I’ve got some questions about Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Basically, I’ve only heard good things about this book, so I’ve read it and tried as best I can to understand it, but it seems like complete fluff to me. So here I’ll lay out Naming and Necessity as I understand it, and why I think that “Naming and Necessity as I understand it” is so unnoteworthy. Hopefully someone can correct me if I go wrong somewhere, and shower me with praise if I don’t.
So Kripke is trying to argue that proper names are rigid designators. A rigid designator is something that designates the same object in every possible world.
Isn’t he arguing for a completely circular definition of proper names?
“In these lectures, I will argue, intuitively, that proper names are rigid designators, for although the man (Nixon) might not have been the President, it is not the case that he might not have been Nixon (though he might not have been called ’Nixon’).”
So he is arguing that Nixon rigidly designates Nixon. The problem should be immediately obvious: he is arguing for a definition of the word Nixon, and in that definition, includes the word Nixon. He is arguing that proper names refer to what they refer to.
When he says that proper names refer to “the same object in all possible worlds,” as best I can tell, this is still a regress, as it is a standin for saying that “proper names refer to what they refer to.” This can be seen by how, whenever he talks about a specific case, he cannot explain how we are supposed to determine what this “same object” we are referring to is, and instead resorts to saying that the name refers to what it refers to:
“Don’t ask: how can I identify this table in another possible world, except by its properties? I have the table in my hands, I can point to it, and when I ask whether it might have been in another room, I am talking, by definition, about it, I don’t have to identify it after seeing it through a telescope. If I am talking about it, I am talking about it.”
I don’t believe that arguing for a conception of names that begs the question, then saying “don’t ask that question,” is a philosophically sound argument.
Two asides: one, even this unambitious point – that proper names refer to what they refer to – seems to be false, because it tries to force a binary kind of “it either refers or it doesn’t” mentality onto proper names that doesn’t really exist. I can guarantee you that there will be borderline cases where some people will say that the proper name refers to that object, and others will say it won’t (and my intuitive reaction to a lot of these borderline cases is neither affirmative nor negative, further proving the fuzziness of so called ‘rigid’ designators). And in these borderline cases, it doesn’t make sense to say “well that either IS Nixon or it ISN’T.” It would be more accurate to say that it’s “kind of Nixon.”
Two, it’s true that Kripke makes a halfhearted attempt at presenting an alternative ‘picture’ of how names work, but it is not the main point of Kripke’s lecture (and Kripke himself had reservations about the picture he presented), so I won’t be talking about it.
So anyway, how is this supposed to be a revolutionary piece? As best I can make out, its salient point is that proper names refer to what they refer to. Is there something more to his definition of proper names that I’m missing?
The standard line about why Naming and Necessity was so important is that Kripke’s amazing idea that proper names are rigid designators (i.e. that proper names refer to the same object in all possible worlds, i.e. that proper names refer to what they refer to) has ‘surprising implications’. But I haven’t seen any implication of rigid designators that impressed me.
For example, one thing I’m supposed to be excited about is that this discovery implies that there is necessary a posteriori knowledge.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia article on rigid designators, this implication is exciting because “prior to discussion about rigid designation, the necessary a posteriori was generally thought to be an empty category.”
Really? People thought that was an empty category? Necessary a posteriori knowledge is extremely easy to construct. You can turn every contingent a posteriori piece of knowledge you discover into necessary a posteriori with ease. This is because it is true in all possible worlds that in this possible world at this time, that contingent piece of knowledge is true. (e.g., it is necessarily true that “in this world at this time there was a tree standing over there”) Clearly just being “necessary” does not imply that it is any more important than contingent knowledge.
One more example of how easy it is to make necessary a posteriori knowledge: suppose I flip a coin and do not look at what face it landed on. I then decide that the word “morps” will refer to black swans if the coin landed heads, and white swans if it landed tails. Then I look down and see that the coin landed heads. I just discovered the necessary a posteriori fact that morps are black. Again, necessary and a posteriori, but philosophically worthless.
So, for Kripke’s “discovery” to have worth, it has to imply something beyond that there can be necessary a posteriori knowledge. But I don’t see how the discovery that there are rigid designators can imply anything meaningful.
To try to illustrate why I don’t think this discovery can imply anything meaningful, let’s stipulate a possible world which is similar to ours, except that proper names aren’t rigid designators. Instead they are, let’s say, description clusters. So, the people there still use names, but instead of using them like we do they use them as description clusters which don’t designate the same object in all possible worlds (although of course, to them they would be designating the same object in all possible worlds).
In this possible world, is the set of possible worlds going to be any different? Of course not. So, discovering that there are rigid designators cannot equal discovering anything about what is or is not possible, as what is or is not possible is not determined by the idiosyncrasies of our language.
He gave a brief discussion of a possible application at the end, but it seemed to assume a knowledge of identity theory that I don’t have. He never really defined the terms he used, so there isn’t much I can say without further research there. But, again, it is logically impossible for the way proper names work to have implications about what is or is not possible, so it’s not like his ‘discovery’ can e.g. suddenly imply that epiphenomenalism is correct.
So what is supposed to be useful about proper names referring to what they refer to? Can someone fill me in here?