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Saul Kripke's Philosophy of Language
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-03-03 08:21:31
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The natural follow-up to Tarski’s logic and philosophy of language is Saul Kripke. He is best known for a series of lectures he gave at Princeton University in 1970 under the name of Naming and Necessity which he gave without notes (later transcribed and published in book form in 1980) where he offered a revolutionary new approach to the philosophy of language. He had already caused a sensation when, still a teen-ager, he published a paper titled Semantic Considerations on Modal Logic (1963). However, these lectures were a daring attack on the descriptivist theory about the meaning of names championed by Bertrand Russell. Russell believed that a name refers to an object because of the name’s association with a description of that object; it is a sort of abbreviated form of that description.

Kripke saw a problem with such a theory. If for example, the name Giacomo Puccini means the composer of the opera Madame Butterfly, then there is no possible world in which Giacomo Puccini did not compose that opera. But wait a minute; even if Giacomo Puccini had never composed Madame Butterfly or any other opera, he would still be Giacomo Puccini. So Kripke proposes replacing descriptivism with a new theory of “direct reference.” As per this theory, a name “rigidly designates” its referent (i.e., the object to which it refers) in every possible world in which it exists. In other words, a name is simply a “tag” attached to its referent and has no descriptive content.

Kripke then puts forward a new theory for how names are transmitted and calls it the “causal theory of names.” According to this theory, the parents of a newborn baby call it a name such as John. Those who witness the naming know the new baby’s name. A “causal chain” then passes from the namers and those who witnessed the naming to everyone else who uses the name. Thus Kripke has resurrected the theory of essentialism which states that for any entity (for example, John), it is at least theoretically possible for there to be a set of characteristics which that entity cannot fail to have. Which is to say, there is a part of John, that which is referred to by his name, which is essential to him in every possible world.

Than in 1975, Kripke proposed a theory of truth, showing that it may be possible to create a sentence in a natural language, such as English, that contained its own “truth predicate” without giving rise to a contradiction or paradox. A truth predicate is a phrase such as is true in the sentence This sentence is true. It can give rise to a contradiction or paradox in the sentence such as The following sentence is true. The previous sentence is false. It is with this claim that Kripke contradicts the Polish logician Alfred Tarski who contended that no natural language could contain its own truth predicate. For Tarski, the expression is true could only apply to sentences in some other language, which he called an “object language.”

Kripke shows how to build a sentence with its own truth predicate in a natural language thus arguing: start with a sentence that does not contain the predicate “is true” or “is false,” such as “Snow is white.” Next, define the truth predicate for that sentence. Then add the truth predicate to the sentence “’Snow is white’ is true.” Next, define the truth predicate for this sentence as a whole. For example: “’Snow is white is true’ is true” Imagine this process repeated infinitely.

With Kripke’s method, because sentences like This sentence is false were not included in the original subset, the truth never gets defined for them and so they are neither true nor false. This resolves the “liar paradox” inherent in such sentences (if they are true, then they are false, and vice versa).

Then in 1984 Kripke published another influential work called Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language which is a critique of the Austrian philosopher’s discussion of rules as they are observed among solitary individuals (those who hear voices in their head) or highly isolated communities. Kripke starts with a sentence from Wittgenstein: “This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” Later Wittengstein modified this sentence when he says that “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation.”

However, Kripke disagrees by arguing that in a small community, all that matters is that rules are followed correctly. Whether or not they are being followed correctly is determined not by what might be right or true universally, but by what the individual or community believes to be right or true. In such situation two plus two need not necessarily equal four, if the community believes otherwise or if the voices in one’s head tell otherwise. This is indeed a new form of skepticism and is known as “meaning skepticism.” It fits easily in a culture where ethical relativism has pride of place and wherein people create their own dictionaries and meanings in their own head. It is still being vigorously debated among experts. Some have referred to the hybrid philosopher (Wittgenstein) whose views are presented in Kripke’s book as “Kripkenstein.”

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