What Do Common Nouns Name?

My answer to the question is – a multiplicity (or assumed multiplicity) of things that show some similarity. But let’s go step by step, and see why I’m arguing this…

The simple intentional-historical picture of names goes like this:

  1. Person A becomes aware of X.
  2. Person A decides to call X with name ‘X’.
  3. By pointing to X or description, A makes other people aware of X.
  4. A tells other people that he calls X – ‘X’.
  5. Other people accept that, and start to call X – ‘X’
  6. Other people further communicate awareness of X, and the name that is used for it.

Personally I believe in this picture is right, and really to me it seems just as a description of what happens. As really, for someone to give name to something, he has to be aware of that something! How can anyone negate that? And how can one communicate about something if he doesn’t have word to refer to it? Of course… either by pointing to the thing, or by describing it in order for the person to figure out what he thinks of (so, as they say – describing in order to fix the reference)! (I wonder if by adding more exclamation marks, I would be more convincing.)

Of course there are possible complications there, but they can be added to the picture, for example:

  • In some point of communication some of the people might misunderstand the pointing or description, and become aware of Y, and than misunderstand that ‘X’ is referring to Y. This misunderstanding might be resolved, or might be that the misunderstanding will spread, and after some time ‘X’ will be used to refer to both X and Y.
  • OR some Z might be similar enough to X, that some in lack of more precise word, might start using ‘X’ to referring to Z.
  • Multiple persons can become aware of X, but not be aware that there is already word ‘X’ used to refer to X. So, those people can invent new word for X, e.g. ‘X2’.
  • X can change gradually through time into Y. If that happens through long enough time. The name ‘X’ might be preserved, but end up referring to Y. (Think socially conditioned phenomena, for example)
  • One can become aware of all the kind of complications with X itself. Maybe it turns out that there was no X, that what seemed as one thing X, it turns out to be two (or more) different things. The language can change in different ways then.
  • etc…

What I think is important here, is to notice that X can be whatever we can be aware of; or to get more specific – anything that might appear as content of our intentional acts… So, it can be what we see, what we hear, what we feel, what we imagine, what we assume, and so on. So this kind of description doesn’t have problems with non-existents, theoretical or assumed things, etc… (I know I repeat those things very often, but I’m thinking  if someone stumbles to this post, pointing to few general things would help).

But now, back to the common nouns, and how they might work in this picture. In order to figure out what common nouns refer to, we can ask point to two places in the history of usage of the word. First, what did the original baptizer become aware of, and gave name to? Second, because of the possible complication, we can ask what it is pointed to the users of the language today (what they need to become aware of), when the term is taught to them? (when put it this way, I start to wonder what I’m talking about, isn’t this obvious?)

Say, we analyze the word “cats”. We need to ask – how does one  become aware of cats? I think the plausible story is this… one sees a cat… It is salient (meaning – it attracts attention), so we easily become aware of it. But now, if we want to name it, we would give it proper name, because this is just one cat. But later we see another cat, and it reminds us of the first one – “aha, one of those things”, we think. So, we become aware of a multiplicity. Notice that we don’t become aware of some abstraction, nor we become aware of some universal (Platonic form). We just become aware that there are cats – a multiplicity.

Or say… “chairs”. How do we become aware of chairs? Here probably there is difference from the person(s) that invented chairs, and who named some concept – (i.e. “hey, I got an idea, we can create something that we will sit on.”), and children who are born in the world which is full with those chairs, and to which chairs appear more as cats do – as a multiplicity. Of course, even the person who invented chairs, thought of them as multiplicity, he didn’t think “I invented Machocho (a singular thing on which one can sit)”, but he thought – “there can be those things on which people can sit”. So again, it is multiplicity of things, even if assumed.

So, what I think this is pointing to, is that common nouns are not naming something abstract, but that using common nouns people talk again about concrete things. That is, when they talk about cats or chairs, they don’t have on mind some abstract form (nominal/platonic/whatever), but concrete things which have some similarity. I think that is so, even for imagined and assumed cases. That if one speaks of “aliens”, one doesn’t speak of some abstract form, but of possible aliens – multiplicity of real things (which share some similarity). Now, of course one can speak of “a cat”, or “a chair” or “an alien”, but seems to me, again we will be speaking of a concrete thing (be it real, imagined or assumed) which is one of those (cats).

Does anyone buy into this kind of thinking? It seems very normal to me.

Some ideas for next posts: how natural kinds would work within this view (e.g. “water”), how does this would works for Twin Earth thought experiment,  what about things that fall under two categories (e.g. “tree” and “sequoia”), what about abstract common nouns (triangles, numbers, points…) etc..