Sunday, January 07, 2007

Carroll on names

I never wrote anything about Through the Looking Glass, so I'll try to write up a few short, light posts on it. It is a delightful book.

Lewis Carroll plays around with names in Through the Looking Glass. Carroll was a logician, but he was not alive for the controversy surrounding the meaning of names that erupted in the 20th century. Instead of focusing on the narrowly logical use of names (I'm not sure whether he was familiar with Frege's logic or if the syllogistic logic he did know placed the same importance on names.), he talks about them in a different setting. For example, when Alice meets the wonderland bugs, she says she doesn't like bugs but knows some of their names. The wonderland bug asks her if they answer to their names, and she says she didn't think so. Then the bug says, "What's the use of their having names if they won't answer to them." Alice's answer is that it is no use to the bugs, rather it is useful to the humans. To over analyze this, the mistake the bug is making is that a thing's name must be known by the thing. Clearly, the point of the name is so that the one's naming can keep track of or classify the named things. While there is the faint echo of the logical use of names here (i.e. constants denoting objects, or in a different way of thinking, rigid designators), it seems more like names are meant in a more pragmatic or action theoretic way. By this I mean: it isn't that the name designates some individual or class, it is what the name enables one to do. Naming something "Gnat" doesn't just designate it, it aids us in keeping track of it, by asking others about it, etc. I think Follesdal wrote something along these lines in his dissertation, Referential Opacity and Modal Logic (which, in addition to the stuff on names, has a thorough analysis of Quine's problems with modality.).

Later on, when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, he asks her what her name is. When she tells him, he asks her what it means, and she responds by asking if a name must mean something (she asked this doubtfully). Humpty Dumpty thinks that it must. According to him, his name means the shape he is. Alice's name doesn't specify any shape at all. I don't think Humpty Dumpty attributes anything more to his name than his shape. I took Alice to think that her name just meant (maybe referred to?) her, and that it didn't have any more meaning than that. Humpty Dumpty, interestingly, isn't quite a descriptivist. While he does want to associate some descriptive information with his name, it isn't a description that uniquely picks him out. It is just a description he satisfies, his shape. Would he answer to "Round" or "The shape you are"? Probably not. Lots of things are round. To play a game that I hear has been attributed to Lewis, let's imagine what the world would have to be like if Humpty Dumpty was right about the meaning of names. Names must mean something. It seems like it could become incorrect to call someone by their name if they changed in a drastic way, then. E.g., if Humpty Dumpty fell and cracked his shell, his shape would change. Since his name means the shape he is, it would seem that the meaning of his name would, in a sense change too. Supposing his name meant round rather than the shape he is, it seems like it would become wrong to call him by his name. It seems then that one must be careful to choose names with flexible enough meanings lest you become unable to use your name.

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