Past Meetup

Kripke's Naming and Necessity

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What's in a name? Anglo-American philosophy since the 20th century is especially concerned with the way that language relates to the real world. Encouraged by Wittgenstein, some philosophers hold that all philosophical problems, i.e. ones that don't seem better suited to investigation under some other discipline, are due to the misuse of language. The job of the philosopher, in their view, is not to construct elaborate theories to solve philosophical problems, but to expose the linguistic confusions that fooled us into taking as genuine these philosophical problems in the first place. Rather than unproblematically taking words as cues to riff off whatever one is compelled to conjure, these philosophers step back and ask, "In what way are we talking about real things?"

The task is not straightforward, because it's not clear that any general theory of meaning could stand in the first place. Wittgenstein, for example, was strongly skeptical that language is descriptive or referential in any way. To him, rather than there being a correlation set up between our linguistic expressions and things in the world, these expressions are only meaningful if there are agreed-upon uses of the expressions to which we conform, as part of social relationships that make this rule-following useful. Even if some words appear partially descriptive, the meaning of words is not the things they stand for, but the social usefulness of their correct applications.

But by the same token, then, meaning is not something we could understand theoretically, synthesizing from the words themselves what they should mean. And there is no systematic method for studying meaning. We can only assemble our informal observations of ordinary language use to diagnose cases of philosophical perplexity and confusion as stemming from the misuse of certain words. The position is tenuous because, here, all of philosophy depends on a proper understanding of the meaning of word applications, but there are too many things (in addition to however we understand meaning) that go into when and how we use words.

Another blow to the commonsense notion that words mean the things they name comes from Quine. Quine is very different than an ordinary language philosopher. He doesn't see philosophy as especially concerned with analyzing the meaning of words to dissolve philosophical problems. He instead sees philosophy as continuous with science, though concerned with more foundational or abstract problems within it. But in line with this, he also argues all traditional semantic notions of meaning and reference as pre-scientific relics with no necessary correspondence to things in the real world.

When a 29 year-old Saul Kripke delivered three unassuming lectures at Princeton in January 1970, he challenged an entire generation of this varied and developed skepticism toward the meaning of words. In them, he argued that our proper names for things and people are not abbreviated descriptions of the things and people they name, insofar as such things contingently relate to us, but that they necessarily (or rigidly) designate the things. He approached meaning and reference in a theoretical way that ordinary language philosophers were unwilling to do. He redeveloped a defense for necessity and possibility as metaphysical concepts. In contrast to Quine, he made a sharp distinction between what's metaphysically necessary and what's epistemologically a priori. And in doing so, he raised the relatively novel notion that there are necessary truths that are knowable only through experience. In moves that seemed to suture even the Kantian rupture in philosophy, he also made a compelling case to start talking again about things as having some of their properties essentially. (For a lively account of Kripke's significance in the aftermath of Kant--and in general-- I recommend Richard Rorty's 1980 book review. (

At this meetup, I'd like to start by letting those with a background in such matters state their views about what main problems in Analytic philosophy and science may be at stake in Kripke's arguments. Is he relevant to what matters? Does he miss the boat entirely? Then, I'd like us to discuss the arguments in the text more specifically. I encourage you to read the first lecture before the meetup to get a gist for how he's setting himself apart. If we have time to read aloud, though, I'd like us to read from the second lecture, concerning essentialism, which is available online. (

For those who would like it, I've also linked the book. (