How Proper Names Refer – Is Causal Descriptivism Defensible?

    Project: Research project

    Project Details


    In philosophy of names, most studies focus on the question of to what a proper name refers rather than how it refers. The what-question centres on reference determination – whether the semantic function of a name is exhausted by its having a bearer, or that something else, such as sense or descriptions, are responsible for its semantic behaviours. The how-question asks about intentionality, namely how a term comes to be associated with an object and be about it. It probes whether reference-determining processes are purely causal or some normative elements are involved. The usual strategy is to take care of the former but leave the latter unanswered. This project fills the research niche by working backward to examine the latter and use the result to challenge the dominant view of the former. The eventual aim is to motivate a causal descriptive theory of names against the current orthodoxy of direct referentialism.

    To achieve the aims, this research adopts two methodologies. First, it employs the traditional method of philosophical argumentation, literature review, conceptual analysis, etc. to clarify, refute and establish philosophical theses. Second, it sets up empirical research to: (i) gather linguistic data about reference shifts and other anomalous uses of names; and (ii) detect and vindicate our complex intuition to correct name uses. It is relatively unusual for philosophers to employ empirical research in philosophical enquiry. However, empirical data are relevant here because the research concerns how the mind actually works, particularly on a collective level involving the institution of language. Literature in linguistics, psychology and cognitive sciences will be consulted. Cases and stories will be invited in open formats. A survey questionnaire will also be designed and circulated to examine people’s linguistic intuitions and cross-test them across geographical and cultural factors. It is expected that the outcome would be more varied and complex than it is thought to be. A hybrid model will be built to accommodate the results.

    This project will argue how both causal and descriptive elements are present and necessary at every stage of a name-use practice, including initiation and transmission. Descriptive elements play essential roles in the individuation of names and constitute normative criteria for correct name use. Hence, their roles are semantic, rather than merely meta-semantic. The usual distinctions between semantics and meta-semantics and reference-fixing versus meaning-giving are challenged. Causal descriptivism, in being a viable account for the how-question, is also a viable option for the what- question.
    Effective start/end date1/01/1831/12/21


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