What’s the point of Naming and Necessity?

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?

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14 Responses to What’s the point of Naming and Necessity?

  1. Tristan Haze says:

    OK, I’ll bite. I think Naming and Necessity is one of the greatest philosophical works of the 20th century. I don’t think it’s the last word on the topics it deals with – far from it. But in this comment I’ll just stick to my understanding of the work, without trying to go beyond it (although it should be kept in mind that we ought to go beyond it, and people are doing that right now).

    ‘[Kripke] is arguing for a definition of the word Nixon, and in that definition, includes the word Nixon’

    It is not the case that Kripke is ‘arguing for a definition of’ proper names. He is arguing that names are rigid designators – that a proper name N designating an object o designates o in all worlds where o exists. This is not supposed to be “a definition of proper names”, what ever that might be.

    ‘He is arguing that proper names refer to what they refer to.’

    No, he is arguing that proper names are rigid designators. There are expressions which refer to what they refer to which are not rigid designators, for example the definite description ‘the first commenter on your post’. That description refers to me, and it refers to what it refers to. But it isn’t a rigid designator. There are worlds where someone else is the first commenter.

    ‘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.”’

    There’s no question of a regress. Again, the rigid designation thesis about proper names is not meant to be a definition, nor an analysis in the classical reductive sense.

    ‘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?’

    What you’re missing is the fact that Kripke isn’t professing to give a ‘definition of proper names’. So, the first step for you now is to get to understand what he really was saying about names – that they designate rigidly. Then you would be in a position to ask whether it has significance outside of semantic inquiry about names. And it does – most importantly in the philosophy of modality.

    ‘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”)’

    Arguably – although many would disagree with me – something has gone wrong here. (The move you make, from ‘p’ to ‘in this world, p’ or ‘actually, p’ (‘actually’ being a sort of technical term here) is often called actualization.) That a contingent state of affairs obtains at this world (‘this’ designating rigidly) may not seem necessary, but contingent. At this point, I recommend we remind ourselves that the possible-worlds explication of modality is a philosopher’s thing, and that it’s not the native way we conduct modal talk. These puzzles about actualization, I’m tempted to say, are a sort of artifact of the standard worlds approach. Your argument above seems to assume this isn’t so, and this assumption quite arguably isn’t justified.

    ‘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).’

    I don’t get why you say that in the last parenthesis. I would have thought that, to the users of description-cluster names, they would be designating, in each world, the object (if such there be) which satisfies most of the descriptions in the associated cluster.

    I hope all this helps, and that you eventually come to appreciate Naming and Necessity. It’s easy to read through, but harder to really appreciate. Another thing which might help would be to try to get a better sense of the historical background. Go look at what logical empiricists (positivists) said about modality. A good, clear source is A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic.

    • screwplato says:

      Thanks for responding.

      “Definition” was the wrong word to use, but my point is unaltered. I know that Kripke was arguing that proper names are rigid designators – the question is whether this is a useful thing to argue.

      “No, he is arguing that proper names are rigid designators. There are expressions which refer to what they refer to which are not rigid designators, for example the definite description ‘the first commenter on your post’. That description refers to me, and it refers to what it refers to. But it isn’t a rigid designator. There are worlds where someone else is the first commenter.”

      I am arguing that the phrase “the same object in all possible worlds” is a standin for “whatever proper names refer to,” so of course it would not be recursive to say that descriptions, which are not proper names, refer like proper names do (whereas it would be recursive to say that proper names refer like proper names do).

      “There’s no question of a regress. Again, the rigid designation thesis about proper names is not meant to be a definition, nor an analysis in the classical reductive sense.”

      You’re very hung up on how this is not a definition, and I concede that, but I don’t think it changes much. Rather, he is arguing that proper names have this quality (of rigidly designating). But when he refuses to explain what this means beyond blatant recursion, as seen in the second passage quoted in the original post, I don’t see the point.

      “I don’t get why you say that in the last parenthesis. I would have thought that, to the users of description-cluster names, they would be designating, in each world, the object (if such there be) which satisfies most of the descriptions in the associated cluster.”

      Since referring to the same object in all possible worlds means, according to Kripke (see first quote of the OP), that Nixon refers to Nixon, this would hold true in the names-as-description-clusters world as well, since their “Nixon” would refer to what their “Nixon” referred to in all possible worlds. This means that as far as they are concerned, their proper names refer to the same object in all possible worlds.

      Hopefully this also helps clear up what I mean when I say that “proper names refer to the same object in all possible worlds” is a recursive statement. Our conception of what an object is, is inextricably bound up with names.

      My two main questions I’d like answered are, 1) what is this “same object in all possible worlds,” and how is it distinct from “whatever is referred to by the proper name”? and, 2) What are some implications of “proper names being rigid designators” outside of philosophy of language? I have heard them alluded to but have yet to see a convincing, concrete example of rigid designators having important philosophical implications.

    • hf says:

      How would you express this without the confusing device of “possible worlds”?

      Because reading your comment, I almost said that ‘Nixon’ fails as a rigid designator in the same way that ‘the first commenter on your post’ does. If we interpret “possible worlds” to include any counterfactual statement whatsoever, changing any node whatsoever, we could trivially find some in which we would have used the term ‘Richard Milhous Nixon’ to mean someone else. And in discussing these counterfactuals, especially if we think in terms of “possible worlds”, I would feel inclined to distinguish ‘our Nixon’ from ‘that world’s Nixon’ just as we might distinguish between ‘the first commenter on the post’ in one world or another.

      But of course the first quote from Kripke shows that he thought of similar cases. It seems like he wants to say that we “intuitively” use proper names in a way that remains consistent when we discuss certain counterfactuals. As I said, this does not seem obviously true unless we define “certain counterfactuals” in such a way as to make it tautological. But maybe this reflects philosophical contamination on my part that ruins my intuition. Or maybe you have a clear and non-tautological account of which counterfactuals Kripke means?

  2. Tristan Haze says:

    ‘I am arguing that the phrase “the same object in all possible worlds” is a standin for “whatever proper names refer to,”’ – how could you argue that? What’s the argument?

    To me that seems plainly wrong. To say that proper names refer to whatever proper names refer to isn’t even the same kind of statement as the rigidity thesis. It’s not even clear what it means – obviously the claim can’t be that there’s a special sort of object which proper names refer to.

    ‘Since referring to the same object in all possible worlds means, according to Kripke (see first quote of the OP), that Nixon refers to Nixon…’

    I fail to see how the first quote of the original post could possibly support this claim! That is plainly not what referring to the same object in all possible worlds means! ‘Nixon’ refers to Nixon, and some non-rigid definite descriptions also refer to Nixon.

    • screwplato says:

      I think if you read charitably you can tag on the ubiquitous “in all possible worlds” on the end of “Nixon refers to Nixon,” given that I included that phrase later on in the paragraph.

      Anyway, let me try to make that argument again more clearly:

      Kripke says, again and again, that ‘Nixon’ is a rigid designator if it refers to Nixon in all possible worlds (I hope I don’t need to support this further).

      In the names-as-description-cluster world, the statement that “‘Nixon’ refers to Nixon in all possible worlds” is true in their language too. This is because the second “Nixon” in that statement refers the same way as the first, and so that statement will be true by definition (as Kripke admits in the second quote in the OP).

      So, in the names-as-description-cluster world, the people there will (correctly) believe that their proper names are rigid designators, i.e. that they refer to the same object in all possible worlds.

      Does this wording make more sense? My earlier attempt was a bit muddled.

      • Tristan Haze says:

        OK, yes this is clearer.

        I accept that in the names-as-clusters world, people would be right to say ‘ “Nixon” designates Nixon in all possible worlds (at which it designates)’, just as we are right to say ‘ “The tallest man” designates the tallest man in all possible worlds (at which it designates)’.

        But it would *not* be right, other things equal, for the name-cluster people to say ‘ “Nixon” refers to the same object in all possible worlds (at which it refers)’. Just as it isn’t right for us to say that ‘ “The tallest man” refers to the same object in all possible worlds (in which it refers)’.

  3. screwplato says:

    Also, does anyone have an example of a philosophically important implication of proper names being rigid designators? I’m becoming more and more skeptical that anything useful could come out of “names as rigid designators”, but it’s difficult to argue this point when all people do is insist that this is important but refuse to say why (not referring to Tristan here – just a general comment on what I’ve read so far) so I’d be really interested to see a specific example, even if it’s only a link.

    • Tristan Haze says:

      How about the existence of the necessary aposteriori?

      You seem very underwhelmed by this, and incredulous that people before Kripke really didn’t recognize this – but really, they generally didn’t! Ayer – and earlier, Kant – explicitly have it that a proposition is apriori iff it is necessary. This isn’t something they simply assume as totally obvious – although many philosophers did that too. These guys actually had arguments for their thesis.

      I’ve already suggested Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logic. Have a look also at Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

      For post Kripkean stuff, look at David Chalmers’ papers on 2D semantics and modal rationalism (available on his website). Also, a guy called Richard Chappell has a freely available paper called ‘Modal Rationalism’ which might help give you an idea of why the ‘apriori iff necessary’ doctrine was/is attractive. (All this stuff is Googlable.)

      If Kripke’s fundamentally right about the necessary aposteriori, then maybe Chalmers’ and Chappell’s (and Jackson’s, and many others’) projects won’t work. Or at least they’ll have to be very sophisticated. That seems to be philosophically interesting.

      • hf says:

        I would find this very interesting if it preceded Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, rather than coming decades late in a more confused form.

        As it stands I can’t tell if it makes a new statement. We know for a fact (assuming arithmetic doesn’t contradict itself) that logically provable statements within certain systems do not include all necessary truths about the system of axioms, where ‘necessary’ means the truth in question would hold given any arbitrary set of counterfactuals that does not contradict itself or the starting assumption. We know this because ‘logically provable within a system’ has a clear meaning. I don’t know if ‘a priori’ serves as a synonym or if it has a different meaning. Clearly it includes truths that we reach through the experience of following a proof. But does it also allow the experience of seeing many proofs, examining our vaunted intuitions, and concluding that arithmetic probably doesn’t contradict itself?

        (I can explain incompleteness here for readers who haven’t seen it before. All the complicated, hard-to-prove bits involve facts about computers that you can verify through experience. For example, computers work by manipulating ones and zeros in a rule-based way. This means that we can represent anything a computer does, while physically working the way its makers intended, as a fact about numbers. Now let’s say we have a program that can tell us, if it runs long enough and nobody drops an anvil on the computer, whether any given program running on known hardware and responding to a known input will eventually stop, or if it could theoretically run forever like a program stuck in an infinite loop. Call this a Halting Oracle. We can change any Halting Oracle program to include a simple set of instructions we know how to write, saying: if the program you’re looking at runs forever, then stop. If it stops, go into an infinite loop. Then we feed the modified Halting Oracle its own specifications and watch it vanish in a puff of logic.)

        (So we know that Halting Oracles can’t logically exist. And as I said at the start, we know that certain mathematical systems can describe any computer program running on known hardware and allow us to phrase, in mathematical terms, the question of whether that program halts for a given input. As it happens, we also have real-world programs that can check mathematical proofs to see if they establish the truth of their conclusion within a given mathematical system. Let’s say we take a proof-checker and add a program that methodically generates every possible set of mathematical symbols up to a given length, then increases the length and keeps going. Given enough time we could use the combined program to produce any possible proof within the system. And it will give us a reliable though redundant list of statements we can prove. So if a system capable of representing computers and the halting question also allows you to prove any true mathematical statement you could make using the system, without contradicting itself, then we could use it to write a Halting Oracle. The list of proven statements would eventually include the truth of whether the program halts or not. And since we know or assume that the system doesn’t contradict itself, we know the list won’t include any false statement on the topic. Which leads to a contradiction. Therefore no such system can prove every true statement you could make using the system.)

  4. awy says:

    some historic context here:

    The philosophical significance of the Kripkean necessary aposteriori
    S Soames

    correct me if i am wrong here, it seems that rigid designator provided a way to talk about objects across worlds and systems of representation, reorienting the relationship between “external” objects and linguistic/internalist concepts, thus shifting the philosophical landscape by making it possible to talk about metaphysics of objects.

  5. Nick Byrd says:

    I think this last comment gets at the significance of Naming and Necessity. The best one-liner that I have heard about why this book matters is this: it single-handedly resurrected metaphysics as threatened by Ayers Language, Truth, and Logic. I think that the response from the philosophical community would basically uphold this sentiment. In which case, Tristan is spot on. Whether you get it or not, many people seem to think that Kripke did something important for metaphysicians by writing this book. And like ores have suggested, it mght take reading Ayer to fully understand that.

    I should mention that I get the sense that I am not as well read as sone commentors here, so I would accept critiques. Still saying “I fail to see how this book matters” is not identical to “this book doesn’t matter” — especially when numerous people offer hints as to why it does (with sources to guide one through the process of learning why it allegedly does). If you read Ayer and still find Kripke inconsequential, perhaps you could write a knock-down positive account of why you think so. He’ll, submit it to a journal because that would be an important thesis. Until then, you might take the fact that such a paper has not been submitted to a journal as an indicator of the possibility that such a the is not tenable.

    I apologize if I have come accross arrogant or rude. I promise that would be unintentional. Thanks for posting something that has elicited some lively dialogue!

  6. Nick Byrd says:

    You can thank my iPad for making corrections to my typing without giving me the ease of editing (e.g. he’ll = hell). Sigh…

  7. Hellen Carter says:

    Hello, look up Richard Rorty’s review of the book to give a good sense of its significance. I couldn’t put it better than him.

  8. Sergiu says:

    Kripke’s Nixon really changed the course of analytic philosophy.
    However, that should tell us something about analytic philosophy.

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