Philosophical Approaches to Proper Names

by Piotr Stalmaszczyk (Volume editor) Luis Fernández Moreno (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 228 Pages


The articles in this collection focus on philosophical approaches to proper names. The issues discussed include abstract names, empty names, naming and name-using practices, definite descriptions, individuals, reference, designation, sense and semantics. The contributions show the importance and lasting influence of theories proposed by John Stuart Mill, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Donald Davidson, and Saul Kripke. Individual chapters assess traditional analyses and modern controversies, and contribute to the debate on proper names in contemporary philosophy of language.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • Luis Fernández Moreno & Piotr Stalmaszczyk - Introduction: Philosophical Approaches to Proper Names
  • Manuel García-Carpintero - Predicativism and the Mill-Frege Theory of Proper Names
  • Dolf Rami - Names, Naming and Name-Using Practices
  • Stefano Predelli - Millian Dubbings: A Double-Context Approach to Name-Types
  • Eros Corazza, Dylan Hurry, Ryan Rafferty - On Naming: Frege Deconstructed vs. Perry Reconstructed
  • André Bazzoni - Names and Individuals
  • Marián Zouhar - Against Descriptivism: On an Essential Difference between Proper Names and Definite Descriptions
  • Michael McKinsey - Truths Containing Empty Names
  • Siu-Fan Lee - Can There Be a Davidsonian Theory of Empty Names?
  • Index

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List of Contributors

André Bazzoni

University of California, Berkeley, USA


Eros Corazza

ILCLI, The University of the Basque Country UPV-EHU, Donostia, Spain

IKERBASQUE, Basque Foundation for Science, Bilbao, Spain

Carleton University, Ottawa ON, Canada


Luis Fernández Moreno

Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain


Manuel García-Carpintero

LOGOS-Departament de Lògica, Història i Filosofia de la Ciència

Universitat de Barcelona


Dylan Hurry

Carleton University, Ottawa ON, Canada


Siu-Fan Lee

Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong


Michael McKinsey

Wayne State University, USA


Stefano Predelli

University of Nottingham, UK

stefano.predelli@nottingham.ac.uk ← 7 | 8 →

Ryan Rafferty

Carleton University, Ottawa ON, Canada


Dolf Rami

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany


Piotr Stalmaszczyk

University of Łódź, Poland


Marián Zouhar

Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, Slovak Republic


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Luis Fernández Moreno

Complutense University of Madrid

Piotr Stalmaszczyk

University of Łódź

Introduction: Philosophical Approaches to Proper Names

Knowledge of high things is hard to gain;

and surely knowledge of names is no small matter.

Plato, Cratylus (384b)

The debates about proper names can be traced back to at least Plato’s Cratylus. However, the predecessors of the most important debates on proper names in the contemporary philosophy of language are J. S. Mill, G. Frege and B. Russell, even though most of their main theses concerning proper names are subject to various, and even conflicting, interpretations. In any case, contemporary scholars investigating proper names must adopt, at least as a background, a position regarding the views of those authors.1

Mill maintained that proper names have denotation, but not connotation. However, Mill explicitly identified the meaning of an expression with its connotation from which it would follow that proper names, which in his view are non-connotative terms, have no meaning; in fact, Mill asserts that proper names lack in meaning (see e.g. 1843: 34 and 136) and even that the characteristic property of proper names is to lack in meaning (1843: 133). According to the compositionality principle, this would entail the implausible claim that the propositions containing proper names will be meaningless, and in this regard it should be remarked that Mill conceives propositions as linguistic entities, i.e., as sentences. However, ← 9 | 10 → when Mill puts forward the distinction between connotative and non-connotative names or terms he asserts concerning singular non-connotative names, i.e., proper names, that a proper name “signifies a subject only” (Mill 1843: 31). Although in such context Mill seems to use “signify” as interchangeable with “denote”, in other contexts he seems to use it in a broad sense. Given such ambiguity, many authors, contrary to Mill’s literal assertions, attribute to Mill the thesis that the meaning of a proper name is its referent (the individual denoted by the name), i.e., its bearer; in this way, the identification in Mill’s theory of the meaning of a proper name with its denotation enables sentences containing proper names to have meaning. In any case, the contribution of a proper name to the truth-conditions of the sentences containing it is its denotation.

As it is well known, Mill’s theory on proper names or rather a Millian theory that identifies the meaning of a proper name with its referent faces some problems. First, to explain the different cognitive value of some identity sentences; thus, e.g., the statement “Phosphorus is Hesperus” has a different cognitive value from the sentence “Phosphorus is Phosphorus”, but if the meaning of a proper name is its referent both sentences would assert the identity of an object to itself and hence both identity sentences would have the same cognitive value. Frege (1892) noted that the same problem arises if the identity was conceived as a relation between objects and the only semantic dimension of names were their reference; precisely in order to account for that difference of cognitive value he introduced the notion of sense (Sinn).

Another problem for a Millian theory involves affirmative existential sentences containing proper names; the sentence “Venus exists” is intuitively contingently true, but if the meaning of a proper name is its bearer and hence an existing object, such sentence would assert of an object whose existence should be presupposed for the sentence to have meaning that it does exist, and then the sentence would be necessarily true. Although we will pay more attention to that sort of existential sentences, a Millian theory also comes up against problems with negative existential sentences containing proper names; those whose subject has a bearer become necessarily false and those whose subject has no reference become meaningless and hence not true, although they are intuitively true, e.g., the sentence “Vulcan does not exist”. Another problem related to the latter concerns the meaningfulness of sentences containing empty names; the sentence “Vulcan is a planet” is a meaningful sentence, but the name “Vulcan” has no bearer and if the meaning of a name is its bearer the sentence “Vulcan is a planet” would be meaningless. Yet another problem involves the failure of substitutivity in referentially opaque contexts, like the contexts of propositional attitude. Let us suppose that we express ← 10 | 11 → a belief of John’s by the sentence “John believes that Superman has extraordinary powers” and let us assume that this sentence is true; however, it is possible that the sentence “John believes that Clark Kent has extraordinary powers” is false, although the names “Superman” and “Clark Kent” are coreferential.

Frege’s theory solves some of these problems. According to Frege the sense of an expression plays various roles, but two of them are the following: it is the informative value or cognitive value of an expression (thus, sense is an epistemic notion) and it also determines its reference (thus, sense is a semantic notion). Although Frege’s conception of the sense of a proper name is debatable, some assertions in his writings (1892) and (1915) point to the claim that the sense of a proper name is made explicit by a definite description, although this can be different for different speakers. If we leave aside this last qualification, Frege can explain the different cognitive value of the sentences “Phosphorus is Hesperus” and “Phosphorus is Phosphorus”; for this it is required that the names “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” should have, although the same reference, a different sense. However, Frege’s view of existential singular sentences containing proper names as subjects is not intuitive, since all those sentences will be ill-formed; he claims that the concept of existence is a second-level concept, and thus it is a concept under which objects cannot fall; for this reason the expression “exists” cannot be predicated of the proper name “Venus”, which designates an object. Nevertheless, if the sense of a proper name is given by a definite description, e.g., in the case of the name “Venus” by the description “The second planet in the Solar System”, the sense of the sentence “Venus exists” – assuming this sentence has sense – would be the same as that of the sentence “The second planet in the Solar System exists” and the description in question has been built with a monadic predicate. This predicate designates a first-level concept, i.e., a concept under which objects can fall, and since there is an object, i.e., Venus that falls under that concept, such concept falls in the concept of existence, and thus we can justify, in Frege’s framework in opposition to Frege’s literal claims, that the sentence “The second planet in the Solar System exists” is true and hence also the sentence “Venus exists” is true. Since it is also a contingent fact that there is an object that falls under the concept of being a second planet in the Solar System, those sentences are contingently true. A similar proposal would apply to negative existential sentences.

The problem concerning the meaningfulness of sentences with empty names is easily solved by Frege, since although the name “Vulcan” has no reference, it has a sense, made explicit by a definite description – for instance, by the description “the planet causing Mercury’s perihelion precession” −, and thus the sentence “Vulcan is a planet” would be a meaningful sentence. ← 11 | 12 →

The last problem is also solved by Frege but resorting to a rather artificial procedure according to which the reference – and sense − of sentences and of its composing expressions in referentially opaque contexts is different from those in a usual context. In the sort of referentially opaque contexts Frege took into account, the so-called indirect contexts, words, and hence sentences, do not have a usual reference but an indirect reference, which is their usual sense. Thus, if we suppose that the names “Superman” and “Clark Kent” have a different usual sense and thus a different reference in indirect contexts, the example given above will not be one in which substitutivity fails.

As it is well known, Russell put forward two theories of proper names, one of logically proper names and another of proper names in the usual sense, i.e., ordinary proper names (see, e.g., Russell 1918–19). Russell’s logically proper names are Millian names, since their meaning is their referent, although the referents of those names – mainly the demonstratives “this” and “that” − are in Russell’s theory the so-called particulars, i.e., a sort of entities we know by acquaintance in Russell’s sense of this notion, and whose prototypical case are sense data. On the other hand, Russell claimed that ordinary proper names are abbreviated (definite) descriptions – although the description abbreviated by a proper name may differ for different speakers and also for the same speaker at different times. However, there is a sort of descriptions that speakers often associate with a name, i.e., metalinguistic descriptions; thus in the case of the name “Julius Cesar” the description “the man whose name was Julius Cesar” (Russell 1910–1911: 211). In any case, the contribution of a proper name to the proposition expressed by a sentence in whose grammatical form the name appears − in Russell’s view of a proposition conceived as an extra-linguistic entity −, is that of the signs that appear in the analysis of the description that the name abbreviates according to Russell’s theory of definite descriptions. In accordance with that theory, definite descriptions and therefore ordinary proper names are not singular terms but quantificational expressions.

Biographical notes

Piotr Stalmaszczyk (Volume editor) Luis Fernández Moreno (Volume editor)

Piotr Stalmaszczyk is a Professor of English language and linguistics at the University of Łodz (Poland), where he holds the Chair of English and General Linguistics. His research is concerned predominantly with linguistic methodology and the philosophy of language and linguistics. Luis Fernández Moreno studied philosophy at the Complutense University of Madrid and the Free University of Berlin. He works as a Full Professor at the Complutense University. His research mainly concerns the philosophy of language, philosophical logic and philosophy of science.


Title: Philosophical Approaches to Proper Names