The failure of pragmatic descriptivism

Samuel C. Rickless
University of California, San Diego
There are two major semantic theories of proper names: Semantic Descriptivism and Direct Reference. According to Semantic Descriptivism, the semantic content of a proper name N for a speaker S is identical to the semantic content of a definite description “the F” that the speaker associates with the name. According to Direct Reference, the semantic content of a proper name is identical to its referent. As is well known, Semantic Descriptivism suffers from a number of drawbacks first pointed out by Donnellan (1970) and Kripke (1972).1 The first difficulty is semantic: in many cases, the definite description that S associates with N (if it denotes) denotes an entity other than the referent of N. The second difficulty is epistemic: in many cases, contrary to what Semantic Descriptivism predicts, an utterance of “N=the F” does not semantically express a proposition that is knowable a priori. And the third difficulty is modal: although Semantic Descriptivism entails that the proposition semantically expressed by an utterance of “N=the F” is metaphysically necessary, in many cases the relevant proposition is actually metaphysically contingent. Direct Reference faces three main difficulties of its own. First, there is the problem of cognitive significance (or, as it has come to be known, Frege’s Puzzle): if the content of a proper name is its referent, then different proper names have the same content, and hence utterances of “N=M” and “N=N” semantically express the same proposition; yet these two utterances differ in cognitive significance, and it would seem 1 that utterances semantically expressing the same proposition should not differ in cognitive significance. Second, there is the problem of substitution: if the content of a proper name is its referent, then co-referential proper names should be intersubstitutable in propositional attitude contexts salva veritate; yet linguistic intuitions suggest that substitution of co-referential proper names in such contexts often fails to preserve truthvalue..
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