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Causal theory of names

The causal theory of proper names is the view that

Table of contents
1 The theory
2 Criticisms of the theory
3 References

The theory

The theory is usually advocated by philosophers who deny that there is anything like a Fregean sense attached to a proper name (for example, Saul Kripke, the originator of the theory). They say: in order to give the meaning of a proper name, you don't have to express the sense; you don't have to give an identifying description of the individual that bears the name. They say that, in order to say what a name means, all you have to do is account for what causes proper names to refer to the individuals to which they refer.

The argument for the view is something like this. In naming a newborn baby, traditionally we have taken the baby to a priest or pastor who baptizes and names the baby, say "Jane Doe." So the pastor says, "This child's name is 'Jane Doe'." And henceforth everyone calls the little girl "Jane." With that initial act, the act of christening as it is called, the pastor gives the girl her name. This seems all fairly straightforward. So we were asking: How do proper names come to refer to the individuals that they do refer to? In the case of our Jane, how does the name "Jane Doe" come to refer to Jane? The answer is obvious: Jane was christened "Jane."

However, not everyone who knows Jane was at Jane's christening. So how is it that when they use the name "Jane Doe," they are referring to Jane? Well, that's obvious too: there is a causal chain that passes from the original observers of Jane's christening to everyone who uses her name. For example, maybe Jane's friend Jill wasn't at the christening, but Jill learns Jane's name from Jane's mother, who was at the christening.

The causal theory says, then, that all proper names get their meaning -- their reference is fixed, made rigid as Kripke says -- by an initial act of christening. Whether you're naming a person, a ship, a town, a planet, or whatever: there's that original act of naming, and then the thing named has its name rigidly, so that the name is called a rigid designator of what it refers to. We can define the term rigid designator to be as follows:

A name is a rigid designator iff it denotes its reference in all possible worlds.

So the name "Jane Doe" is a rigid designator; which means that it denotes Jane in all possible worlds. And what that means is that, throughout all kinds of possible changes that Jane might undergo, all the different ways that she is or might have been, the name will refer to her.

So then it's not the sense of the name "Jane," not any particular set of properties of Jane, that we use to refer to Jane. Because those properties might change - they might have been totally different. But Jane would still be Jane. In fact, we can refer to Jane without knowing anything about her - except the fact that she's called Jane. So it's possible to refer to Jane without knowing anything like a sense of the name "Jane." And the reason, Kripke said, that that's possible, is that there was that original baptismal act, when Jane was given her name; and in order for us to succeed in referring to her, there just has to be a causal chain connecting our present use of the name to that original baptism.

Criticisms of the theory