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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Your Last Word on Names

Your Last Word on Names

Jeff G
Oakland, CA
Frankly, I don't think I did my best job setting up or leading the discussion on Names, so you will find the approach here departs more than usual from the course of the actual meeting.  For me, this is "practice after the fact"; moreover, I think sharing an idea of "how it could be" could be the least complicated way of making it a reality.  I distributed it more widely on this occasion because (1) I put a lot of work into it, and (2) to satisfy (or create) curiosity about how the recent themes can be addressed.  Bear in mind, however, that this is way more than we could address in any meeting!  (It could provide days of home entertainment, though:-)

This email will be posted at­, and you are encouraged to post your thoughts there.  If you would, copy the question you are addressing at the top of your post.  Take advantage of this email format to edit this list of suggested prompts to your satisfaction.

Here are some questions prompted by our discussion that might inspire you to do some careful thinking. Feel free to write your own, however. A paragraph is a good length, but the key to keeping our attention is stay in touch with the initial "feeling" of your answer:  write a scene, not a play;-).

• "What's in a name?"  Our Top Ten List was an assortment of Interesting Names–Chance, William, Cher, Moon Unit, Seven, Senator, Mary, Dance, Joe(y)–that tried to enumerate our sources for naming babies.  What do these sources say about what names are?

• Describe our first prop–the name tag–from a philosophical viewpoint.  What is the significance of its parts (adhesive or clip, blank area for text to be inscribed)?  What other common artifacts are "philosophically" equivalent to it?  How does the name tag function in the abstract?  When is a name tag a good idea?  Who is involved in it?  What are its modes of failure?  Is it fail-proof in any way?
• Recount (or invent) an interesting story involving a name tag or equivalent.  What does it illustrate about how names work?
• Despite the fact that the prototypical name tag is attached to a human being, make a case that the name tag is an "impersonal" form of name.  That is, who or what can be named with it?
• Consider a situation in which there are too many name tags (however you want to define that condition).  How do we cope with abundance?  Count the ways.  Conversely, how do we know when there are too few, and how are (new) name tags attached and inscribed?
• Prepare to "think weird"....  In a philosopher's Ideal universe, there would be only name tags, because it would just make everything simpler!  How might you (the philosopher-god of this universe) reconstruct or simulate the universe that we apparently reside in?  Which sensory mode is primary?  Consider aggregation of name tags, and how we would tell them apart.  What kinds of change are possible?

• Consider how names make us feel.  Why does calling someone a name change the feelings of those involved?  Changing one's own name?  Picking a name for a baby or new group member?  Forgetting someone's name, or your own name?  Knowing that a name is hidden from you, perhaps your own?
• Pick a poem or song lyric known to you that contains a reference to the state of being named, or of namelessness.  Interpret it.
• Names serve both to distinguish us (first names, unique identifiers) and bind us (last names, class identifiers).  Explore the sociopolitical aspects of names.

• Our second prop was a button representing a title, like "President".  Assess what similarities and differences the title and the name tag have as names.  We also had stickers used to teach children words like "bubble gum."  And we had three business cards:  one for a real individual in a corporate job, one "for hire", and one using an alias.  Are these varieties of name tags, or a distinct concept of naming?
• What would have been a profound second prop would be something that embodied the concept of identification–in the sense of "taking on a recognizable shape."  A thing or process that does not require "attachment", because the name is not separate from the "named."  This doesn't have to be so mystical as it might sound:  consider the tuning fork.  Normally, the prop is presented and we react to it without prejudice, but in the difficult case of naming–really, the problem of reference–we are searching for something that fits a description.  Nominate other props that elicit aspects of names that are fundamentally different from those invoked by the name tag.  Try not to worry if "name" really would be the first noun you would associate with the prop; imagine we are using an "ur-language" with drastically fewer conceptual nouns.

• Suppose our second prop had been a tuning fork.  It doesn't have any "parts":  what are its significant characteristics or properties?  Can you think of other artifacts that have these characteristics?  Contrast the tuning fork to the name tag, "philosophically."  Try to broaden it metaphorically to different senses of naming.  Who is involved in stories that use tuning forks or some equivalent?  What goes wrong in these stories?  What cannot go wrong?
• Recount (or invent) an interesting story, maybe a myth, or a movie scene, in which an identification process that is in some way similar to how a tuning fork identifies a note (or the note identifies a tuning fork, in the way you might sing a middle C into a piano bed to figure out which string it was).
• Might the tuning fork manifest a "social" form of name, a voice that lives in the crowd?  If the crowd never separates from it, how could it make itself heard?  Extend the metaphor to accommodate multiple names.
• What happens when there are too many notes, and how do we react?  How do when know when there are too few notes, and how do we find or create some?
• Some philosophers' Ideal of the universe is monist:  everything is present everywhere, all the time.  If the paradigmatic sensory mode here is taken to be auditory, what might correspond to the visual and the tactile?  If notes aggregate into chords, what is a "chordal" version of a name?  In this static world, where do we put the idea of change?
• In the abstract, how might the notion of anonymity be addressed with name tags?  With the tuning fork?  Which seems like a closer fit to lack of a name?  Does the difference help us articulate what "fit" means?  Does it help us understand negation?
• One of the senses of name is "reputation," as in "to make a name for oneself."  How well does each prop fits this sense?  Could another prop capture it better?  If so, what might that be?

• Anonymity is associated with antisocial behavior:  on the web, it often serves as a cover for meanness; in person, it's difficult to elude one's name.  Explore how names civilize us (or fail to).  When and why do we allow anonymity?
• Is anonymity better regarded as a style or manner of presenting oneself, rather than a lack of one common element of most styles, a name?  Many electronic musicians, for example, indeed have names, but de-emphasize them nearly to the point of anonymity.  Or they change names frequently:  individuals that do this are considered "shifty".  Are they trying to lose their fans, or something else?  It really sounds like they are using names as a prop!
• Names seems to be indispensable for accountability, but how do they really function in this regard?  How and why might uniqueness be important?
• Play with the notion of "pet names," both in the sense of private names (such as lovers may have for each other) and names of animal pets.  See if these have anything substantial in common.

• The third prop went completely missing, but the idea that went with it came up, I think, near the end of our discussion, when we considered how one learns one's own name.  It seems that there need always be one prop that captures the "becoming" of targeted idea.  But what physical object embodies the learning of a name?  Maybe the selection or bestowal of a name?  The discovery of a name?  A prop must be something that evokes associations, that is not too abstract.  One way to evoke a process is to refer to a game whose rules are familiar:  indeed, I had stopped at the game store just prior to the meeting.  What games do you think relate best to name creation or acquisition?
• Suppose our third prop had been the game charades, in which a player has to guess the name of a person, place, thing, or activity solely by recognizing hints acted out by the other players on his team.  Consider the "parts" of a game to be the roles and motives that are coordinated within it.  How does the world look to those who are playing the game?  Which aspects of the game are essential for the evocation of naming itself, and which derive from incidental factors such as having to fit in a box?  Consider how "real" processes of naming match up with charades, relaxing or blurring the roles and rules to improve the fit.  Can charades be made to accommodate the assignment or invention of names?  (For example, what if one does not know the word one is pantomiming?)  What is the significance of failing to guess the name, and is this ever a final result?
• Recount (or invent) an interesting story in which a name comes into being, or is learned.  (Is a name that does not apply to anything or anybody is really just a word?)  How well does it relate to charades?  Is there a different game, or a different prop entirely, that highlights the naming aspect of your story?
• Despite it being a parlor game (ironically, one in which parler is forbidden), make a case that charades is indicative of the "interpersonal" aspects of names.  You might give special consideration to learning/teaching situations.
• What if there are too many possibilities for the target name, or too many ways to hint at it?  The case when no name comes to mind (the game only needs one) seems telling, and perhaps says something about language's origins; when can it happen that there is no hint to be acted out?
• The philosopher's Ideal world suggested by charades has to be a kinesthetic one, in which we pantomime the referent of a name, and the other has a motor response to that action, together constituting a sort of dance.  How might we reconstruct the visual as a species of touch?  Could hearing be accomplished via proprioception (or is it already)?  How do touches and movements aggregate?  Consider that charades is actually played with phrases, not one-word names.  In a kinesthetic world, where only movement has existence, is it stasis that needs to be explained?

• Consider the classic philosophical question that lies behind the Names theme:  the problem of reference.  What is the relation between names and things?  How are these ontologically different things connected?  Do our diverse props suggest a unitary answer to these questions?
• Interpret Jean-Paul Sartre's statement that to confuse things with their names constitutes belief.
• What is the historical origin of naming?  Feel free to speculate, as there could not have been a record of how names originated!  Can you think of more than three distinct origins?  If you can, maybe there is another good prop idea embedded in your story.
• What is the relationship between proper nouns and all other words?  Did names likely, or necessarily, precede words in general, follow them, or arise independently?
• Why do we have many names for some things, one for others, and none at all for the rest?  That is, explore the significance of synonyms.
• To whom do 'proper' nouns belong, really?  Whose 'property' are they?  How might the notion of a 'prop' bear on the question of ownership as it pertains to our discussions in themselves?
• Create your own question by perusing this sprawling post­

• In what ways did this extended treatment clarify (or confuse) how props might improve our sharing and development of ideas?  You might try inventing props for past themes, and seeing how well they mark the territories we covered in those meetings.

Jay C.
Novato, CA
Post #: 2
Let's do it again,until we get it right, and then make a U-Tube video ?
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