A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

What Do Common Nouns Name?

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on May 9, 2007

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..

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20 Responses to “What Do Common Nouns Name?”

  1. Clark said

    But do we see objects and then name them? That’s sort of the old empiricist position (generalizations from sense data) but I don’t buy it. I kind of like Davidson’s approach. (I’ve been reading a lot of Davidson of late) I don’t fully embrace it for reasons I’ve discussed on my blog. But Davidson argues that names are partially learned socially and partially from our encounters with named things. Put an other way, in the development of a child, they call cats “cats” because their parents so label them. But that means the objects picked out (and thus the extension of the name) is in an odd interplay between what their parents pick out and what they pick out on the basis of their experience with objects.

  2. Clark said

    To add, since one might argue your first list covers this. What I find interesting is how the extension of terms change. This is partially due to the difference between individual and group, but also different groups. What happens is folks blur distinct terms together and then make new differences in existing terms. Thus the Scandanavian “niggardly” gets blurred together with the similar offensive term largely arising from Latin. In the opposite direction “gay” becomes differentiated into both happy and homosexual with the former meaning getting lost. Which then leads to a few generations being very confused at the title of a certain book by Nietzsche.

  3. Hi Clark,

    I think that you are reading “seeing” in my post differently from what I mean by it, so let me try to explain it more…

    Yes, I’m saying we name things after we see them, hear about them (e.g. someone might tell me… I saw a thing that looked like a rabbit, but had six legs, and *I* can then name it), or become aware of them in any other way. Really… I can’t see how a name can be given *but* by a baptizer, and I can’t see how name can be given by baptizer, but to something that he is aware of. Can you think of a scenario in which this wouldn’t be true?

    And that requirement of awareness is I think generally true even in the process of communicating the name… To take the extreme example (which might be closest to “not aware of anything, but still have the name” scenario) – If someone says to me “I visited Andy yesterday”, *even* if I didn’t know about Andy up to that moment, with that speech act I became in same moment aware *of* Andy – I become aware that there is someone named Andy.

    Where I think you misunderstand my position, is about the usage of “see”, “hear about”, “became aware of” etc… By those words I don’t mean any generalization of sense-data, nor I mean some merely psychological states. I use those words in the, I guess what can be called externalist sense, in which “I see a rabbit” is talking about the rabbit as much it is talking about me.

    But also I don’t mean by “seeing”, “becoming aware of”, etc.., any causal or other kind of bio/physical relation. Of course that act of seeing might be analyzed on bio/physical level. For example one could put some rabbit in front of a person, and analyze what happens in the situation on those levels, e.g. put electrodes in the person’s brain, or shine different lights on the rabbit and measure the number and frequency of photons that are reflected by it, etc… But be there photons, cones and rodes, neurons and chemicals, or whatever, it seems that doesn’t interfere with this “seeing” as I use it, which is that simple awareness of that thing (the rabbit) through my sense of sight.

  4. BTW, I fully agree with the points you raise in your second comment. I tried to put few of the complications in the list in the post, but I’m sure there is a lot (maybe infinite number?) of other complications that can happen with names.

  5. Clark said

    Let me give an example of how a name can be given but without the baptizer.

    There is an existing name “unicorn” which we all comprehend. A few decades from now, on a lark, a couple of genetic engineers manage to design a horse with a horn on its forehead. Now everyone would recognize that the name “unicorn” picks out this new creature. But clearly the genetic engineers didn’t baptize the use.

  6. It is good example, but I think it falls in one of the “complications” I named…

    some Z might be similar enough to X, that some in lack of more precise word, might start using ‘X’ to referring to Z.

    In your example the situation is such that the new thing will be very alike the unicorns from the stories/myths/movies/pictures; so that the usage of the same name for this new thing (new kind of thing more precisely) will present itself as a normal thing.

  7. Clark said

    But this case isn’t mere resemblance, it is picked out by the name. So this isn’t akin to some Indians calling Spanish horses deer because they didn’t have a word. Rather the description entailed by the word picks it out.

    If we take your qualification broadly, then all you’ve done is taken Davidson’s stance that it isn’t the original use that ultimately matters at all. But this removes the significance of the originary use, doesn’t it?

  8. It is late here, so sorry if I didn’t explained nicely those arguments…

    1.I’m not sure how would the name entail description which would pick out the new animal. Maybe you think of the cases where some person will just see it and say “hey, it is unicorn!”. And you would argue that if he says so, obviously what he means by unicorn surely was something that includes that animal, and in the intentional historical account I buy into that is not possible.
    What I would say in this case about this person is that *he thinks* that this animal is one of those animals that he had heard about, read about, and so on. But it *can’t* be one of those animals. If the person thinks so then he in mistake, and what we have here is a complication based on misunderstanding. Think of the analogous case of person from Earth going to Twin Earth and referring to twater by “water”
    Of course there is that other possible complication I already mentioned (which I think will be the prevailing one) where the people are aware that unicorns of which they heard about, read about, that they saw in the movies are based on imagination, but that this now is animal which is real (so not part of any of those fictional stories, though maybe motivated by them?). Those people will refer to it by unicorn, but because it is like those things depicted in fiction which are called unicorn. I don’t know… if people mind enough to distinguish this animal from the unicorns depicted in the fiction, they might not want to call it unicorn – maybe some language puritans will want to use new name for this new kind of thing.

    2.I would say that if and how much the originary use matters depends on the presence or absence of complications. If there are not complications then the word keeps the meaning of the original baptizing. Why? Because of the nature of the language as a means of communication people will want to use the name to refer to the thing that other people refer to. One might think of this as some kind of force which works on keeping the original meaning. And that is roughly that picture I was thinking about without complications. Of course there are those other “forces” which will go in different directions, and which will produce or motivate all kinds of complications, but in any of them that “we need names in order to refer to same things” will be present, and might either fight back the new uses (think of a person who insist that a word means something else vs. the community), or might work towards acceptance of this new use. Surely, it is not some simple formula what of those will happen, it depends on cultural, social and other things (maybe the word with the new meaning is used by a pop singer, and it gets accepted because of that).

  9. Clark said

    Take an example that’s not fiction. Physicists postulate a particle and then find the particle. How does that differ from the unicorn example?

  10. That would be problem for causal-historical account, (I guess it is clear that I don’t buy any talk about causal relations?), but not for the intentional historical account.
    In the case when we talk about intentions there is no issue, as all that is required is for the intentional content to appear in the intentional acts (be it acts in which the content is real things, like seeing, hearing about, touching, right assumption etc..; or acts in which the content is fictional, like imagination, false assumption, etc…).

    Take for example the assumption of the London Police in 1888 that there is a person that committed the Whitechapel murders, and named that man Jack The Ripper (alternative explanations might be alien abductions?,or multiple killers?). The man as assumed appeared in the intentional act of the people aware of those killings. So, again, we have a case that one has to think of something in order to give it a name.

  11. onemorebrown said

    Hi guys,

    Interesting discussion.

    Clark: The physics example is not an objection to the causal-histotical account because what the physisists do is to ientify the hypothetical particle by its essential properties (i.e. spin, charge, mass, etc) but in the unicorn case we do not identify the its essential properties (we do not know what its internal structure is like etc) and so that is why nothing will count as discovering unicorns, even if there were a horse with a horn that WOULD NOT be a unicorn.

    Tanasjie:Can yu explain how your view is not essentially the same as Devitt’s view? It sounds to me like what you are saying is that the perceptual awareness grounds the baptisim in some sense, but that is also true on Devitt’s view and so ultimately what grounds reference is the causal relation between the baptizer and the perceptual state. Isn’t that basically the same as your view?

  12. Hi Richard,

    I have to say that I’m ignorant of Devitt’s view, so don’t have much to say to that question. I guess there will be for sure differences connected to me not accepting that intentional relations can be reduced to causal relations, but I better not speculate here before understanding Devitt’s account.

    BTW, I was interested in answering that, and I started searching through the papers accessible on his homepage, and browsing through several on them on reference, but most of them were connected to more specific issues. Can you recommend some work of Devitt which would be nice overview of his general view (or maybe some other place where I can learn about it)?

  13. For a nice accesible introduction to his view check out his book (with Kim Sterelny) Language and Reality. It is meant to be an opinonated introduction to the phil of language and so is a very good way of getting the basics…but if you don’t want to buy the book, he has his earlier book (1981) Designation up on his website in its entirety and it is pretty much the same thing, so you could take a look at that. Also, you could look at his (1998)paper Reference which is supposed to be an encyclopedia entry and so gives a nice overview of the debate about reference to date…see especially section 5 and 8 but the other ones are good too…

  14. Thanks for the references! I checked earlier the Reference paper (encyclopedia entry), and it was really a good overview. I didn’t even click on the books, I just assumed that they were links to amazon. Thanks for pointing to Designation book.

  15. Clark said

    Saying that the difference between the physics particle and the unicorn is essential properties seems wrong somehow. For several reasons. For one, the physicist might be wrong about some essential properties yet maintain the name and even say a theoretical entity picks out the later entity. Of course philosophers differ on how to take that. Thus the whole issue of the incommensurability of theories.

    The second issue is what we mean by “essential.” I recognize this post is occuring within a particular tradition. I’d just point out that the whole notion of essential properties isn’t as unproblematic as it might appear. In any case, I’d think that the issue of essential properites applies equally to the particle as it does the unicorn.

  16. Richard Brown said

    I don’t think so, Clark. Take the Graviton as an example. It is predicted to have 0 mass and spin 2 and if we find a particle with 0 mass and spin 2 then we will have found the graviton, if not then not. If physcisists find a particle with negligable, but non-zero mass and spin 2 and decide to call that a graviton that does not mean that they dicovered a graviton. It doesn’t matter if they ‘maintain’ the name or not, as according to the theory, that counts as a different grounding. So in this case ‘graviton’ would be ambiguous.

    I really do not understand your second comment. What is wrong with essential properties? They are the properties that should an object lack them it would no longer count as that object. No problem. How does this equally apply to the unicorn? We do not know if the so-called unicorn would still be a unicorn if it lacked a heart, didn’t have lings (but gills instead) and etc. All we have is a description of it that is compatible with it having all kinds of different essential properties. This is radically different from the physcis examples.

  17. Clark said

    The issue of essential properties, while useful in discussions, in my opinion ultimately run up against problems.

    I suspect some of this is getting into the “true by definition vs. true by empiricism” debate that Quine got into. The example of 0 mass in your rejoinder is perhaps bad since 0 mass has a pretty significant feature in physics vis a vis their velocity. A better example might have been predictions about say the top quark or neutrinos.

  18. Clark,

    You said:

    I recognize this post is occuring within a particular tradition.

    Just want you to let you know, that you are really welcomed to mix, and throw in any insights from any tradition that you wish. I’m fully open to different views.

  19. Clark, you keep saying there are problems with essential properties but you haven’t pointed any out…Also, Ok pick any particle you want, as long as the physicists fix the reference in the right way that’s all that matters…

  20. Clark said

    The issue is whether essential properties are essential due to our naming or due to the particle’s existence. We can say, for instance, that an electron essentially has a charge of -1. However when it and its anti-particle collide that’s no longer true. Now is the change a change of real essence or do we simply no longer refer to what happens afterwards by the same name? That’s what I meant by the analytic/synthetic issue.

    To me once we learned that particles aren’t essential to talk about essential properties is silly. You’re not talking about something essential in the Aristotilean sense at all.

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