the experimentalists


In one of the most famous arguments of postwar philosophy of language, Saul Kripke addressed a question that had long preoccupied philosophers: how do names refer to people or things? (The larger question here is: How does language get traction on reality?) In a theory that Bertrand Russell made canonical, a name is basically shorthand for a description that specifies the person or thing in question. Kripke was skeptical. He suggested that the way names come to refer to something is akin to baptism: once upon a time, someone or some group conferred the name on an object, and, through the causal chains of history, we borrow that original designation.

To support his case, Kripke offered a thought experiment: Suppose, he asked us to imagine, that Gödel’s theorem was actually the work of a fellow named Schmidt; it’s just that Gödel somehow got hold of the manuscript and thereafter was wrongly credited with its authorship. When those of us who know about “Gödel” only as the theorem’s author invoke that name, whom are we referring to? According to Russell’s view of reference, we’re actually referring to Schmidt: “Gödel” is merely shorthand for the fellow who devised the famous theorem, and Schmidt is the creature who answers to that description. “But it seems to me that we are not,” Kripke declared. “We simply are not.”

more from the NYT Magazine here.