Thursday, 15 October 2015

Games With Proper Names and Essences

“…if we are to entertain the possibility that a thing might not have had properties which in actual fact uniquely describe it or if a thing remains what it is through many vicissitudes but ceases to exist altogether through others, then there is a semantical role for genuine proper names which is different from the semantical role of singular descriptions.” - Ruth Barcan Marcus (1990)

What can we say about a thing being “what it is” without already presuming an essence of that thing? If we've already decided “what it is”, then this isn’t discovered a posteriori by finding out which properties remain “through many vicissitudes” and those that don’t. The prior stipulation of a thing’s essence will tell us which properties remain and which don’t. 

After all, certain properties may be essential at time t; though they don't remain over the entire existence of that thing. Similarly, certain properties may be deemed inessential/contingent despite the fact that they remain through many vicissitudes. A thing may remain the thing it is even though we've chosen different properties to characterise it with. In addition, my thing may “cease to exist” before your thing even if they're one and the same thing. In other words, my essence, E, of thing¹, may disappear; whereas your essence, E¹, of thing¹ may remain.

If a thing has different properties at another possible world, then why are we saying that it's the same thing? Again, it depends on a prior choice of essence to determine whether the thing in w1 is the same thing as that thing in a-world.
Ruth Marcus talks about the “unique descriptions” of a thing.

i) Do the descriptions depend on (or come via) the essence?
       ii) Does the essence depend on (or come via) the descriptions?

In the first case, the descriptions would certainly come via a prior definition of the thing’s essence. In the second case, the essence would come via the descriptions of the thing. In the latter case, the essence wouldn't be known beforehand and therefore the descriptions would in fact determine the essence. If the descriptions come via the essence, then such descriptions would come via earlier descriptions which have already defined the essence of the thing.

In a sense we often have first- and second-order descriptions; rather than descriptions and essences. That is, the descriptions which determine essence would be first-order descriptions. The second-order descriptions, on the other hand, would depend on the first-order descriptions which have themselves become the essence of the thing. The second-order descriptions, of course, will be deemed contingent by the essentialist. However, his essentialist position would tacitly depend on a set of first-order descriptions being taken as the essence of the thing.

In theory this order could be reversed. The second-order descriptions could become first-order descriptions and therefore the essence of the thing. Likewise, first-order descriptions (or the essence of the thing) could become second-order descriptions to another person (or even to another essentialist).

In Marcus’s scheme, proper names refer to (or pick out) essences; or, as I’ve called them, first-order descriptions. Singular descriptive names, on the other hand, refer to (or pick out) second-order descriptions of the thing. Singular descriptive names are meant to refer to the contingent properties (or attributes) of a thing. Proper names, on the other hand, are meant to refer to (or pick out) the essence of the thing.

However, the essence of the thing is just another set of descriptions which have been given a first-order (or privileged) status. Thus if proper names are referring to (or picking out) an essence or first-order descriptions, then how come these descriptions aren't contained in the name as it is in itself? Such descriptions are in fact contained in proper names; though they're hidden descriptions only used in the context of the use of the proper name. It's indeed the case that such descriptive content of a proper name is oblique (or indirect) in the way it attaches itself to the referent. The proper name can't escape this problem.

We can now say that the content of singular descriptive names is explicit; whereas the descriptive content of a proper name is implicit. Of course different people rely on different descriptive contents to fix (or pick out) the referent. Thus it's hoped that a content-less proper name will refer directly to the referent without “empirical vicissitudes” (David Kaplan). However, just because the content of a proper name is implicit, that doesn’t mean that the proper name isn't reliant on descriptive content in order to fix (or pick out) the referent. Indeed, in a certain sense, the proper name is in a worse position than a singular descriptive name because we don’t know what the content is of other people’s uses of a proper name. We may not even be sure what descriptive content we rely on when we use a proper name ourselves. At least a singular descriptive name lays its cards on the table: we know the referent because we know the description which fixes (or picks out) the referent.

Thus I think that the problem is that “fanatical mono-denotationalists” (Kaplan, 1969) are quite correct to point out the many problems with relying on definite descriptions. However, simply because there are such problems that doesn’t mean that proper names don’t rely on descriptive content. Perhaps what's at stake is a normative issue. That is, it should be the case that proper names have no descriptive (or conceptual) content. (Or it would be a good thing if this were the case.) However, we could create an important difference in degree - though not of kind - between proper names and a definite descriptive names in that the same content (or contents) is always part of a particular proper name; whereas singular definite descriptive terms are free to come and go as we see fit. In that case, we would need to decide which fixed contents to apply to proper names. 

What could decide the matter? On the surface it's easy to show a difference of degree.

For example, "the British Prime Minister” would be could descriptive content of the name "David Cameron". However, “the man who once went to Blackpool” wouldn't be a good descriptive content and for obvious reasons.

There are problems, of course.

What happens when David Cameron is no longer the Prime Minister of Great Britain? The name ‘David Cameron’ would then need different descriptive content. However, it depends on who's using the proper name ‘David Cameron’.

For example, the primary content of Mrs Cameron's uses of the name ‘David Cameron’ may not be “the Prime Minister of Great Britain”. Her primary descriptive content may be: “my husband who's also a great father”. Of course if singular descriptive terms remain true or accurate at all times, then such a term may actually become a proper name in time.

For example, the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was once a descriptive phrase and is now used as a proper name. This is the case because Jack the Ripper will always be Jack the Ripper; whereas David Cameron won't always be the British Prime Minister. In addition, many people don't even know the real name of Jack the Ripper. In that sense, it was never a descriptive term for certain people.

There's one way of turning the descriptive phrase ‘the British Prime Minister” into a proper name and that's the following. We can use the tensed and descriptive phrase “the British Prime Minister during 2011”. That will always be true of David Cameron. Therefore it's possible (though very unlikely) that the British Prime Minister (David Cameron) will be one day known by the proper name 'The British Prime Minister of 2011’.


Kaplan, David. (1969) 'Quantifying In'.
Marcus, Ruth Barcan (1990) 'A Backward Look at Quine's Animadversions on Modalities'.

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