

Katz, Jerold J. The Metaphysics of Meaning. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990. An introductory but sophisticated treatment of several philosophers on the nature of meaning, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. V. O. Quine, and Kripke.

Linsky, Leonard. Names and Descriptions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. A clear, sophisticated introduction to issues of reference, existence, and modality, including a thorough discussion of Kripke’s notion of rigid designators and necessity of identity.

Linsky, Leonard. Referring. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967. Very clear survey of theories and concerns regarding reference before the publication of Kripke’s work.

McGinn, Colin. Wittgenstein on Meaning: An Interpretation and Evaluation. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984. Clear and thorough introduction to Wittgenstein on meaning, including a critique of aspects of Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein, particularly the role of community.

Salmon, Nathan U. Reference and Essence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. Technical treatment of the theory of direct reference (causal theory) and its relation to essences.

Searle, John. Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1979. This book responds to Kripke’s criticisms of Searle’s views on reference and proper names.

Searle, John. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. This book includes Searle’s response to criticism by Kripke.

Searle, John. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1969. This book contains several essays in which Searle elaborates on the theory of reference and proper names that Kripke rejects.

Teorema 17, no. 1 (Winter, 1998). This special issue commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Eight papers discuss and respond to various aspects of Kripke’s book.

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