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Do Proper Names Always Rigidly Designate?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Donald Nute*
University of Georgia


Many philosophers have claimed possible worlds semantics is incoherent because of insoluble problems involved in the notion of identifying a single individual in different worlds. One frequent approach to trans-world identification has been to assume that all the possible worlds, complete with their populations, are described by means of qualities alone prior to our considering the question of identification of the same individual in each world in which it exists. If we interpret possible worlds semantics in this way, trans-world identification could only be accomplished on the basis of some properties the individual has uniquely in every world in which it exists. This becomes problematic since the individual doesn't have the same properties in every world. In ‘Naming and Necessity’ and ‘Identity and Necessity’ Saul Kripke rejects such an account of both possible worlds and trans-world identification, developing an alternative interpretation of the new semantics. His approach involves a distinction between referring expressions which designate different individuals in different worlds according to the distribution of properties within each world and referring expressions which designate the same individual in every world.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1978

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1 In Harman, Gilbert and Davison, Donald ed., Semantics of Natural Language (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1972).Google Scholar

2 In Munitz, Milton K. ed., Identity and Individuation (New York: NYU Press, 1971).Google Scholar

3 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 270; cf. ‘Identity and Necessity’, 144f.

4 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 267.

5 ‘Identity and Necessity’, 148.

6 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 267.

7 Kripke uses the locutions ‘rigidly designate’ and ‘non-rigidly designate’ in footnote 22 of ‘Naming and Necessity’. In this footnote, Kripke is considering the possibility that a single definite description might rigidly designate on one occasion and non-rigidly designate on another. Kripke ultimately rejects this possibility, but he appears to think it has a certain plausibility. Admitting this distinction, the question arises as to what determines whether an expression designates rigidly or non-rigidly on a particular occasion. This question might be answered on the basis of the structure of the larger expression in which the questionable referring expression occurs. It might also be answered on the basis of the intentions of the speaker in using the expression. I favor the latter as the ultimate answer, although I would expect that different syntactical forms will often be present which will help convey the intentions of the speaker. The need for clarification on this issue was first pointed out to me by Ron Barnette.

8 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 269; cf. ‘Identity and Necessity’, 145.

9 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 278.

10 ‘Identity and Necessity’, 149.

11 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 273.

12 As was mentioned earlier, Kripke rejects the view that a description might designate rigidly on one occasion and non-rigidly on another. Actually Kripke provides a mechanism for transforming non-rigidly designating descriptions into rigidly designating descriptions. E.g., the non-rigidly designating description ‘the winner’ can be transformed into the rigidly designating description ‘the person who in fact won’. The suggestion is that the inclusion of an expression like ‘in fact’ or ‘actually’ can always be used to make a description rigidly designate. (Cf. ‘Identity and Necessity’, 148.) Although the consistent use of such devices would help clarify the intentions of the speaker on a given occasion, it seems clear that in fact we sometimes put descriptions to work as rigid designators while omitting any explicit signal that we are doing so.

13 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 270.

14 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 291.

15 Cf. Kripke, SaulSemantical Considerations on Modal Logic’, Acta Philosophica Fennica 16 (1963) 83-94.Google Scholar

16 ‘Naming and Necessity’, 764.

17 Chandler, Hugh (in ‘Rigid Designation’, The Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975) 363-69)CrossRefGoogle Scholar presents a radically different argument to show that names sometimes non-rigidly designate. Chandler's argument involves Hobbes' famous account of Theseus' ship:

a is the original ship, b is the ship put together (following the original plans) out of the planks removed from Theseus’ ship. c is the ship that resulted from the gradual replacement of a's planks. (p. 364)

After adopting the usual position that a and c are the same ship, Chandler considers the possibility that

a's planks had been removed one by one without being replaced. b is then constructed just as in Hobbes’ story.

In this case, a and b are the same ship. (p. 365) Suppose the actual world is the one in which the ship is simply disassembled and reassembled without any boards being replaced, and let's call the world in which we end up with two ships the replacement world. Using ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ as names, Chandler's basic claim is that in the actual world we can correctly say “b is a but, if things had gone differently, b would not have been a, but some other ship.” This is clearly incompatible with Kripke's claim that names are rigid designators and that no identity statement whose terms are rigid designators can be contingent (‘Identity and Necessity’, 154). Even were Kripke to accept Chandler's theory of identity, there is an error in Chandler's argument. When we use ‘b’ in the actual world, the object designated in the actual world is the reassembled ship. If ‘b’ were used in the replacement world, the object designated in the replacement world would also be the reassembled ship. But it doesn't follow that when we use ‘b’ in the actual world, the object designated in the replacement world would also be the reassembled ship, for the reassembled ship in the actual world is, on Chandler's hypothesis, not the same ship as the reassembled ship in the replacement world. In fact, it is mistaken to talk of a reassembled ship in the replacement world at all. Furthermore, when ‘b’ is used in the replacement world, nothing is designated in the actual world. It would be correct to say in the actual world, “b is a but might not have been”, only if we are using ‘b’ to stipulate some descriptive content governing our possible worlds construction, e.g., ‘the ship constructed from the planks removed from a'. But then ‘b’ would not be used as a rigid designator, which was what the argument was intended to show. Chandler's argument, then, seems less to appeal to our ordinary intuitions than to tacitly assume the rather sophisticated philosophical thesis he is trying to support.