Monday, May 02, 2005

Speaker's Reference and Semantic Reference

On Thursday, April 28, the workshop met to discuss Kripke's paper "Speaker Reference and Semantic Reference".

Attending the workshop were David F. (though he was feeling sick), Jason B., Jay E., Nat H., Chris F., Ben M., Will S., Aidan G. and Rachel G.

The workshop fell into roughly three different stages. I'll post them separately.

Stage I: Pre-Workshop Banter

Chris F. was reading a book of Wallace Stevens essays in preparation for Stanley Cavell's talk on Friday. Someone asked why Stevens was interesting and David F. said something about Stevens's poetry being about conceptual and non-conceptual perceptual content. David F. then told the story of Stevens's employment at an insurance agency (vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company), and how a literary agent who was trying to track Stevens down caused a stir at the insurance agency by mentioning a book of his poems to an oblivious co-worker. According to David F., his co-workers could not believe that "Wally" Stevens was an accomplished poet.

Jason B. later showed up and also told a story about Stevens, which began, "It's interesting how it's not very interesting that Stevens was an insurance salesman". Nat H. was interested in hearing more, since David F. had just reported that fact as if it
were interesting.

Jason B. said that he heard a talk (at the Franke Institute?) given by someone who had done research on early 20th century New England insurance agencies and found that it was not uncommon for them to produce in-house literary journals. So there would have been lots of insurance-salesman-poets when Stevens was writing.

"Why haven't we heard of all these other insurance poets?" someone asked.

"They weren't very good" Jason B. replied.

Discussion then moved on to a thought experiment raised in a class on perception involving a lasers, a flesh-colored bodystocking and a heliotrope sweater. There was some dispute about what color "heliotrope" was. The OED says that it's a shade of purple. Follow this link to a picture of the flowers the color is named after:

Stage II: More Discussion of the Causal Theory of Names

Jason B. got discussion moving by asking if we thought Kripke's methodological claim about purported counterexamples to linguistic analyses was right.

The methodological principle goes as follows: If you imagine a language in which the analysis is true, and the purported counterexamples still occur in that language, then the analysis (e.g. Russell's analysis of definite descriptions) has not been refuted by the counterexamples.

Chris F. bravely took a stab at assessing the correctness of the methodological principle. He got as far as describing Kripke's argument against Donnellan: (1) that Donnellan's phenomenon is meant as a counterexample to Russell's theory of definite descriptions, but (2) it is only a counterexample if it counts as a semantic distinction; and (3) it does not count as a semantic distinction--only a pragmatic one.

During this discussion there was some confusion over the proper pronunciation of "teetotaler", a word Kripke uses in describing the purported champagne quaffer in the corner in Donnellan's example. Chris F. preferred "teeto-taler" (said like "teeter-totter"), others demurred.

The methodological question not yet resolved, discussion then turned to the causal theory of names. Nat H. tried to link the topic of this paper with David F.'s worry from last time.

David F.'s worry was that I might, according to the causal theory of reference, count as satisfying the conditions for referring to the island typically referred to as "Globula" with my use of the word, but have a consistent personal use of the word to refer to Will S (say I keep a diary where I record lots of observations about what I think is Globula). Should we say, with the causal theory, that I am saying and thinking a large number of things about the island that are absurdly false (such as that it has a distinctive haircut and is a snappy dresser), or that I am saying and thinking a large number of true things about Will S.? To David F. (and others) it seemed obvious what the answer would be: I am referring to Will S., not the island.

In David F.'s case, the causal chain connecting my use of "Globula" with other members of my community seems unimportant. What is important is my consistent name-using practice.

There was then some extended discussion of the "interpretationist" (Davidsonian) alternative to the causal theory of names. Roughly, the interpretationist holds that a speaker refers to a particular object with his use of a name just in case taking him to refer to that object with that name makes the best overall sense of his behavior.

The interpretationists among the workshop attendees were Kripkean in the following way: they would include reference to causal chains in the relevant features one could rely on in making sense of a person's utterances. So, for example, if
I say things like "I wonder what Feinman's favorite breakfast cereal was", when I don't have any beliefs about Feinman other than that he's a famous physicist, I should be interpreted as referring to Feinman in virtue of having acquired the name from some other users of the language. I shouldn't be interpreted as believing that the description "the famous physicist" is uniquely satisfied and wondering about whoever uniquely satisfies that description. To that extent, then, the interpretationists agreed that Kripke was right to suggest the importance of causal connections to our name-using practices.

Jason B. worried that the interpretationists were also individualists--that they would deny the importance of pre-existing linguistic institutions to our name using practices. But Aidan G. and Nat H. objected--why wouldn't an interpretationist want to make use of every possible resource in making sense of a speaker, including the speaker's participation in all kinds of institutions and his causal imbeddedness in his social and physical world? David F. had our backs on this one.

At this point, Nat H. observed sotto voce to Jason B. that this kind of interpretationism that wants to accommodate all of Kripke's insights without embracing a causal theory of names is Evans's view in "The Causal Theory of Names".

David F. felt sicker. He said, "It was fun" and left.

At some point in the discussion after David F. left, Jason B. said that Naming and Necessity was perhaps unique among philosophical books in that it was 99% true.

Stage III: Return to the Methodological Question

Once we had gotten to the bottom of the causal theory of names, we returned to Jason B.'s original question: is Kripke's methodological principle in "Speaker's Reference and Semantic Reference" right?

Will S. and Chris F. had some concerns that the Strong Russell Language would not be susceptible to the Donnellan counterexamples, but as I left to use the bathroom during their discussion I can't reproduce their arguments.

Jason B. wondered what result Kripke's methodological principle would give if we introduced a language in which a particular analysis (e.g. Russell's) were true, and the purported counterexamples happed less often than in English (rather than never). Would the analysis be a little bit false?

At the end of the workshop we debated the merits of staying with the names discussion and reading either Evans's "Causal Theory of Names" or Davidson's "Nice Derangement". Nat H. argued that we had roughly reproduced the conclusion of Evans's paper, and that since we only had two sessions left we should move on to lecture III.

Which we will, in two weeks time.


Jason Bridges said...

A great summary.

Just to be pedantic, my objection was not so much to interpretationism as it was to the interpretationist objection to Kripke that some people were pushing in the discussion. My thought was that to the extent that one believed that the interpretationist idea was opposed to Kripke, one would have to be understanding that idea in an unwarrantedly individualistic way.

Jay Elliott said...

On Friday, Chris very nicely informed me that the interpretation I had suggested for "teetotaler", namely that it refers to one who T-totally abstains from drink, was correct. I want to thank Chris for looking into this, and I want to apologize to Jason for bringing this up again.

Anonymous said...


Who's this Wyeth Hansen linked to on the front page?

Nat Hansen said...

Wyeth Hansen is my brother, a philosophically-informed graphic designer working out of Brooklyn.

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