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Recovering What Is Said With Empty Names

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 40, Number 2, June 2010
pp. 239-273 | 10.1353/cjp.2010.0005

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Recovering What Is Said With Empty Names1

I Introduction

As our data will show, negative existential sentences containing socalled empty names evoke the same strong semantic intuitions in ordinary speakers and philosophers alike. [End Page 239]

  1. 1.

Uttering the sentences in (1) seems to say something truth-evaluable, to say something true, and to say something different for each sentence. A semantic theory ought to explain these semantic intuitions.

The intuitions elicited by (1) are in apparent conflict with the Millian view of proper names. According to Millianism, the meaning (or 'semantic value') of a proper name is just its referent. But empty names, such as 'Santa Claus' and 'Superman', appear to lack a referent. If they do, then Millianism entails that they have no meaning. Therefore, assuming semantic compositionality, utterances of sentences with empty names say nothing truth-evaluable, have no truth-value, and what they say is the same. These are unhappy consequences for Millianism.

There have been a number of recent attempts to accommodate our semantic intuitions about empty names within a Millian framework (Adams & Dietrich, 2004; Braun, 2005; Predelli 2002; Reimer 2001a, b; Ryckman 1988; Salmon, 1998; Taylor, 2000, 2001; Wyatt 2007). Most of these attempts are based on two theses. First, empty names have no referent. Second, sentences containing empty names express gappy propositions (see below). In addition, some Millians maintain two more theses. The third thesis is that gappy propositions have no truth values. The fourth thesis is that sentences containing empty names pragmatically impart descriptive propositions that ordinary speakers mistake for the content of these sentences. We call the conjunction of all four theses pragmatic Millianism. According to pragmatic Millianism, speakers mistakenly judge the sentences in (1) to be true and to have different contents because they confuse the gappy propositions they express with the descriptive propositions they pragmatically impart (Adams and Dietrich 2004, Taylor 2000, Wyatt 2007).2

Among Millian theories of proper names, we think pragmatic Millianism is the most plausible. In this paper, we carry out a novel strategy for testing it.

We will argue as follows: [End Page 240]

  1. A. Pragmatic Millianism entails that nothing truth-evaluable is said, in the Gricean sense, by utterances containing empty names.

  2. B. If nothing truth-evaluable is said by an utterance, then ordinary speakers should be able to recover that nothing is said.

  3. C. In the case of utterances containing empty names, ordinary speakers do not recover that nothing truth-evaluable is said.

    Therefore, pragmatic Millianism is wrong.

After presenting this argument, we will briefly tackle other (non-pragmatic) Millian accounts of empty names and find them even less satisfactory. We will conclude that Millians have not given a satisfactory account of empty names. Finally, we will outline a more promising account due to Larson and Segal (1995).

II Pragmatic Millianism about Empty Names

According to the standard Millian view, a simple existential sentence like (2)(a) expresses a singular proposition, which can be thought of as an ordered pair containing the referent of the name and the property of existence, as depicted in (2)(b).

  1. 2.

    1. a. David Bowie exists

    2. b. <David Bowie, existence>

By analogy, an existential sentence containing an empty name, such as (3)(a), expresses a gappy proposition, which can be thought of as an ordered pair with a gap where the referent of the empty name would have gone, as depicted in (3)(b).

  1. 3.

    1. a. Santa Claus exists

    2. b. <_____, existence>

Since this gappy proposition is not a full proposition, it can be neither true nor false. (Some theorists disagree; their view is discussed in Section 7.)

Pragmatic Millians account for the ordinary intuition that (3)(a) is false by suggesting that this sentence, though it expresses no determinate [End Page 241] propositional content, can be used to pragmatically impart a false descriptive proposition involving descriptive material associated with the name 'Santa Claus'—e.g., the proposition that there is a jolly fat man who delivers presents to children all over the world at Christmas. This proposition is false, and it's the source of the intuition that (3)(a) says something false.

Fred Adams and his co...