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Using Russell's theory of descriptions - An oddity
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7: Designators

 

A designator is a singular word or noun phrase which could be used to refer to something - e.g. "John", "butter", "I", "9","the oldest man in Scotland", "Farmer Giles's cow". (For a more thorough, and more restrictive account, see Hodges, Section 26.)

 

Purely Referential occurrences (p.r.o.'s)

In some cases a designator, "D", is used in an attempt simply to refer to D. (Of course, the attempt may fail - if there is no such thing as D - e.g. "Hugh Rice's cow is brown".) Such occurrences are p.r.o.'s

In the following examples the underlined occurrences of designators are not p.r.o.'s.

(E1) John wants to be the first man to swim the Atlantic. (We can assume the speaker will not be intending to refer to the first person to swim the Atlantic, because he need not believe there is such a person.)

 

(E2) "Tony Blair" is the name of the Prime Minister. (The underlined expression, which does not include the inverted commas, is not being used to refer to Tony Blair; the expression which includes the inverted commas, on the other hand, is being used to refer to the name.)

(E3) Dartmouth is so called because it is on the mouth of the Dart. ("Dartmouth" is being used to refer to Dartmouth indeed, but it isn't just being used to do that. It is also being used to refer to the name, "Dartmouth".)

One help with deciding whether an occurrence of "D" in a declarative sentence is a p.r.o. is to apply the following tests - if the occurrence fails any of them it is not a p.r.o.

Test 1. For the sentence to be true, must there be such thing as D, and just one such thing? (The idea is that if the function of "D" is to refer to D, the sentence should not be true unless there is some one thing which "D" in fact refers to: i.e. unless there is such a thing as D, and only one such thing. Of course we must allow people to count as things.)

 

Test 2. Suppose one replaces "D" in the sentence with "it" and adds "there is or was or will be something such that" at the beginning; does the truth of the new sentence follow from the truth of the original? (The idea is that, if the function of "D" is to refer to D, if what the sentence says is true of D, it must be that there is or was or will be something of which it is true.)

Test 3. (a) (If there is such a thing as D) would it make no difference to the truth‑value of the sentence if "D" were replaced with some other designator with the same reference? (b) (If there is no such thing as D) if there had been such a thing as D, would it have made no difference to the truth value of the sentence, if "D" had been replaced with some other designator with the same reference? (The idea is that, if the function of "D" is just to refer to D, it won't matter how the referring is done.)

 

Of the examples above:

 

(E1) fails test 1.

 

(E2) fails test 2. (It is not true that there is or was or will be something such that "it" is the name of the Prime Minister.)

 

(E3) fails test 3. (Dartmouth is the home of the Naval Academy. But, whereas the original sentence was true, "The home of the Naval Academy is so called because it is on the mouth of the Dart" is not.)

The following fail at least one of the tests:

 

(E4) Elizabeth II became the queen of England in 1952. (Fails test 3: she didn't become the wife of Prince Philip in 1952.)

 

(E5) Oedipus believes that he has married Jocasta. (Fails test 3: he doesn't believe that he has married his mother. Also fails test 1: although, for the sentence to be true, Oedipus must believe that there is such a person as Jocasta, he doesn't have to be right.)

 

Contexts which concern what a person believes, wants, hopes, fears, knows, says (and so on) are intentional contexts. Very often occurrences of designators in these contexts fail test 3, because the designator describes the way the person in question thinks of D (if there is such a thing).

 

In this case Oedipus thinks of Jocasta as Jocasta. He doesn't think of her as his mother, although that is what she is. For the same reason designators in such contexts often fail test 1 too: if the sentence is to be true, the person in question needs (perhaps) to think that there is such a thing as D, but that doesn't always mean that there actually has to be such a thing. ("John knows that D" obviously differs in this respect from "John believes that D")

 

You should notice, however, that sometimes occurrences of designators in intentional contexts are p.r.o.'s. For instance:

 

One of the things John believes about Tony Blair is that he is Prime Minister.

 

Here "Tony Blair" is not (presumably) being used to capture the way John is thinking of Tony Blair.

 

"Tony Blair" is also most likely used purely referentially in such sentences as:

 

John believes Tony Blair to be Prime Minister.

 

And, alas for neatness, the following sentence is probably ambiguous:

 

John believes that Tony Blair is Prime Minister.

 

The speaker may intend to capture the way John thinks of Tony Blair; so, even knowing that Tony Blair was his next-door neighbour last August, he might not be prepared to assert:

 

John believes that my next-door neighbour last August is Prime Minister.

 

In that case the occurrence of "Tony Blair" is not a p.r.o. On the other hand, the speaker may not intend to capture John's way of thinking of Tony Blair. He may say what he says simply on the basis of the fact that John pointed to Tony Blair and said, "That man is Prime Minister". In that case the occurrence is a p.r.o.

 

(E6) It is a necessary truth that, if anyone is the Queen of England, she is a queen. (Fails test 3: it is not a necessary truth that, if anyone is the wife of Prince Philip, she is queen. It also fails tests 1 and 2.)

 

Contexts which concern what is necessary, or possible, or impossible are modal contexts. In such contexts the truth of what is said often depends on there being (or failing to be) some relation between the meanings of the words used, the concepts involved. That is why occurrences of designators in these contexts often fail test 3: even though two designators might refer to the same thing, their meanings (the concepts involved) might differ.

In our example there is a connexion between the meaning of "the Queen of England" and the meaning of "a queen", which is obviously missing in the case of "the wife of Prince Philip".

 

But occurrences of designators in modal contexts are sometimes p.r.o.s. For instance, if we agree with Descartes, we might say:

 

Descartes is of necessity a thinking thing.

 

And, if what we say is true, it would be equally true that

 

The author of Meditations on First Philosophy is of necessity a thinking thing.

 

(And our use of "Descartes" would also pass tests 1 and 2.)

 

Here the truth of what we claim does not depend on the meaning of the designator we use. (That is, it does not depend on the concepts involved; it does, of course depend on the reference of the designator.)

 

Modalities which have to do with the meanings of the words used (as in the example of "the Queen of England") are de dicto modalities (i.e. concerning what is said); modalities which have to do with the nature of the thing (as in the example about Descartes) are de re modalities (i.e. concerning the thing).

 

Alas, here too we can find ambiguous sentences. Consider:

 

32 is of necessity 9.

 

Does "32" pass test 3? Well, let us suppose that the number of the planets is 9. Is the following true?

 

The number of the planets is of necessity 9.

 

It depends how one takes it. If one takes it to be asserting a de dicto necessity, one will say that it is not true, on the grounds that there is no connexion in meaning between "the number of the planets" and "9" - there could have been a different number of planets. On the other hand, if one takes it to be asserting a de re necessity, one will say that it is true, on the grounds that that number (which happens to be the number of the planets) could not have been anything other than 9. So the answer to whether "32" passes test 3 depends on whether one takes that sentence to be asserting a necessity de dicto or de re.

 

(E7) Buttercup is not Hugh Rice's cow. (Fails test 1. Hugh Rice's lack of a cow need not make it untrue.)

 

(E8) There is no such thing as the first cow to jump over the moon. (Fails test 1)

The following passes:

 

(E9) The Queen had in 1840 married Prince Albert. (Does it pass test 3? Surely, one might say, it doesn't. The Queen = Queen Elizabeth II, but, though (E9) is true, it is not true that Queen Elizabeth II had in 1840 married Prince Albert. The reason, of course, is that in the context of (E9) "the Queen" refers to the queen who was alive in 1840 - Queen Victoria - not to Queen Elizabeth II. But the answer is that one must take the context into account when applying the tests.

So when one applies test 3, one must take "the Queen" to be referring to the queen who was alive in 1840, just as it is in (E9). But in that case it is not true that the Queen = Queen Elizabeth; Rather the Queen = Queen Victoria. So it does pass test 3. Also tests 1 and 2.)

Is everything that passes these tests a p.r.o.? Possibly not. As we have already noticed, "Hugh Rice's cow" in (E7) fails test 1; and one can see that this is right: the role of the phrase is not to refer to something; rather it is a description which is said not to be true of Buttercup. But if that is its role there, surely it plays the same role in

 

(E10) Buttercup is Hugh Rice's cow.

 

Here, however, the phrase does pass the tests. So, perhaps, not everything that passes the tests is a p.r.o.

 

And consider:

 

(E11) There is such a thing as the first cow to jump over the moon.

 

Again the phrase passes the tests; but surely it plays the same role here as it did in (E8), where it failed test 1

 


Note: Hodges talks about the primary reference of a designator, and says that an occurrence of "D" is a p.r.o. just if it is being used solely to refer to the primary reference of "D". He says that the primary reference of a designator, "D", in a situation is the thing, if any, that "D" would refer to if it were used on its own in that situation (p. 127).

He also implies that "The Queen" in (E9) would not be a p.r.o. if (E9) were uttered in England now, because the primary reference of "the Queen" would then be Queen Elizabeth II. But in fact there could be a situation in England now in which "the Queen" on its own might refer to Victoria - e.g. if the topic of conversation were Victoria.

That being so, it is not clear why the uttering of (E9) itself should not make the situation one in which the primary reference was Victoria. In any case it seems that we can dispense with talk of the primary reference.


 

Hodges's test (revised): Can one paraphrase the sentence as, "D is a person (thing) who (which, such that).... he (she, it)..."? (p. 128) This should give the same result as the tests above (if one allows for context).

(N.B. He actually adds, "granted the assumption that "D" has a primary reference". This would give a different result for (E6); but it seems to be a mistake if we are concerned with whether the designator is being used to refer, rather than the different question of whether the designator can be translated as an individual constant. We turn to that question next.)

 

 

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