Proper Names
Notes on Lycan, chapters 3-4

Curtis Brown

Lycan discusses three approaches to proper names.

Description Theory (Russell, Searle)

Russell suggests that proper names should be regarded as abbreviated descriptions, so that his theory of descriptions actually applies to names as well.

Simple version of this view: a name abbreviates a single, determinate description. Which description? The easiest answer is, the description that collects everything I believe about the referent of the name. If I think that Adam has properties F, G, and H, and those are the only properties I think he has, then when I say "Adam is in class today," that means:

There is at least one person who has F, G, and H,
There is at most one person who has F, G, and H,
Everyone who has F, G, and H is in class today.

Problems for the simple description theory:

  1. It seems to pack too much into the meaning of the sentence. (a) I don't need to have everything I believe about Adam in mind in order to know what I mean when I say that he is in class today. (b) Also seems to get the facts about logical implication wrong. Suppose that property F mentioned above is the property of being a future philosophy graduate student. Then "Adam is in class today" logically implies "There is at least one future philosophy graduate student." But surely it doesn't!
  2. Different people associate different descriptions with the same names. If the simple description theory were true, therefore, proper names would be ambiguous: they would mean different things in the mouths of different people.

As a result of problems like these, Searle and others proposed a more complex description theory, the Cluster Theory. On this view, a name refers to whatever satisfies a sufficient number of the descriptions associated with it (but not necessarily all of them).

But there are problems for any description theory, including the cluster theory:

  1. Modal objections: if the description theory is true, then it is a necessary truth that the person one refers to by a certain name satisfies all or most of the descriptions one associates with that name. But in fact most or all of these propositions seem to be contingent.
  2. Semantic objection 1: the referent of a name may not satisfy the description I associate with it. (Goedel/Schmidt.)
  3. "Some people are unaware that Cicero is Tully." Russellian analysis seems wrong. ("Some people are unaware that there is exactly one person with F and there is exactly one person with F and whoever has F has F.")
  4. Semantic objection 2: the description associated with a name may fail to pick out a unique individual (but we can use it to refer anyway).
  5. fictional names. (All sentences involving them will be false.)

Direct-Reference Theory

This is basically the idea that names do not have "senses," but refer to objects without the intermediary of a meaning that users need to understand.


  1. Substitutivity
  2. Frege's Puzzle (informative identity sentences)
  3. reference to nonexistents
  4. negative existentials

Causal-Historical Theory

We talked about this at some length in connection with Kripke's lecture 2.


  1. empty names
  2. reference change
  3. misidentification of the object named (the cat named Liz)
  4. impossibility of categorial mistakes

Twin Earth

Need to distinguish two senses in which we could use the term "meaning": what's in the head of a competent user, and what determines reference. It has traditionally been thought that these are necessarily the same, but on the Kripke/Putnam account, they can come completely apart.

Last update: March 21, 2007
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of LanguagePhilosophy Department | Trinity University