Peirce on Names and Reference

David Boersema, Pacific University

Over the past couple of decades several Peirce scholars have suggested a close connection between Peirce's views on names and reference and the causal theory of reference (or theory of direct reference), usually associated with Kripke, Donnellan, Devitt, Putnam, and others.  For example, Risto Hilpinen claims: "Peirce's theory of proper names is a 'direct reference theory'..."[1][1] and Helmut Pape remarks that pace Peirce "the naming of an object can occur successfully without a description being used to determine its reference."[2][2]  With respect to proper names, both Hilpinen and Pape, along with others (e.g., Pierre Thibaud)[3][3][4][4], cite the same passage from Peirce:

A proper name, when one meets it for the first time,  is existentially connected with some percept or other  equivalent individual knowledge of the individual it  names.  It is then, and then only, a genuine Index.  The  next time one meets with it, one regards it as an Icon  of that Index.  The habitual acquaintance with it having  been acquired, it becomes a Symbol whose Interpretant  represents it as an Icon of an Index of the Individual  named.  (CP, 2.329)

In this paper I want to suggest that while there are similarities between Peirce's views on names and reference and those of the causal theory, there are important and overriding differences that indicate Peirce's views are separable from the causal theory.  To make my case I will first present an overview of the causal theory, then lay out what I take Peirce's views to be, and, finally, enunciate their superiority to the causal theory.

The Causal Theory

Having analyzed the descriptivist (cluster) theory of reference associated with Searle and others and having found it "wrong from the fundamentals," Kripke proposed to present a "better picture" of how reference takes place.  "In general," he said, "our reference depends not just on what we think ourselves, but on other people in the community, the history of how the name reached one, and things like that.  It is by following such a history that one gets to the reference" (1980, p. 95).[5][5]  This "better picture," which Kripke claimed is "not a theory" (1980, p.96), has nonetheless served as the nacsency and kernal of what has come to be called the casual theory of reference (or theory of direct reference).  Kripke gave a "rough statement" of such a theory:

A rough statement of a theory might be the following: An initial baptism takes place.  Here the object may be named by ostension, or the reference of the name may be fixed by a description.  When the name is 'passed from link to link', the  receiver of the name must, I think, intend when he learns it to use it with the same reference as the man from whom he heard it.  (1980, p. 96)

The sense in which this is a causal theory of reference is that the passage of a name from link to link is said to secure a causal connection between the name of an object and the object.  The initial baptismal act of naming the object (by ostension, perhaps) establishes the causal connection in the first place.  Later uses of the name must be connected to the object in some sort of causal chain stretching back to the original naming act.

Criticisms of the causal theory

While the causal theory by now has become the received theory of reference, nonetheless there have been various objections and criticisms levelled against it.  My present focus will be on aspects of the causal theory that strike me as being inconsistent with what I take Peirce's views to be.  I will raise here two points:

(1) Names as rigid designators.  While this is usually taken to be a crowning achievement of the causal theory, I will argue that it runs counter to Peirce's views of names.

(2) Semantic reference is separable from speaker reference.  For the causal theory, what a name refers to and what a person refers to, or intends to refer to, might very well be different (this is the point of several of Kripke's counter-examples to the descriptivist view).  I take this intuition to be quite correct, but the underlying view of how language works incorporated here is not, I will argue, consistent with Peirce's views.

Peirce on names

So, what exactly was Peirce's views on names and reference?  As we all know, with respect to  a number of topics, trying to explicate just what Peirce's views were is not a task for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, fools rush in, so here goes!

As noted earlier, Peirce claimed that a proper name is, at least "when one meets with it for the first time" an index.  Again, the passage from 2.329:

A proper name, when one meets it for the first time, is existentially connected with some percept or other  equivalent individual knowledge of the individual it  names.  It is then, and then only, a genuine Index.  The  next time one meets with it, one regards it as an Icon  of that Index.  The habitual acquaintance with it having  been acquired, it becomes a Symbol whose Interpretant represents it as an Icon of an Index of the Individual  named.  (CP, 2.329)

Indeed, he repeatedly speaks of the indexical nature of proper names.  In his paper, "The Logic of Relatives,"  he speaks of "An indexical word, such as a proper noun or demonstrative or selective pronoun" (3.460) and in his correspondence with Lady Welby he remarks, "I define an Index as a sign determined by its dynamic object by virtue of being in a real relation to it.  Such is a Proper Name (a legisign)..." (8.335) and even identifies proper names as "rhematic indexical legisigns" (8.341).[6][6]  As a rhematic indexical legisign, a proper name indicates or points to an object while conveying little or no content about that object (or, in less Peircean language, it indicates a referent but not a sense; or, is purely denotative and not connotative).  In Peirce's words, it is "any general type or law, however established, which requires each instance of it to be really affected by its Object in such a manner as merely to draw attention to that Object" (2.259).

So far, so good.  And what has been said so far is completely consistent with the causal theory of reference (names have no meanings; they are purely denotative; their reference to objects in the world is fixed causally).  In spite of these similarities, though, I now want to suggest that there are deeper dissimilarities between Peirce's views and those of the causal theorists.

Peirce vs. causal reference

As a sign, a proper name involves a representamen, an object, and an interpretant.  Peirce's understanding of both objects and interpretants, I believe, distinguish his views from the causal theorists.  Beginning with the latter, interpretants, I will argue that Peirce's understanding of interpretants precludes Kripke's assertion that names are rigid designators.

In denying that "a particular is nothing by a 'bundle of qualities'" (1980, p. 52), Krikpe claims that names are rigid designators.  That is, a name designates the same object in all possible worlds in which it designates any object at all.  The object might have essential properties, but these are irrelevant to the individualness of the object.  Whatever (if anything) might be essential or defining of Nixon, the name 'Nixon' always and only picks out a unique, particular object.  That is to say, it picks out a hecceity.  This, too, is akin to Peirce's remarks:

Some such sign as the word this, or that, or hullo, or hi, which awakens and directs attention must be employed.  A  sign which denotes a thing by forcing it upon the attention is called an index.  An index does not describe the qualities of its object.  An object, in so far as it is denoted by an index, having thisness, and distinguishing itself from other things by its continuous identity and forcefulness, but not by any distinguishing characters, may be called a hecceity. (3.434)

While this sounds perfectly consistent with Kripke's notion of rigid designation, Peirce says more that does not jive with Kripke.  First, in "The Logic of Relatives," he claims: "An indexical word, such as a proper noun or demonstrative or selective pronoun, has force to draw attention of the listener to some hecceity common to the experience of speaker and listener." (3.460).  Now, I take this commonality of experience of speaker and listener to be a necessary, and not merely accidental, feature of the hecceity of the object.  By saying this, I am not at all advocating an idealist metaphysics.  The object, at least the Dynamical Object, might very well exist completely independently of speaker or listener (though, if it is fictive, it might not).  Nevertheless, names, as signs cannot be rigid designators, if that involves a representamen and object, but no interpretant.  And it is the interpretant that I take here to be reflective of the commonality of the experience of speaker and listener.

This, I think, is reinforced by further remarks by Peirce on the nature of hecceities:

Otherness belongs to hecceities.  It is the inseparable  spouse of identity: wherever there is identity there is necessarily otherness; and in whatever field there is true otherness there is necessarily identity.  Since identity belongs exclusively to what is hic et nunc, so likewise must otherness.  It is, therefore, in a sense a dynamical relation, though only a relation of reason.  It exists only so far as the objects concerned are, or are liable to be, forcibly brought together before the attention. Dissimilarity is a relation between characters consisting in otherness of all the subjects of those characters.  Consequently, being an otherness, it is a dynamo-logical relation, existing only so far as the characters are, or are liable to be, brought into comparison by something besides those characters in themselves. (1.566)

Of course, Nixon is Nixon and the name 'Nixon' refers to a particular object, but as a name, 'Nixon' also involves an interpretant.  It is this semiotic element that is inconsistent with the concept of rigid designation, since the interpretant is the "effect of the sign" or even, as the Final Interpretant, "that which would finally be decided to be the true interpretation if consideration of the matter were carried so far that an ultimate opinion were reached" (8.184).  We cannot, for Peirce, simply ignore or eliminate this semiotic element of names, yet that is exactly what treating names as rigid designators does.  Indeed, when Peirce claims that a sign's "Interpretant is all that the Sign conveys,"[7][7] he surely rejects names as rigid designators, since names convey more than the mere existence of an object.

This leads to an even deeper difference between Peirce and Kripke, et al., namely a difference on how reference and language work in general.  Where Kripke, et al. want to separate out the semantic features of reference, Peirce emphasizes the semantic, pragmatic, and semiotic features of reference (and, for that matter, of names).  These differences can be enunciated by looking at what he says about signs and representation:

"Representation" and "sign" are synonyms.  The whole purpose of a sign is that it shall be interpreted in another sign; and its whole purpose lies in the special character which it imparts to that interpretation.  (MS 1476)

As Christopher Hookway puts it: "A thought , utterance, or other sign denotes an object only because it can be interpreted in subsequent thought as a sign of that thing" (2000, p. 126).[8][8]  This is not a conflation of semantic reference with speaker reference, which is how Kripke, et al. try to handle the sociality of language.  Rather, the point is that denotation is not "merely" a semantic function.  Not simply our ability to denote, but a sign's ability to denote, is possible because there are inseparable pragmatic and semiotic elements inherent in semantics.  Names don't denote all on their own!  (Though, for the purposes of some analysis, we might want to focus on semantic features, by abstracting them away from other features, say, speaker intention.)  This, I take it, is much the point that Hilary Putnam makes in the following example.[9][9]  Suppose, he says, that in its crawling across the sand an ant traces a particular pattern of lines which we depict as a recognizable caricature of Winston Churchill (or that the ant traces a particular pattern of lines which we depict as a recognizable shape resembling the name 'Winston Churchill').  Would we say the ant has referred to Winston Churchill?  (I would even add, would we say the line pattern refers to Winston Churchill?)  Putnam says: no.  What might seem to be missing for reference to have occurred is the element of intention.  However, this will not do.  As Putnam says:

But to have the intention that anything...should represent Churchill, I must have been able to think about Churchill in the first place.  If lines in the sand, noises, etc., cannot 'in themselves' represent anything, then how is it that thought forms can 'in themselves' represent anything? (1981, p. 2)

Just as phyical representations (e.g., lines in the sand) have no necessary connection to objects, so mental representations also have no necessary connections to objects.  Words, signs, are included here: a discourse might seem to be, say, a description of a tree, but if it was produced by monkeys randomly hitting keys on a keyboard for millions of years, then the words would not refer.   This pragmatic view is echoed by Catherine Elgin:[10][10]

...intending to produce an effect by getting one's audience to recognize one's intention to produce that effect is not, or at least is not always, required for reference.  Someone talking in his sleep or under the influence of anesthesia or, for that matter, someone who is unconsciously 'thinking out loud' may have no such intention.  Whether to say that such a person refers depends on how his words are interpreted.  If we can make no sense of his utterances we put them down to incohate ramblings.  If their interpretation is staight-forward, we take his utterances to be sentences, and the terms in them to refer.  It is the availability of a reasonable interpretation rather than the intention with which they were produced that is crucial in decided whether his words refer.  (1983, p. 17)

The relevant points, here, with respect to Peirce, I take it, are that Kripke's desire to make reference a purely semantic issue is mistaken.  As signs names refer, even as indices, only because of the sociality of signs, only because they involve interpretants (and interpreters).

These remarks, that Peirce's understanding of interpretants distinguishes his views from the causal theorists, are further supported, I believe, by Peirce's understanding of objects and the role of information connected to objects.  With respect to objects, Peirce says the following:

We must distinguish between the Immediate Object, -- i.e. the Object as represented in the sign, -- and the Real (no, because perhaps the Object is altogether fictive, I must choose a different term, therefore), say rather the Dynamical Object, which from the nature of things, the Sign cannot express, which it can only indicate and leave the interpreter to find out by collateral experience.  For instance, I point my finger to what I mean, but I can't make my companion know what I mean, if he can't see it, or if seeing it, it does not, to his mind, separate itself from the surrounding objects in the field of vision. It is useless to attempt to discuss the genuineness and possession of a personality beneath the histrionic presen-tation of Theodore Roosevelt with a person who recently has come from Mars and never heard of Theodore before.  (8.314)

Signs are not singular, isolated entities; they cannot property be understood in a purely synchronic way.  They are dischronic and communal.  The very ability of them to represent and to be informative rest of this diachronic communality.  There is an inherent continutity of signs, both in terms of their diachronicity and in terms of their communality.  Nor is this the touted sense of names refer via a community of speakers associated with Kripke.  His communality is after the fact, so to speak.  For him, the reason we can now refer to Nixon by the name 'Nixon' is because of the causal network that the community of speakers has built up over time.  But this communality, for Kripke, is not inherent in his view of the nature of names.[11][11]

Further questions

Finally, I would like to raise some questions about Peirce's views on names.  To this point, I have tried to differentiate his views from those of Kripke, et al. and I have taken Peirce's semiotic approach to names and reference as being superior to the causal theory.  I am left, however, with several questions.  To enunciate them, I will return to the passage quoted at the beginning of this paper:

A proper name, when one meets it for the first time, is existentially connected with some percept or other equivalent individual knowledge of the individual it names.  It is then, and then only, a genuine Index.  The next time one meets with it, one regards it as an Icon of that Index.  The habitual acquaintance with it having been acquired, it becomes a Symbol whose Interpretant represents it as an Icon of an Index of the Individual named.  (CP, 2.329)

Here are my questions and concerns:

(1) I take it that it is true for each and every person that a proper name is a genuine index for that person when he/she meets it for the first time.  Does this mean that the sign's status changes each time it is met for the first time?  When I first encounter the name 'Nixon' it is a genuine index for me.  Tomorrow, when you encounter it for the first time, it is a genuine index for you, but now it is an icon for me.  For Devitt, the name is grounded only once.  Is this the case for Peirce?  Does the sign itself have a status independent of each of us?  How can its status be as variable as it seems to be?

(2) Don't we sometimes "meet" a name for the first time and it is attached, so to speak, to descriptions?  ("Come and meet Max the Wonder Dog!")  Must it be an index on that occasion?  Indeed, how is it even recognized as a name (as opposed to, say, a nonsense word or a description or a title or something else).  Is "Max the Wonder Dog" a complex-sounding name or is it a name plus a description?  How do I even know, when I first meet it, that it is a name at all rather than gibberish?  (The old children's name game could very well be confusing to listeners: e.g., Charles, Charles Bo-barles; Banana-fana Fo-farles; Fi-fie Mo-marles.)  Perhaps another way of expressing my concern is: for it to function as a name, must I recognize a sign as a name?  (This is related to the problems attached to ostension that many philosophers have wrestled with.)

(3) When Peirce says that after that first encounter we have with a name, we later regard it as an Icon of that Index; how does this happen? Is it by simply recognizing the similarity of phonemes or morphemes? (Surely not, as more than one object can "have the same name," at least "same" in a common-sense notion of two people names 'John Smith'.)  (4) When even later a name takes on the status of a Symbol, must the Interpretant represent it as an Icon of the Index?  What is presupposed here?  Does this presuppose recognition that there is the same object and even the same representamen at issue?


[1][1]  "Peirce on Language and Reference."  In Peirce and Contemporary Thought.  Edited by Kenneth Laine Letner.  NY: Fordham University Press, 1994.  Page 290.

[2][2] "Peirce and Russell on Proper Names."  Transactions of the Charles S. Perice Society 339-348.  Page 339.

[3][3] "Peirce on Proper Names and Individuation."  Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society  23 (1987): 521-538.

[4][4] Liszka, James J.  A General Introduction to the Semeiotic of Charles Sanders Peirce.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

[5][5] Naming and Necessity.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

[6][6] However, in some passages, Peirce appears less emphatic that a proper name is uncontroversially an index.  For example, shortly before the original passage cited above, he says: "But the proper name so nearly approximates to the nature of an Index, that this might suffice to give an idea of an informational Index" (2.320).

[7][7] The Essential Peirce, volume 2.  Edited by the Peirce Edition Project.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.  Page 480.

[8][8] Truth, Rationality, and Pragmatism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[9][9] Reason, Truth, and History.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

[10][10] With Reference to Reference.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1983.

[11][11] All of the discussion in this paper has focused on names as indices.  As was noted, Peirce saw them as genuine indices only when we meet them for the first time.  After that, they take on the status of icons and symbols.  If Peirce's understanding of names and reference is superior to the causal theory even at the level of indices, it is a fortiori superior at the level of icons and symbols.