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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U034-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

It is usual to think that referential relations hold between language and thoughts on one hand, and the world on the other. The most striking example of such a relation is the naming relation, which holds between the name ‘Socrates’ and the famous philosopher Socrates. Indeed, some philosophers in effect restrict the vague word ‘reference’ to the naming relation, or something similar. Others use ’reference’ broadly (as it is used in this entry) to cover a range of semantically significant relations that hold between various sorts of terms and the world: between ‘philosopher’ and all philosophers, for example. Other words used for one or other of these relations include ‘designation’, ‘denotation’, ‘signification’, ‘application’ and ‘satisfaction’.

Philosophers often are interested in reference because they take it to be the core of meaning. Thus, the fact that ‘Socrates’ refers to that famous philosopher is the core of the name’s meaning and hence of its contribution to the meaning of any sentence – for example, ‘Socrates is wise’ – that contains the name. The name’s referent contributes to the sentence’s meaning by contributing to its truth-condition: ‘Socrates is wise’ is true if and only if the object referred to by ‘Socrates’ is wise.

The first question that arises about the reference of a term is: what does the term refer to? Sometimes the answer seems obvious – for example, ‘Socrates’ refers to the famous philosopher – although even the obvious answer has been denied on occasions. On other occasions, the answer is not obvious. Does ‘wise’ refer to the property wisdom, the set of wise things, or each and every wise thing? Clearly, answers to this should be influenced by one’s ontology, or general view of what exists. Thus, a nominalist who thinks that properties do not really exist, and that talk of them is a mere manner of speaking, would not take ‘wise’ to refer to the property wisdom.

The central question about reference is: in virtue of what does a term have its reference? Answering this requires a theory that explains the term’s relation to its referent. There has been a great surge of interest in theories of reference in this century.

What used to be the most popular theory about the reference of proper names arose from the views of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell and became known as ‘the description theory’. According to this theory, the meaning of a name is given by a definite description – an expression of the form ‘the F’ – that competent speakers associate with the name; thus, the meaning of ‘Aristotle’ might be given by ‘the last great philosopher of antiquity’. So the answer to our central question would be that a name refers to a certain object because that object is picked out by the name’s associated description.

Around 1970, several criticisms were made of the description theory by Saul Kripke and Keith Donnellan; in particular, they argued that a competent speaker usually does not have sufficient knowledge of the referent to associate a reference-determining description. Under their influence, many adopted ‘the historical–causal theory’ of names. According to this theory, a name refers to its bearer in virtue of standing in an appropriate causal relation to the bearer.

Description theories are popular also for words other than names. Similar responses were made to many of these theories in the 1970s. Thus, Kripke and Hilary Putnam rejected description theories of natural-kind terms like ‘gold’ and proposed historical–causal replacements.

Many other words (for example, adjectives, adverbs and verbs) seem to be referential. However we need not assume that all other words are. It seems preferable to see some words as syncategorematic, contributing structural elements rather than referents to the truth-conditions and meanings of sentences. Perhaps this is the right way to view words like ‘not’ and the quantifiers (like ‘all’, ‘most’ and ‘few’).

The referential roles of anaphoric (cross-referential) terms are intricate. These terms depend for their reference on other expressions in their verbal context. Sometimes they are what Peter Geach calls ‘pronouns of laziness’, going proxy for other expressions in the context; at other times they function like bound variables in logic. Geach’s argument that every anaphoric term can be treated in one of these two ways was challenged by Gareth Evans.

Finally, there has been an interest in ‘naturalizing’ reference, explaining it in scientifically acceptable terms. Attempted explanations have appealed to one or more of three causal relations between words and the world: historical, reliable and teleological.

Citing this article:
Devitt, Michael. Reference, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U034-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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