Recently I read Saul Kripke’s absolutely enthralling (for me, anyway) Naming and Necessity. It was fantastic. I enjoyed almost every page. I read it after a healthy dose of Tolkien, and the juxtaposition was perfect — like when I crave something salty after too much sweet. (And vice versa!) Plus, given Tolkien’s obsession with language and naming, it seemed a very fitting philosophical palate cleanser.
(Though I won’t bore you with details, you should probably find a way to take sides in the debate about naming and reference in the 20th century, Frege and Russell vs. Kripke and Putnam, Descriptivist Theory of Names vs. Causal Theory of Reference. I love this sh*t.**)
Reading Kripke brought to mind something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I can’t tell if it’s terribly facile, or if it’s interesting. If I look into it and find that someone has already written about it (I like to think through things on my own before I read what other people say), I’ll know it’s at least somewhat interesting.
To exist means one can be named. The potential of being named is what it means to exist.
I like linking existence with the potential of being named. Kripke talks about how we tend to think of proper names in terms of necessity (for the descriptivists, the name “Jana Marie Light” refers to one person (me!) with the set of descriptors that make up my person. For the causalists, the name “Jana Marie Light” refers to one person (me!) for whom we can trace a cultural naming and causal linkage between the me of today and the me at the time of being named Jana Marie.) I think examining naming from the potentiality angle, rather than through the lens of necessity, is interesting.
If something exists, then we can name it. It can be named — it doesn’t have to be named, but it contains the potential of being named. If something doesn’t exist, it cannot be named; for many reasons, one of which is it has no traits and thus no potential (for being named or anything else).
This also links up with what I talked about in a recent blog post. Naming is an important part of identity. That’s why folks want to find or create good names for who they are (e.g., gender-queer, polyamorous, Idahoan, Highly Sensitive Person, INTP, Enneagram 3, etc.). It’s why we change our names when we feel our identity has shifted such that our old name is no longer appropriate or accurate, when that name seems to refer to a being who is very different (though still identical in a causal sense) with who we are today.
While I don’t think every object has a Platonic Ideal Name waiting to be discovered and paired, I do think some names are better than others. It’s not just the letters, but the connotation of the name that matters. That’s why certain names for people have been rejected over the years as either from inception as being or historically evolved to be racist and derogatory, and thus requiring rejection and replacement.
Linking naming to existence is a very anthropomorphic way of looking at existence (or is that just a good way to characterize all of philosophy?!), but I think it also has relevance to the animal kingdom. Monkeys use sound to indicate when a predator is near — what is that sound but the “name” of predator, or the “name” of danger? Even visual cues are important. My name is not just a sound, but a collection of visual marks and even a collection of hand signals. The sounds animals make to communicate might not have quite the precision that human sounds do — unless a duck has a specific sound that references her chosen mate and only her chosen mate? — but it seems the sounds do name certain things relevant to them. “Here is food.” “Here is danger.” “Get away from my babies.” “I’m ready for sweet, sweet lovin’.” Animal sounds may not name individuals (apparently), but they name behaviors and elements of their life and world.
The human species is peculiar in that it has a strong drive to name. It’s almost like if something exists, we have to name it. Science is driven by discovery, which is not complete until something is named for future reference. There is privilege and honor in getting to name something. Heck, people pay vast sums of money for that privilege! Names are also culturally important. They contain history, information, mythology, sacredness, import, as well as being a reference for a thing or idea.
I wondered briefly: does that mean the reverse is true? That to be named means something exists? The thing may not exist as an object; the idea of a unicorn exists even though from all we can tell unicorns do not exist and are not waiting to carry me to my castle drenched in cold, clear, majestic northernness (Wagnerian/Lewisian sad face). The being (idea) of a creature that has been named a unicorn exists, and may exist, in part, because it was named. Can a name bring something into existence? Or does a name always follow the discovery of a thing or idea? If there is no “substance” behind a name (say, the name Hincholt), can that cluster of letters and sounds be properly considered a name? Or is it just a bundle of letters that could eventually refer to something (whether idea or being)? It has potential to be used as a name to refer to an existing thing that itself has the potential to be named because it exists?
I like that. When lacking reference, the bundled of letters contains only the potentiality of being used as a name (the potential of naming), not the actuality of it. It has no power to bring something into existence, but can only be used after the fact to reference something existing. We can plan to use the letter and sound combination of “Hincholt” to refer to something, but even then that “something”, nebulous and unformed though it appears to us, exists first. It is the clay we use to make the final shape of the being that is, or will be, Hincholt.
I think there is truth to the statement “To exist means one can be named.” I like it, facile and uninteresting a statement though it may be.
And if all else fails, remember: “All words are made up.” (The whole scene is great, but skip to 3:14 for Philosopher Thor)
** For what it’s worth, I currently prefer the causal theory when I have my philosophy hat on, but think the descriptivist works really well when talking in a less technical, less philosophically-loaded-and-consequential sense.