March 27, 2009

The quote from yesterday’s quiz was from the inimitable David Kaplan, in the article “Words” (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, LXIV 1990). As Robbie mentioned in the comments “Words” is such a cool paper. I want to give an example of how cool it is.

It’s tempting to think of words, repeatable things that the are, as the types of token inscriptions, jottings, arrangements of pixels, utterances and all of the other kinds of ways we find to express words. Kaplan argues in “Words” that this isn’t right. I won’t rehearse the argument here, but I’ll tell you about one example he gives along the way.

Consider the special case of names. My name – ‘Greg’ – is, in one sense, the same name as Greg Currie’s name – we share the generic name ‘Greg’. In another sense, in the sentence

Greg wrote Arts and Minds but Greg wrote Logic.

the two uses of the string ‘Greg’ are different names, and different words. They don’t have the same referent, and hence, they don’t have the same meaning. Saying it like that (without the addition of surnames) is not necessarily the clearest way to say it, but if you get both of us together – last done in a pub in Nottingham in October 2005 – you could say exactly those words and make perfectly good, non-confusing sense.

Now, you might think that the two uses of the generic name ‘Greg’ are different words because they differ in referent, and that the only way two names of the same type could genuinely be two (and not one name after all) is that the case is like this – that they have different referents.

David Kaplan, in “Words” gives a delightful counterexample:

Let me tell you about the case of the mischievous Babylonian. One evening, the mischievous Babylonian looked up and saw Venus, and he thought to himself “This one is just as beautiful as Phosphorus, so let’s call it ‘Phosphorus’ too”.

The Babylonian names Venus (under the guise of the evening star) ‘Phosphorus’ in honour of ‘Phosphorus’, the morning star, little knowing that he has re-named the one and the same planet.

Just think: later, after learning some more celestial mechanics, the astronomer can say

My goodness! I didn’t know before, but now I see: Phosphorus is Phosphorus!

and this can make perfect sense as something that was discovered.

It turns out that individuating names is not as easy as we might hope. Genealogy, in all is contingent glory, plays a role.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to apply this to the Paderewski case.


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I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. I teach philosophy and logic as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. ¶ Start at the home page of this site—a compendium of recent additions around here—and go from there to learn more about who I am and what I do. ¶ This is my personal site on the web. Nothing here is in any way endorsed by the University of Melbourne.

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