Sunday, July 28, 2013

Naming & Necessity

In a celebrated lecture by that title, later reprinted as a booklet, the philosopher Saul Kripke argues for an account of proper names as being in origin ostensive/baptismal, handed down then  to the generations  by a sort of isnâd (to use the term of Islamic traditionaries).   This, by contrast with the more traditional understanding of names achieving their reference via matching some understood description -- you manage to pick out Aristotle from amidst the hordes of shades, by his embodying certain characteristics --  teacher of Alexander, author of the Organon, known to his homeys as “the Stagirite”.

The essay sparked an extensive debagte, to which I would not presume to attempt to contribute;  save that one signal example, supportive of Kripke’s a-posteriori necessitarian position, has never, to my knowledge, been cited in the literature.   Namely:  How (on the descriptive account) do you pick out an individual who has no characteristics? 
I refer, of course, to the Mann ohne Eigenschaften, to whom the novelist Robert Musil  has dedicated an extensive tome (widely praised, though seldom read).

To be sure:  Lacking all characteristics  is itself a kind of (meta-)characteristic, distinguishing its (non)bearer much like the “Invisible Man” of Monty Python.

A critic might object, How do you know you have managed to pick out precisely that individual by that (meta-)description, “the Man without Qualities” -- rather than a whole grey horde of characterless/uncharacterizable wannabes and also-rans? 
This conundrum brings to mind some mysterious passages in Quine’s essay “Ontological Relativity”, which basically posit a kind of non-identity of indiscernibles:  things you might quantify over, on the substitutional sense of quantification, but at the same time slur over, since they lack individual names, and may be indistinguishable from any of the named entities.

Well -- nunc dimittis, I have said enough;  time for a nightcap, and so to bed.   Perhaps these puzzles may be unraveled by our grandchildren.

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