Carsten Hansen

Carsten Hansen
Lecture 2006
Kripke and Searle
This lecture focusses on the following:
1. Kripke’s own view of how the reference of a name is determined.
2. An assessment of Kripke’s own view, as well as his criticism of the ‘descriptivist view’ (the
‘Frege-Russell’ view).
3. The main points of Searle’s response to Kripke.
1. What conclusions ought we to draw from Kripke’s arguments against ‘descriptivism’ ,
and what does Kripke take to be the correct picture or theory of how reference is
Kripke has formulated a series of noteworthy counter-examples to the ‘descriptive’ theory of
reference – at least as he has stated the latter.
Kripke’s counter-examples are designed to show that there are cases in which we would
intuitively judge that a person does manage to use a name to refer, despite the fact that one
or more of the conditions of the ‘descriptivist’ theory are not satisfied, as well as cases in
which we would intuitively judge that, even when the descriptivist’s conditions are satisfied,
they give the wrong result.
In short, the examples appear to show that the descriptivist theory of reference fails to
articulate either necessary or sufficient conditions for successful reference.
What are we to make of this? Kripke poses the question by asking:
Can we rescue the theory?
As we have already seen, his answer is ’no’:
What I think the examples I’ve given show is not simply that there’s some technical
error here or some mistake there, but that the whole picture given by this theory of
how reference is determined seems to be wrong from the fundamentals. It seems to
be wrong to think that we give ourselves some properties which somehow qualitatively
uniquely pick out an object and determine our reference in that manner. (282)
Now, in order to make up our own minds about the question, and to assess Kripke’s
contribution to the debate, we first have to look at the alternative picture that he puts forward.
In other words, we need to consider the question:
If the descriptivist theory is so utterly wrong, then what is it that determines the
reference of a proper name, as used by a given speaker?
2. Kripke’s ‘better picture’ of how the reference of a proper name is determined – ‘initial
baptisms’ and ‘chains of communication’:
Kripke’s account has two central elements.
The one that he elaborates first (and which Searle later puts considerable emphasis on) is
the idea of a ‘chain of communication’ or ‘causal chain’ as he puts it a bit later (p.281).
To see what lies behind this suggestive image, let’s go back to the first problem that Kripke
poses for descriptivism:
How is it possible for a speaker to use the name ‘Feynman’ to refer to the man
Feynman even though the speaker cannot provide an ‘identifying description’ of
According to Kripke, this is because
“…a chain of communication going back to Feynman himself has been established, by
virtue of his membership in a community which passed the name on from link to link,
not by a ceremony that he makes in private in his study: “By ‘Feynman’ I shall mean
the man who did such and such and such and such”… (281,italics added)
That this is indeed the central idea that Kripke aims to capture with his talk of ‘chains of
communication’ can be seen by his repeated empasis of it:
[in general] it’s in virtue of our connection with other speakers in the community,
going back to the referent himself, that we refer to a certain man. (282, italics added)
And later:
In general our reference depends not just on what we think ourselves, but on other
people in the community, the history of how the name reached one, and things like
that’ (282).
This seems plausible enough.
But why is there a need for a second element in Kripke’s over-all picture?
Well, any philosophical theory/claim can (and should) be viewed as an answer to a
question. What we need to know is this:
To which question can the idea of a ‘chain of communication’ reasonably be seen as
an answer?
Presumably, it can only be a question along following lines:
What enables a speaker to successfully use a name with an already established
Because it is only when a name has, or is assumed to have, an already established
usage, that it makes sense for a person to intend to use it with the same reference as
the man from whom he or she originally learned of the name.
Notice, in contrast, that the idea of a ‘chain of communication’ cannot be seen as an answer
to the following question:
How can a name come to have a reference in the first place?
Kripke’s answer to this last question is contained in his idea of ‘an initial baptism’
The notion of an ‘initial baptism’ is meant to describe the circumstances in which
someone ‘first gives someone or something a name.’ And that is to say, the
circumstances under which a linguistic expression comes to function as a name.
1 That is to say, a linguistic expression that functions as a name in the linguistic community to which the
speaker belongs.
Both elements are present, when Kripke finally gives us a thumbnail sketch of his theory
A rough statement of a theory might be the following: [1] An initial ‘baptism’ takes
place. Here the object may be named by ostension, or the reference of the name
may be fixed by a description. [2] When the name is ‘passed from link to link,’ the
receiver of the name must, I think, intend when he learns it to use it with the same
reference as the man from whom he heard it. (Numbering added.)
3. A preliminary assessment of Kripke’s criticism of ‘descriptivism’, of Kripke’s own
picture, and of the over-all significance of his discussion of the linguistic practice of using
I. First, here are two reasons for supposing that Kripke hasn’t managed to show that the
‘Frege-Russell’ theory of how reference is determined is wrong from the fundamentals:
(a) The first thing to remember is that Kripke doesn’t claim that the description theory never
gets things right. Rather, he claims that it is almost never right:
"Only in a rare class of cases, ..., are all of (2)-(5) true" (p.278, see also p. 282
2. column)
But then what is that rare class of cases in which ‘the description picture is true’?
Well, the words that were left out in the quote right above were:
‘….usually initial baptisms…’
Remember, then, that according to Kripke’s own theory, any use of any name presupposes
that it has undergone an ‘initial baptism’ – that’s what explains how it comes to have a
reference in the first place:
Furthermore, the initial bapism ‘is explained in terms either of fixing a reference by
description, or ostention (if ostension is not to be subsumed under the other category).’
(Note: Kripke is here acknowledging that ’ostensive definitions’ count as ’fixing a reference
by description’, at least in a loose sense of ’description’. And it is only if ’description’ is used
in such a loose sense that there is any reason to suppose that Frege, or Searle for that
matter, was committed to the idea that the sense of a name can be captured by a
But if it is the descriptive theory (or the phenomena to which it appeals) which explains how
names come to have reference in the first place, then that theory hasn’t been rejected
Rather, it appears as a central and indispensable part of Kripke’s own theory (or picture).
And this is so, even if Kripke should turn out to be right in claiming that the description
theory gives the wrong account of most cases of our uses of names.
(Note: we can arrive at this - tentative - conclusion even without considering what we are
ultimately to think of Kripke’s counter-examples.)
(b) The second reason for doubting that Kripke has shown that the ‘Frege-Russell’ theory is
fundamentally wrong has to do with what Frege and Russell were trying to explain.
Remember that the different elements in Kripke’s picture can be seen as answers to different
(1) What enables a speaker to successfully use a name with an already established
reference?2 (Kripke: the ‘causal chain’ element.)
(2) How can a linguistic expression come to function as a name in the first place?
How can a name come to have a reference in the first place? (Kripke: initial
Similarly, in assessing Frege and Russell, we need to consider what their theories are most
plausibly seen as answers to.
Frege, of course, insisted that sense is communicable. But his major concerned was never
with the nature of public languages and the use of names in communication. And something
similar holds for Russell.
2 That is to say, a linguistic expression that functions as a name in the linguistic community to which the
speaker belongs.
Rather, it seems much more plausible to suppose that they were primarily concerned with
questions of the second kind.
(Later philosophers working in the traditions of Frege and Russell may be more vulnerable to
Kripke’s criticisms – but here we need to take Searle’s vigourous denial into account.)
II. The over-all significance of Kripke’s discussion of the linguistic practice of using
The above remarks don’t imply that Kripke hasn’t made an important contribution to our
understanding of the linguistic practice of using names. Here’s a list of some valuable
contributions, not all of which are visible in the excerpt of Naming and Necessity that we
have read.
(a) One of the most important contributions consists in his entirely correct emphasis on the
social aspect of language use. (Cf. Putnam who has relatedly emphasized ‘the linguistic
division of labour’, in connection with our use of ‘natural kind terms’.)
Searle emphasizes that he had already pointed to the fact that there are what he calls
‘parasitic’ uses of names – cases where a speaker is not him- or herself able to
determine the reference of a name, and has to rely on others to do so.
Kripke, in contrast, doesn’t just acknowledge this possibility - he emphasizes its
ubiquity. And given the fact that the phenomenon is so widespread, Kripke seems
justified in highlighting it in the context of a description of the linguistic practice of
using names.
(b) Another contribution, I think, consisted in forcing his ‘descriptivist’ opponents to get
clearer on just what they meant by a ‘description’ when saying that the reference of a name
is fixed by an associated description, or set of descriptions.
What kind of ‘description’ would do? One couched in wholly general terms, i.e. predicates
and quantifiers? Searle maintains that he never had such a restriction in mind, and he is
probably right. However, it would appear that a number of other philosophers had thoughts
of that kind.
A related point has to do with the need to go beyond the language of predicate logic in order
to study the phenomenon of linguistic reference, and, in particular, the need to study the role
of demonstratives in determining reference. This comes out in connection with Kripke’s
emphasis of the role of ostention in connection with ‘initial baptisms’.
Kripke himself, however, has not developed anything like a theory of demonstratives. Here,
the most important work has been done by others, shortly after the publication of Naming and
Necessity. Arguably, the two most important figures are David Kaplan, and Gareth Evans.
(c) A valuable idea that we haven’t had time to look at is that of a ‘rigid designator’. One of
Kripke’s theses in the book is that names are rigid designators, whereas descriptions are
generally not.
(d) Another reason for the huge influence of Kripke’s work has to do with his use of the
idea of a ‘causal chain’ and what other philosophers have tried to do with it. This has to do
with the central importance in recent philosophy of mind and language of the issue over
The issue over naturalism is the question whether it may be possible to give (reductive)
accounts of linguistic meaning and intentional content, as well as of the so-called qualitative
aspects of our conscious experience (‘qualia’) in naturalistically acceptable terms. In short,
one of the central issues in your philosophy of mind class.
Kripke himself is entirely explicit in our excerpt that he is not attempting to give a reductive
analysis of the notion of reference. (Indeed, Naming and Necessity also contains an
argument against physicalism.)
Nevertheless, other philosophers saw in his talk of ‘causal
chains’ at least the beginnings of a naturalistic answer to the question how reference is
possible, and have tried to develop a reductive theory on the basis of Kripke’s work.
(Michael Devitt is one such philosopher.)
(e) Finally, there are important issues about the relation between language and thought
(and between public languages and idiolects) that begin to surface in Kripke’s work – in the
form of his distinction between a description’s ‘giving the meaning’ and its ‘fixing the
reference’ of a name – that philosophers have not, I believe, fully appreciated.
12. Searle’s defence of ‘descriptivism’ in the light of Kripke’s work:
Searle wants to establish three main points in response to Kripke:
(A) Kripke’s ‘picture’ is not an alternative to descriptivism, it is actually a form of
Now, we have already noted some good reasons for supposing that Searle is right on this
(a) Given that we allow that ‘ostensive definitions’ count as a form of description, ‘initial
baptisms’ fall under the head of ‘descriptivism’.
(b) Furthermore, Kripke’s notion of a ‘chain of communication’ makes essential use of the
idea of , intending to use a name with the same reference as the man from whom the
person originally heard it. In a sufficiently loose sense, this too seems to give us a
‘descriptive condition’ for the use of a name.
At any rate, as Searle makes clear, appealing to such an idea is fully consistent with
‘descriptivism’. And so, Searle appears to be right in this first point.
(B) It is a less attractive, less plausible, version of descriptivism than the one Searle
himself defends:
(a) In part, Searle aims to show this by presenting the following counter-examples to Kripke’s
theory (at the same time as he claims to be able to meet Kripke’s counter-examples to his
own theory):
i. Evan’s ‘Madagascar’ example - shows that Kripke’s theory fails to give us sufficient
conditions of successful reference.
ii. Kaplan’s example of ‘Ramses VIII’ – shows that it fails to give us necessary conditions as
well (there need be no causal chains leading back to Ramses VIII, and no ‘initial baptism’).
iii. The ‘M street’ example.
iv. The case of reference to abstract objects.
(b) Furthermore, Searle argues that Kripke’s view is much less attractive, because it fails to
capture ‘what is central and essential to the operation of the institution of proper names’
This Searle aims to establish with his of the tribe:
We are asked to imagine that ‘everybody in the tribe knows everybody else and that newborn
members of the tribe are baptized at ceremonies attended by the entire tribe…
The significance according to Searle: this tribe has an institution of proper names in exactly
the same way that our names are used for reference, but there is not a single use of a
name in the tribe that satisfies the causal chain of communication theory.
Try to make up your own mind about the force of this counter-example!!!
(C) Finally, Searle claims that Kripke’s ‘causal theory of reference’ fails to live up to its
own ambition – that of providing a theory of reference in which there is a ‘purely causal’,
‘non-descriptivist’ element.
To understand this claim, we need to look at what Searle takes to be the heart of the issue
between ‘descriptivists’ and ‘causal theorists’. (See also p. 309):
‘…the issue…is whether reference succeeds in virtue of the fact that the object referred to
fits or satisfies some associated description or whether reference is achieved by virtue of
some facts about the world quite independently of how those facts are represented in the
mind: some condition which the utterance of the expression meets which is independent of
the contents of any associated description.’
‘Kripke and Donnellan claim to be arguing against the conception of reference by way of
associated Intentional content and in favour of external causal conditions.’
Is it plausible to attribute such an ambition to Kripke?
At least on the basis of what we have read – and given the role speaker’s intentions play in
Kripke’s theory - it doesn’t seem that there are adequate grounds for attributing such an
ambition to Kripke.
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