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A causal-descriptivist account of reference


Anno accademico 2013/2014

1° anno, 2° anno
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In these lectures I aim to provide a defense of a type of descriptivist theory of reference for names, a version of the kind of causal descriptivism also accepted by (among others) Frank Jackson and David Lewis.  On my preferred formulation, it is an epistemically motivated form of descriptivism that owes much to some of the concerns of Russell (specifically, his emphasis on acquaintance). A feature of the theory is that it is only a theory of reference determination, not meaning in anything like a classical sense. An additional feature of the theory is that, although it is only a theory of reference determination, I argue that it may cast light on the various problems that led Frege and Russell to introduce their own (now discredited) versions of descriptivism, in particular the informativeness of true identity problem (this problem is discussed by both Frege and Russell), Frege’s Puzzle about why you can’t substitute co-referring names for each other in true belief reports and thereby be guaranteed to preserve truth (Frege and Russell) and the problem of how to understand true statements of nonexistence or negative existentials (Russell). It does this by combining descriptivism with the idea of pretense or make-believe.


  • ·         Lecture 1          After Kripke 1: the descriptivist fight-back. I argue that the Kripke-Donnellan attack on the descriptivist programme about names shows a curious bias: the attack focused on versions of descriptivism that were explicitly designed to solve various cognitive problems, eg the informativeness of identity problem (hence the appeal to vivid, first-come-to-mind properties), but it then dismisses these versions for failing to get reference determining conditions right. Once we drop the cognitive orientation of the Frege-Russell approach, it becomes possible to consider the claim of theories of reference determination that stress the role of causal descriptions (‘the person I am acquainted with as having done so-and-so’, the individual referred to by the person from whom I learned the name’, etc). And once causal descriptions are taken seriously the Kripke-Donnellan arguments seem to lose much of their force.  I claim the resulting theory — causal descriptivism — is worth fighting for.

  • ·         Lecture 2          After Kripke 2: the Millian revolution and its problems. This lecture reviews some of the developments in the theory of reference following Kripke’s work.  Following Kripke’s work, the problems that motivated Frege’s and Russell’s descriptivism return, so how do the followers of Kripke respond to these problems?  We consider the work of so-called Millians like Scott Soames, who think that the only thing deservedly called the meaning of a proper name is the referent of the name.  We also discuss some of the problems facing Millian descriptivism, a strategy used by Millians like Soames to help solve the Frege-Russell problems.  And we return to causal descriptivism, and discuss where it stands in relation to these problems.  


  • ·         Lecture 3          Reference and Pretense. According to fictionalism about some domain of discourse, the purpose of the discourse is best served by our taking a fictive “as-if” attitude to the discourse.  Following Ken Walton, I argue that this conception of fictionalism is best understood in terms of pretense or make-believe.  This suggestion leads directly to a consideration of make-believe or pretend reference, interpreted as the pretense that speakers are able to refer successfully to individuals like Pinocchio, Anna Karenina, and Sherlock Holmes: readers of works of fiction pretend that they are acquainted with someone — say, Pinocchio— on the basis of being able to learn about his exploits by reading about these in Collodi’s work, taken as a reliable record of things that really happened (in reality, of course, there is no such person to refer to).  I argue that the idea of pretend reference is relevant to the Frege-Russell problems.  These problems are centered on statements — belief reports, identity claims, negative existentials — that have some odd features: they can often seem not quite literal or serious, in somewhat the way that talk about Pinocchio often strikes us as not quite literal or serious.  The idea we will explore in this and later lectures is that this is because the speakers uttering such statements rely on pretense.

  • ·         Lecture 4          Pretense and Frege’s problems.   Millians by and large think that the most difficult of the problems facing Millianism about proper names are the one discussed by Frege in “Über Sinn und Bedeutung”: the problem of belief reports and of informative identity statements.  I turn first to the problem of identity statements, and present a solution that invokes both causal descriptivism and the idea of pretense.  I then argue for the relevance of these same ideas to a solution to the second problem.  The solution I present to these two problems is similar to one that has been advanced by Mark Crimmins, but it relies on a different way of understanding the role of pretense in such cases.


  • ·         Lecture 5        Pretense and the problem of negative existentials.   The most famous of the Frege-Russell problems is the problem of how to analyse / understand statements of nonexistence.  In this final lecture I argue that negative existentials are a problem for a view like causal descriptivism and not just for Millianism.  The chapter then gives takes a detour through a little-known debate on existence between Frege and the theologian Pünjer in order to argue for the relevance of pretend-reference to the analysis of such statements.  Crudely speaking, negative existentials on my interpretation of Pünjer’s picture work by the speaker’s pretending that there is someone she is talking about in order to disavow the thought that this is so in reality.  Using the materials introduced in earlier lectures, I first present a theory of how speakers do this.  I then compare this to Kendall Walton’s well-known development of this kind of pretense picture in Mimesis as Make-Believe, but also to the very different but more influential view that statements of nonexistence like “Pinocchio doesn’t exist” ascribe a first-order property of nonexistence to things that genuinely exist (a view held by Meinongians but also, in a very different way, by so-called creationists about fictional and mythological objects like Alberto Voltolini).




Testi consigliati e bibliografia




READINGS [Readings marked * are background readings]



Caplan, B. (2007), “Millian Descriptivism,” Philosophical Studies 133: 181-98.

Crimmins, M. (1998), “Hesperus and Phosphorus: Sense, Pretense, and Reference,” Philosophical Review 107: 1-47.

*Frege, G. (1970), “On Sense and Reference,” in P. Geach and M. Black (eds.), Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 56-78.

Jackson, F. (1998), “Reference and Description Revisited,” in Philosophical Perspectives, vol.12, edited by J. Tomberlin, California: Ridgeview, 201-218.

*Kripke, S. (1980), Naming and Necessit, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Kripke, S. (2013), Reference and Existence: the John Locke Lectures, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Kroon, F. (2001), “Fictionalism and the problem of informativeness”, Philosophical Studies 106, 197-225, 2001.

Kroon, F.  (2004), “Descriptivism, Pretense, and the Frege-Russell Problems,” Philosophical Review 113 (1): 1-30.

Kroon, F. (2005), “Belief About Nothing in Particular,” in M. Kalderon (ed.), Fictionalism in Metaphysics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 178-202.

Kroon, F.  (2009), “Names, Plans, and Descriptions,” in D. Braddon-Mitchell & R. Nola (eds.), Conceptual Analysis and Philosophical Naturalism, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 139-58.

Lewis, D. (1994), “David Lewis: Reduction of Mind,” in S. Guttenplan (ed.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind, 412-31, Oxford: Blackwell.

*Russell, B. (1905), “On Denoting,”  Mind 14: 479-493. 

Sider, T. and D. Braun (2006), “Kripke’s Revenge,” Philosophical Studies 128: 669-82.

Soames, S. (2002), Beyond Rigidity, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Speaks, J. (2011), “Frege’s Puzzle and Descriptive Enrichment,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 83(2): 267-82.

Walton, K. (1990), Mimesis as Make-Believe, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Voltolini, A. (forthcoming), “Probably the Charterhouse of Parma does not exist, possibly not even that Parma.”


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