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Proper names

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-X031-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

The Roman general Julius Caesar was assassinated on 14 March 44 bc by conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius. It is a remarkable fact that, in so informing or reminding the reader, the proper names ‘Julius Caesar‘, ‘Brutus’ and ‘Cassius’ are used to refer to three people each of whom has been dead for about two thousand years. Our eyes could not be used to see any of them, nor our voices to talk to them, yet we can refer to them with our words.

The central philosophical issue about proper names is how this sort of thing is possible: what exactly is the mechanism by which the user of a name succeeds in referring with the name to its bearer? As the example indicates, whatever the mechanism is, it must be something that can relate the use of a name to its bearer even after the bearer has ceased to exist.

In modern philosophy of language there are two main views about the nature of the mechanism. On one account, which originated with Frege, a use of a name expresses a conception or way of thinking of an object, and the name refers to whatever object fits, or best fits, that conception or way of thinking. Thus with ‘Cassius‘, for example, I may associate the conception ‘the conspirator whom Caesar suspected because of his size’ (recalling a famous speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). Conception theories are usually called ‘sense’ theories, after Frege’s term ‘Sinn‘. The other account is the ‘historical chain’ theory, due to Kripke and Geach. In Geach’s words, ’ for the use of a word as a proper name there must in the first instance e someone acquainted with the object named…. But…the use of a given name for a given object…can be handed on from one generation to another…Plato knew Socrates, and Aristotle knew Plato, and Theophrastus knew Aristotle, and so on in apostolic succession down to our own times. That is why we can legitimately use “Socrates” as a name the way we do’ (1969–70: 288–9).

Citing this article:
Forbes, Graeme. Proper names, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-X031-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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