PHL313: Notes on Searle, "Proper Names and Intentionality"

Searle, selections from "Proper Names and Intentionality


Searle writes this assuming he can rely upon his theory of Intentionality, which is a theory of how some kind of mental state can refer to or otherwise "be about" something else, even something that does not exist. For our purposes, we can ignore this issue. However, one should note that Searle has a theory which drives him to be a description theorist about names: he says intentional states, which must include thinking about proper names, are always states with meaning and part of a network of meanings. So, he concludes, they must be explained in terms of meaning.

(Note that Kripke would say that names may have meaning, but (1) that does not have to be their primary role but rather either something they also do, and/or (2) they have meaning because we use the meaning to recognize the thing to which they refer.)

Searle claims there have been four common distortions of the description theory:
  1. It does not require that proper names be "exhaustively analyzed" in general terms.
  2. The analysis is not in terms of words, but rather a kind of cognitive ability.
  3. "Pointing" only works if you have the proper desription!
  4. Kripke is wrong when he says the descriptivist can name a thing by himself alone.

For Searle, the real issue between descriptivism and the causal theory is that the description theory claims proper names refer by meeting certain internal standards (that is, meaning is in the head!). The causal theory, he claims, makes reference something external -- it is not a matter of satisfying internal mental conditions.


Searle claims the Kripkean baptism depends upon descriptions in a way, since it is the social convention and the ability of the person to recognize the thing being baptized, and not any purely physical causal account, that is required for the naming.

There is also, Searle claims, the sneaking in of the intention (goal) of the speakers involved. One must have the goal of referring to this thing and not that (there will be many things in the room, all with causal relations to the speaker), the hearer must have the same goal, and so on.

Searle points to Gareth Evans' problem as a good example of a problem for the causal theory. Evans pointed out that "Madagascar" originally referred to part of Africa. It came to be used to refer to the island we now call "Madagascar." How does such a switch work on the causal theory? There was no new baptism, Evans claims.

Searle also offers a clever response to Kaplan regardings Ramses VIII. This illustrates Searle's notion that reference requires a network of meanings.

Searle also imagines a tribe where the members do not speak of the dead, and all teaching is done by ostentation (pointing) at the thing named. He claims the causal theory never applies! This is because there is never a chain that doesn't include the person perceiving the thing being named (no "hand me down" references). And so, the description theory works for everything here. Note he's imagining then that when I point at water and say "water," you have an experience of perception that he is calling a kind of description. (The point is, if there are not terms being handed down from people who saw the thing to people who didn't, then there could be a memory of an experience associated with each name for each person.)


Searle claims that the causal theory is closet descriptivism. For the causal chain, he claims, does no work. What matters is that (1) I use a name "handed down" to me in my community in the way that others in my commmunity use it; and that (2) this got started correctly. Kripke says the start is the initial baptism, but Searle says for the initial baptism to work it must be somehow the case that we set it up so that the baptism clearly picked out one this thing being named. This, he says, is done with a description or meaning (perhaps given in perception -- I am here using the term "meaning" throughout as a synonym for "intentional" in the sense of intentionality).


Searle claims that the historical account is descriptivist, but that there are some important differences.
  1. The "causal chain" is incidental in the descriptivist account.
  2. Lots of information gets transfered in use; it is not just that the user intends to use the term as others use it.
  3. Causal chains can matter, but only because they may help us in some cases to identify the thing to which others in our community mean to refer.


Searle denies the most famous counterexamples have any teeth. He claims this is so because these examples focus on what people say and not on what they actually mean. We have discussed in class only the 1st and 4th of the examples that he answers.

1. Godel did not discover incompleteness; Schmidt did. But here, Searle says, the speaker who says "Godel is the man who discovered incompleteness" has a lot more information, but just doesn't speak it when asked.

4. Twin Earth. The descriptions offered for "water" in 1750 on Earth and Twin Earth would be the same, but on Earth "water" means H2O and o Twin Earth water means XYZ. Searle answers this by saying that the meanings for each of us are indexical: they refer to our speech community. To the use of "water" that I have heard.


Proper names then have several features:
  1. Someone must represent in her mind the object to which someone refers. This requires a kind of description -- that is, a meaningful representation.
  2. Once the community is referring to something (someone started the ball rolling with a representation that picked that thing out) you can rely upon your community's practice. This is like the causal theory in that you pick up and use the term -- but it really depends always upon the background practices of your community.
  3. Reference always depends upon the meaningful context set up by the community.
  4. What can be a referent depends upon the community and the ability to identify and reidentify the thing.

Closing Observations

Searle is mixing questions of meaning with questions in the philosophy of mind about intentionality (that is, questions about how representations are possible in the first place) -- this is likely necessary for any full accounting of meaning.

Note something important. Searle actually offers a version of the description theory that is in important ways externalist: the descriptions all include something like, what my community means by this name. In that case, we might say that the description theory has moved from the naive version that we considered (Searle might claim that the naive version we considered was held by no one -- it might be a parody that Kripke attacks but not anyone's real theory!) to one that is closer to the causal theory because it puts some of meaning "outside the head." (Searle does not think of it as outside the head, because the outside part is not things referred to but rather my community; but still, my community is outside my head.)

I think that this is important because there may be something like a consensus that the meanings of every name cannot always be solely determined by what is in the skull of the individual speaker. This is what I've called "externalism" (the term externalism is more widely used in philosophy of mind than in philosophy of language, but just refers to the idea that some mental states are partly determined by something outside the physical body of the individual in that mental state).