Friday, October 19, 2007

Are proper names general terms?

Consider these examples from Clarence Sloat [1969: "Proper Nouns in English", Language, Vol. 45, No. 1., pp. 26-30].

A man stopped by.--------------------------A Smith stopped by.
*Some man stopped by.--------------------*Some Smith stopped by.
SOme man stopped by. ---------------------SOme Smith stopped by.
Some men stopped by. ----------------------Some Smiths stopped by.
Men must breathe. -------------------------Smiths must breathe.
The clever man stopped by.-----------------The clever Smith stopped by.
The man who is clever stopped by.----------The Smith who is clever stopped by.
A clever man stopped by. -------------------A clever Smith stopped by.
The men stopped by. -----------------------The Smiths stopped by.
The man stopped by.-----------------------*The Smith stopped by.
*Man stopped by. ---------------------------Smith stopped by.

Cf. Burge, 1973: "Reference and Proper Names", Journal of Philosophy 70, 425-439.


tanas said...

Hi Brian,

If 'Smith' is taken as proper name, the right side examples don't make sense to me.

However if 'Smith' is taken for 'man called Smith', and 'Smiths' for 'men called Smith' then they make sense, but those are descriptions I think and not proper names in that case.

Brian Rabern said...

What does "taken as a proper name" mean? I guess you mean something like treated as an individual constant or treated as a singular term.

I agree that the sentences don't make sense if you treat the tokens of 'Smith' in that manner [Thats the point]. And your right that they do make sense if you treat the tokens of 'Smith' as a general term for something like the things that bear 'Smith'.

I am suggesting that proper names are just general terms. The evidence is that they act like general terms.

Now you may think that the tokens of 'Smith' in these sentences are not tokens of the proper name 'Smith' they are tokens of the homonymous general term 'Smith'. But why posit this ambiguity?

Jason Newman said...

Hi Brian,

Certainly these examples provide excellent evidence for taking proper names to be (either general terms or lexically ambiguous between a general and singular use).

That much shouldn't be controversial, though of course it is (at least among philosophers of language). But this much I think we should all grant in the face of these kinds of examples.

But you think that these examples provide much more than this: "the evidence is that they act like general terms." So, my question is: do you think there's no evidence that they should be treated as having a singular term-use as well? Or is it that you think that there is such evidence, but that positing ambiguity violates some principle of parsimony or...?

Just trying to get clear on the role that you think these examples play in the argument for your position (which might be my position too).

(In case you're unaware of it, Ian Rumfitt has a new paper that might be of interest to you called "Plural terms: another variety of referring expression?" in the Bermudez-edited volume on themes from Gareth Evans.)

Brian Rabern said...

Hi Jason,

I am actually undecided on this. I am more interested in what considerations decide such an issue.

I do think that a strong case can be made that names are either general terms or lexically ambiguous. And then, like you say, one could appeal to some kind of parsimony principle that favors the general term thesis, e.g. don't multiple sense beyond necessity. [Other considerations: compare with genuine singular terms (indexicals) which don't manifest this ambiguity; some issues coming from the ontology of linguistic expressions.]

Burge (1973): "[The names as general terms] account covers plural and modified occurrences as well as singular, unmodified ones. A [lexical ambiguity] view not only is more complicated in that it must give a different semantics for these different occurrences. But it is also faced with the task of justifying its disunification. Appeal to 'special' uses whenever proper names clearly do not play the role of individual constants is flimsy and theoretically deficient."

But what favors the ambiguity thesis? Sloat (1969) [there has got to be some newer literature on this!] says that one apparent difference is "that 'the' does not appear before the singular proper noun, and the null determiner does not appear before the singular countable common noun". We see this in the last two sentences on the list above. We can't/don't say things like "Book is heavy", "Computer is off", "Cup is empty", whereas if we named my book, computer and cup, 'Bob', 'Ted', and 'Frank', respectively, it would be alright to say "Bob is heavy", "Ted is off", and "Frank is empty". This is the type of consideration that favors the ambiguity thesis. Do other languages allow a determiner before a singular proper noun (e.g. German)?

In any case, I am attracted to the view that in such cases as "Smith stopped by" the determiner is suppressed. It is really "(The) Smith stopped by" [or "(That) Smith stopped by"]. Names as they occur in the singular are usually just part of an incomplete definite descriptions. So both descriptivists and referentialists are terribly mistaken: names are not even singular terms. It is just that the examples we tend to focus on, where names occur as a singular noun, have a suppressed determiner in front. So there is a singular term in the sentence "Smith stopped by"; it is "(the) Smith" not "Smith".

At this point I have no strong arguments for this (and it gets a bit to much into linguistics for me to handle) I just think that it is an interesting and underappreciated position. So confused is Naming and Necessity and its progeny!