restricted access 5. Abelard and the ‘New’ Theory of Meaning
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149 c h a p t e r f i v e h Abelard and the ‘New’ Theory of Meaning Peter King, Abelard and the ‘New’ Theorists One of the best-known, and best, studies of Abelard was never published. Peter King submitted his doctoral dissertation ‘Peter Abailard and the Problem of Universals’ to Princeton in 1982; it has never been printed, although it is available in microfilm and is widely cited.1 King’s seven-hundred-page study is complex and wide-­ ranging, but its most striking claim is about Abelard and the philosophy of language. In the 1980s, the latest developments in the philosophy of language were those that had just been made by Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke. Although their concerns and theories were not the same, they were seen as the originators of the ‘new’ theory of meaning, in which direct reference plays a central part. But according to King, this theory was hardly new, since Abelard had succeeded in anticipating it almost a millennium earlier. King has changed his mind about many things he wrote in his dissertation , but he seems to have stuck to the view of Abelard as an exponent of direct reference. In his entry on Peter Abelard in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he writes that for Abelard 150   a b e l a r d a n d o u r p r e s e n t A name is linked with that of which it is the name as though there were someone who devised the name to label a given thing or kind of thing, a process known as ‘imposition’ . . . rather like baptism. This rational reconstruction of reference does not require the person imposing the name, the ‘impositor’, to have anything more than an indefinite intention to pick out the thing or kind of thing, whatever its nature may be. . . . Put in modern terms, Abelard holds a theory of direct reference, in which the extension of a term is not a function of its sense. We are often ‘completely ignorant’ of the proper conceptual content that should be associated with a term that has been successfully­imposed.2 If King’s account of Abelard’s theory is correct, does he have grounds for connecting it with the new theorists of the 1980s? Certainly , the comparison must be understood—more clearly perhaps than King brings out—to be a partial one. The new theorists considered two questions. The first was about the meaning of proper names and kind terms (the names of natural kinds, such as ‘water’), which they often answered by identifying the meaning of such terms with their reference. The second was the question of how their reference is determined.3 It is their answer just to this second question, about the determination of reference, which is the subject of King’s comparison with Abelard’s semantics. And the comparison must be made, King believes, not with Abelard’s semantics as a whole, but just with the part of his semantic theory concerned with reference. Moreover, the comparison King makes concerns in the main kind terms; about proper names, which are also discussed by the new theorists, Abelard has much less to say. Given these limitations of the scope of the comparison, however , King seems to have good grounds for the similarity he finds between Abelard’s views, as described above, and the contemporary theory. The new theorists argued for a causal theory of how reference is determined, in opposition to what its exponents considered to be the traditional view, the description theory.4 According to the description theory, the reference of natural kind names is estab- Abelard and the ‘New’ Theory of Meaning  151 lished by a mental representation: a descriptive thought in speakers’ and listeners’ minds, such as (to take an oversimplified example) four-legged animal that barks for ‘dog’. The things that fit this description are those to which the word refers. The causal theorists do not, of course, dispute that there are thoughts associated with the words we speak and hear. But they deny that these thoughts determine a word’s reference. According to the description theorist, when I say ‘water’, the name refers to water in virtue of a descriptive thought of some properties of water which I associate with it. By contrast,­ according to the causal theory, the word refers in virtue of a chain, in which the name is passed ‘from link to link’. At the beginning of the...


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