Saturday, September 30, 2006

Names in Fiction

Let's assume that 'Alyosha' is an empty name that appears in "The Brothers Karamozov". One might think that if 'Alyosha' is in fact empty, then it is necessarily empty. Here are two reasons to think so.

First, one might be convinced by Williamson style arguments for the conclusion that necessarily everything necessarily exists. If that is the case, then if 'Alyosha' possibly refers and if names are regid designators, then 'Alyosha' in fact refers. But of course names are rigid designators (in some sense). So, if 'Alyosha' possibly refers, then 'Alyosha' in fact refers. Equivalently, if 'Alyosha' does not in fact refer, then 'Alyosha' does not possibly refer. Equivelanly, if 'Alyosha' is in fact empty, then it is necessarily empty.

I want to set aside Williamson style arguments and assume that some things contingently exist. I hope everyone can play along with this.

A second reason to believe in fact empty names are necessarily empty is the following: if 'Alyosha' is in fact empty but it is possible that 'Alyosha' is not empty, then the actual world 'Alyosha' is a different name than the 'Alyosha' of the other possible world. This is a widespread belief in semantics. But I want to consider an alternative view.

Consider the following case. One that I do not buy, but I know some of you will like it. Suppose that sperm S and egg E are not in fact united. If that is the case, then given the necessity of origens and the denial of Williamsonian conclusions, the thing that would have resulted from their uniting does not in fact exist. However, we might introduce a name, 'Fred', by saying "I hereby name whatever would have resulted from the union of S with E 'Fred'" Here it looks like Fred is in fact empty yet it possibly refers.

If we accepted this case, then we would have to deny that for any symbol type N, if N is in fact an empty name but it is possible that N is not an empty name, then the N as used in the actual world is a different name than the N of the other possible world. Thus we have undermined our second reason for believing that 'Alyosha' is necessarily empty.

However, here is a response that someone might have if he wants defend the view that 'Alyosha' is necessarily empty. He might admit that there are strange situations like that involving the name 'Fred' where we have a name that is in fact empty yet possibly non-empty. However, he might say that the situation with 'Alyosha' is not the same. We did not introduce the name 'Alyosha' with a description that happened to pick out a particular merely possible object. Moreover, we can only get names like 'Fred' by invoking such a description. So, if 'Alyosha' is in fact empty, then it is necessarily empty.

This much, some of you might recongnize, is roughly the content of the exchange that David and I had last Wednesday. But now I want to add something for the side of the wierdos. Suppose we said that when an emtpy name is introduced and there is no discription that uniquely picks out a possible referent, then the name is super vague or multiply ambiguous. I am thinking that we might endorse a kind of meaning pluralism according to which sentences involving the name 'Alyosha' express multiple propositions. One proposition for every merely possible individual who satisfies the conditions laid out in the story. In this case, we might say that 'Alyosha' is in fact many empty names and there are many stories expressed by 'The Brothers Karamozov'. Moreover, we could then adopt something like Lewis' strategy for truth in fiction without endorsing counterpart theory.

Okay, I know that this is a false view. But I thought that I would put it out there anyway.


Blogger Chris Tillman said...

One might argue that in order to successfully introduce a name, a baptizer must be in appropriate causal contact with the intended referent or must be able to single out an individual by definite description. But the weirdo suggestion is in sympathy with those that hold these conditions are too strict. So, for instance, Hye-Jung in her writing seminar paper seemed to hold that names may be successfully introduced via indefinite description. For what it's worth, this appears to be Priest's view as well. Some support might be garnered for the view by noting that without hesitation we use demonstratives and anaphora to keep track of discourse items introduced by indefinite description. But it seems to me that someone with a very liberal view of what it takes to successfully introduce names should not hold that names introduces via (e.g.) indefinite description are multiply ambiguous. A better view seems to me to be that these names function just like any other non-empty names. Introducing a name in this way does not put one "en rapport" with a panoply of possibilia; rather, one such entity is singled out "in thought" and it is the referent of the name. So such a name would be weakly non-referring, like 'Fred'.

I have the feeling that this proposal does not take the Oh/Priest view sufficiently seriously, however. What's doing the metasemantic work seems to be something like a "singling out in thought" which would be analogous to "singling out via definite description"; it's just that the speaker need be in no position to provide a description any richer than "the bear I was just thinking/talking about" or whatever. So perhaps Joshua's proposal would have more affinity to the idea that names may be successfully introduced with no singling out whatsoever, which is arguably the insight behind the Oh/Priest view. I gaze incredulously at this version of the view, however.

10:56 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home