Meaning and Modality: A Foundational Study towards a New Theory of Names

Project: Research project

Project Details


This research project aims at making a formal presentation of a novel theory called the Counterfactual Reference Theory of Names and Empty Names (CR) and investigating some related problems regarding the nature of modality. CR tackles particularly the problem of empty reference, namely, how sentences containing non-denoting terms (such as ‘phlogiston’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’) are meaningful even when no objects are denoted and thus no facts are possibly represented by such sentences. It avoids all common approaches, including the denial of names, the postulation of non-existent objects and abstract entities, and the appeal to pretence. Instead, it proposes to explain an empty name by what concrete objects it could refer if it were used as a non-empty term. For example, if the Sherlock Holmes stories were told as history, then ‘Sherlock Holmes’ could refer to some person, even though in our actual language it is fictional. CR uses this characteristic to work out a full account for all standard semantic properties of names including rigidity, individuation and truth-conditions of sentences containing them.

CR was regarded as ‘novel and ingenious’, ‘ambitious’ and ‘certainly worth developing’ by internationally leading scholars Professors Dorothy Edgington (Birkbeck College London and the University of Oxford) and Manual Garcia-Carpintero (the University of Barcelona). It has been presented at nine conferences and seminars at major universities around the globe, receiving wide attention and enthusiastic discussions.

CR raises some interesting questions about the nature of modality. For example, counterfactual referents are possible objects, yet what kind of possibility is involved? What are the differences among physical, metaphysical, conceptual and epistemological possibilities, if any? Are possible worlds real? Could a name counterfactually refer to something logically impossible? These questions do not threaten CR’s validity. However, they are significant and at the forefront discussions of philosophical logic in general. I thus propose to conduct a systematic study to examine them and see how CR would contribute to the current debates.

I divide the enquiry into three sub-categories to which rigorous conceptual analysis and critical arguments will apply. Literature review and textual exegesis on classical works of major theoretical traditions will be sought. So will extensive examples from ordinary usage and linguistic practices. The theories will be then tested on typical examples and be assessed according to their relative explanatory power, metaphysical commitment, and internal coherence. The project aims at producing two journal articles on the nature of modality and one book on the CR.
Effective start/end date1/01/1530/06/17


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