Sunday, April 15, 2007

Understanding names

In "Kripke, the Necessary Aposteriori, and the Two-Dimensionalist Heresy," Scott Soames argues that the two-dimensionalist (a la Chalmers and Jackson) response to Kripke's arguments for necessary a posteriori knowledge in Naming and Necessity do not work. I'm not going to go into the details of the article in this post, just point out something that kind of puzzles me. In the article Soames says various things about how speakers might understand a sentence or a name without knowing or believing certain things about the sentence or the name. For example, he says that "Peter Hempel lived on Lake Lane" and "Carl Hempel lived on Lake Lane" mean the same thing "even though speakers who understand them may not realize they do". I'm not sure if I've seen "understand" in the philosophical literature on semantics much. (Maybe I have and it has slipped my memory...) I'm not sure what exactly Soames means by "understanding". In the articles on propositional attitude reports I remember, everything is framed in terms of belief and propositions. In Lexical Competence by Diego Marconi, there is a delightful discussion of understanding and its degrees, but I am assuming that that is not what Soames has in mind. When one understands a sentence with a name in it, on the direct reference picture, what does one understand about the name? There is nothing to a name apart from its referent. But, if I don't realize that Carl and Peter Hempel are the same person, then it seems like I do not understand the name. I suppose I understand that they are both names, but that isn't understanding the sentences and the names; that's just understanding how constituents function in syntax. I imagine if one has access to Perry's theory of mental folders and roles that understanding has a natural home. One just starts playing information games with the names. But, that route isn't available. Direct reference about names is by itself rather austere, so understanding doesn't seem to happily fit into the picture there. It is important in setting up Soames's arguments that the agents understand the sentences and names, but it is difficult to see what that comes to.


GF-A said...

Very good point. I think "X understands Y" often/usually means (in the context of 'philosophical semantics,' for lack of a better descriptor) 'X knows the meaning of Y.' (Carnap explicitly says as much.) If that's right, then your criticism seems to me to hit the nail on the head.

Perhaps, with this Hempel example, Soames has in mind something like the case in Kripke's "A Puzzle about Belief" -- where Pierre thinks London is beautiful and Londres is a craphole (or is it the other way around?). Since Soames is such a proponent of Kripkean ideas, this seems like a possibility.

Aidan said...

Some people want to identify understanding with possession of a certain cluster of practical abilities. But even if you don't go that far, you might think that a subject can manifest his understanding of a certain expression by displaying the corresponding abilities. This latter thought is neutral on whether understanding is just possession of these abilities, knowledge of meaning, or something else. Often what's meant in these kinds of discussions is that a subject can display all the requisite abilities to be credited with understanding of a name - in more Kripkean terminology, to be a credited participant in a particular name-using practice - and yet not know that the bearer of that name meets a given definite description (or cluster of such descriptions), or that the name is coreferential with another name one has mastered in the above sense.

I'm not sure this is exactly what either Kripke or Soames actually meant. But certainly some followers of Kripke have had this kind of idea explicitly in mind.

N. N. said...
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N. N. said...

Bruce Wayne lives at Wayne Manor.
Batman lives at Wayne Manor.

These two sentences could be said to 'mean' the same thing in the sense that each says of the same person that he lives at Wayne Manor. Residents of Gotham could understand both sentences without knowing that they 'mean' the same, i.e., that Bruce Wayne is Batman. It would be an odd use of 'mean,' but is it possible that Soames has something like this in mind?