Sunday, November 25, 2012

Global Warming and Semantics

In this morning's NY Times, James Atlas has an interesting opinion piece about rising tides and the human tendency to be willfully ignorant. In his essay, there is also a passage that will leap out for anyone familiar with questions about what city names denote. (Does 'London' denote a geographic region that might become uninhabited, a polis that might be relocated along with important buildings, or something else?) Mr. Atlas says that while there is a "good chance that New York City will sink beneath the sea,"

...the city could move to another island, the way Torcello was moved to Venice, stone by stone, after the lagoon turned into a swamp and its citizens succumbed to a plague of malaria. The city managed to survive, if not where it had begun. Perhaps the day will come when skyscrapers rise out of downtown Scarsdale. 

Not cheery, even given the most optimistic assumptions about Scarsdale. But it seems that a competent speaker--indeed, a very competent user of language--can talk about cities in this way, expect to be understood, and expect the editors at The Newspaper of Record to permit such talk on their pages. But when discussing this kind of point about how city/country names can be used, often in the context of Chomsky's Austinian/Strawsonian remarks about reference, I'm sometimes told that "real people" don't talk this way. (You know who you are out there.) And if global warming can make such usage standard, then theorists can't bracket the usage as marginal, at least not in the long run. It may be that Venice, nee Torcello but not identical with current Torcello, will need to be moved again.

Someday, everyone will admit that natural language names are not parade cases for a denotational conception of meaning. The next day, The Messiah will appear. (Apologies to Jerry Fodor for theft of joke.) Once we get beyond the alleged analogy of numbers being denoted by logical constants in an invented language, things get pretty complicated: many Smiths, one Paderewski; Hesperus and Venus; Neptune and Vulcan; the role of Macbeth in Macbeth, and all the names he could have given to the dagger that wasn't there; Julius and the zip(per); the Tyler Burge we all know about, a.k.a. Professor Burge; The Holy Roman Empire, The Sun, The Moon; all those languages in which "names" very often look/sound like phrases that have proper nouns as predicative components; etc. It's also very
 easy to use 'name' is ways that confuse claims about certain nouns, which might appear as constituents of phrases headed by (perhaps covert) demonstratives or determiners, with hypothesized singular concepts that may well be atomic. This doesn't show that names don't denote. But it should make one wonder.

Yet in various ways, various people cling to the idea that a name like 'London' is an atomic expression of type <e> that denotes its bearer. Now I have nothing against idealizations. But there is a difference between a refinable idealization that gets at an important truth (e.g., PV = k, PV = nRT, van der Waal's equation) and a simplification that is just false though perhaps convenient for certain purposes (e.g., taking the earth to be the center of the universe when navigating on a moonless night). One wants an idealization to do some explanatory work, and ideally, to provide tolerably good descriptions of a few model cases. So if we agree to bracket worries about Vulcan and Macbeth, along with worries about Smiths and Tyler Burge and so on--in order to see how fruitful it is to suppose that names denote things--then it's a bit of a let down to be told that 'London' denotes a funny sort of thing, and that to figure out what 'London' denotes (and sorry Ontario, there's only one London), we'll have to look very carefully at how competent speakers of a human language can use city names. 

Perhaps 'New York City', as opposed to 'Gotham', is a grammatically special case. And perhaps names introduced for purposes of story telling are semantically special in some way that doesn't bother kids. Believe it if you must. But if a semanticist tells you that 'London' denotes London, while declining to say what the alleged denotatum is (except by offering coy descriptions like 'the largest city in England'), then the semanticist doesn't also get to tell you that a denotational conception of meaning is confirmed by the "truth" that 'London' denotes London. 

One doesn't just say that '4' denotes Four, and then declare victory. In this case, it's obvious that theorists need to say a little more about what (the number) Four is--perhaps by saying what Zero is, appealing to some notion of succession, and then showing that our best candidate for (being) Four has the properties that Four seems to have. But once characterized, the fifth natural number stays put, ontologically speaking. While it may be hard to know what abstracta are, there is little temptation to talk about them as if they were spatiotemporally located. More generally, we can say that '4' denotes a certain number without implying that some thing in the domain over which we quantify has a cluster of apparently incompatible properties. To that extent, saying that '4' denotes doesn't get us into trouble.

In principle, one can likewise cash out the idealization regarding city names. But to do so, one needs an independent characterization of the cities allegedly denoted, such that the domain entities thereby characterized can satisfy predicates like 'is on an island', 'was moved onto an island', 'could be moved inland', 'is crowded', 'will be uninhabited', etc. Perhaps this can be done. I won't be holding my breath. But even if you think it can be done, that's not an argument that it has been done modulo a few details that can be set aside. Prima facie, natural language names provide grief for denotational conceptions of meaning. Given this, some denotationalists have developed a brilliant rhetorical strategy: take it to be a truism that names denote, and ask whether this points the way to a more general conception of meaning. But this may be taking advantage of the human tendency to be willfully ignorant. 

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