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Sunday, 7 July 2013

A hinge of the ontological turn

Finishing up my lectures on Naming and Necessity (that we read together with my novel Southern Pacific - A general theory of reference). It became clearer to me how Kripke is a crucial hinge or a crucial fold in the ontological turn of the last 40 years or so. Maybe he started it all, as some people say. We can think roughly in terms of three poles: a term, its denotation and a description. To be sure, fixing a reference is often done by means of a description (Hesperus is the evening star, Cats are animals, Gold is a yellow metal etc). This far Kripke is surely in a descriptivist territory. The Russell-Frege theorists would add that when we fix a reference by means of a description, the denotation is necessary tied to it. There is a necessary connection between the description that fixes the reference and the denotation. This cannot be anything other than a conventional connection, one that establishes a relation of synonymity or definition. It is not a necessity in the world but rather a linguistic one. It belongs solely to the definition of our terms. Kripke's point is that a description, by fixing a reference, doesn't become necessarily connected to the denotation of the corresponding term. Gold is not necessarily connected to "yellow metal", but yellow metal fixes the reference and now the denotation can be tracked (through its name - or another suitable indexical or rigid designator) independently of any appeal to the description and eventually prove the description wrong. Importantly, Kripke agrees with the necessary connection between description and denotation. If the description is true, it is necessarily so. If cats are animals, cats are necessarily animals and something about the essence of cats is stated. Cats, of course, can prove to be not animals (but robots, automata, whatever), we don't know that cats are animals a priori, but if they are, the description is necessarily tied to the denotation.

Necessity becomes not an issue of our linguistic convention but something that can be assessed a posteriori - that can be discovered - and that reveal essences. These is done because we, in language, contact things independently of what we know or believe about them. Descriptions that fix reference are such that they can be utterly false - they act as reference-fixer, they are used in a referential way. Attributively use of descriptions are restricted to those that do express essences. Not all descriptions capture necessities - they do when they are true but they can be false. Because of this, our subject matter doesn't depend as much on us - and our descriptions - than the linguistic turn descriptivists thought.

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