Code: TP-22

James on Names and Reference

A core concern among contemporary analytic philosophers of language is the topic of reference, along with related issues of meaning and truth.  While the ideas of William James on these latter issues, including his disputes with Bertrand Russell, are somewhat legendary, he wrote little directly on the topic of reference.  Nevertheless, a conception of reference, including ! an underlying notion of the semantic and pragmatic features of language, can be extracted from James’s works.  Robert Burch1, in his essay, "James and the ‘New Theory of Reference’," has suggested that a number of important features of the causal theory of reference (or theory of direct reference), which is usually associated with Kripke, Donnellan and others, were anticipated by ideas of William James.  I disagree, at least with some important details of his suggestion.  In this paper, I will first briefly lay out the causal theory as it is stated by its proponents, then outline Burch’s account for how James anticipates several central features of this theory.  Having done that, I will I argue that James’s ideas relating to reference are not as closel! y aligned with the causal theory as Burch suggests.  I claim that Burch has not fully made his case for these connections, and further that those ideas that can be culled from James on the issue of reference reveal a view that is sufficiently different than and superior 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 c! ommunity, 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" (Naming and Necessity, p. 95)2  This "better picture," which Kripke claimed is "not a theory" (1980, p. 96), has nonetheless served as the nascence and kernel 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.  (NN, p. 96)

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            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.  As just noted, Kripke does not explicitly propose a theory of reference.  However, others (e.g., Devitt3) have attempted to forge a causal theory of referen! ce based on Kripke’s picture.  According to Devitt:

The central idea of a causal theory of names is that our present uses of a name, say ‘Aristotle’, designate the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle not in virtue of the various things we (rightly) believe true of him, but in virtue of a causal network stretching back from our uses to the first uses of the name to designate Aristotle.  It is in this way that our present uses of the name "borrow the reference" from earlier uses.  It is this social mechanism that enables us all to designate the same thing by a name. (D, p.25)

Burch’s account

            Burch claims that there are three positive features of the Kripke-Donnellan theory that James anticipated.  The first feature is that the referential unit is considered to be an act, a speech-act, or writing-act, or (possibly) a mental act.  Says Burch: "Language itself is not what refers, as Russell perhaps thought; it is persons who refer with language, in speaking, writing, and (possibly) thinking.  Being an event in history, the referential act is in the continuous stream of temporal experience, and it has concrete causal and explanatory relations with the rest of the world. [p. 284]"

            The second feature is that the doctrine of reference goes hand in hand with a doctrine of truth.  This is as it should be, says Burch, since the truth of an assertion obviously depends in some strong way on the successful accomplishments of the assertion’s referential acts.

            The third feature is that reference is established by something like a causal or referential chain, as exemplified in the earlier quotes by Kripke and Devitt, rather than being established by some sort of "inner, mental act of pointing that hits its target automatically [p. 285]."

            Havi! ng identified these features of the causal theory of reference as ones anticipated by James – and having noted that there are other features of the theory, such as Kripke’s thesis that names are rigid designators, that are not anticipated by James – Burch then proceeds to flesh out what James’s ideas of reference are and attempts to show that these ideas are similar enough to the modern causal theory to warrant holding them as anticipations of it.  He makes his case about James by first detailing James’s theory of truth, particularly James’s theory of truth as a version of a correspondence theory of truth.  There are three keys components of James’s correspondence theory: first there is the term designating that which is to correspond to reality, second there is reality itself, and third there is the correspondence relation.

            Now, the first component, the thing that is true, is, for James often characterized as a belief, thought, or idea.  The central point here is that the thing that is true is concrete, historical, and temporally present in the world, as opposed, say, to Russellian "propositions."  As Burch puts it: "Truths are possessions of particular human beings at particular times and places. [p. 287]"

            The second component, reality, is the world of pure experience, for James, including relations as well as properties and objects.  The third component, the correspondence relation itself, is, in Jam! es’s terminology, an ambulatory relation, one in which "there is a continuous path or a successive series of steps by which the one relatum leads up smoothly or stepwise to the other. [p. 289]"  This ambulation is constitutive of the relation of truth, and, indeed, is the fundamental pragmatic notion of "workings," i.e., the understanding that truth happens to an idea.  As Burch claims: "To a great extent, James’s notion of ‘working(s)’ simply is this notion of ambulation, along continuously connected intermediaries, between the true idea and reality. [p. 290]"  The agreement between truth and reality is constituted by the "workings" of true ideas, and these workings in turn are ambulat! ory relations connecting true ideas with the realities of which they are true.

            Having briefly laid out James’s theory of truth, Burch uses this to make an explicit account of a Jamesian theory of reference.  As Burch puts it:

My central claims about James’s theory of reference are that for James, the agreement of an idea with reality and the reference of an idea to reality are inextricably intertwined, and that both involve the same chain of empirical intermediaries stretching between the idea and the rest of the world.  The same not! ion of ":workings" underlies both truth and reference. [p. 291]

And, indeed, James says as much in The Meaning of Truth4:

Reference, then, to something determinate, and some sort of adaptation to it worthy of the name of agreement, are thus constituent elements in the definition of any statement of mine as ‘true.’  You cannot get at either the reference or the adaptation without using the notion of workings. [p. 218]

            &nbs! p;It is, for Burch, this notion of workings and James’s insistence on a chain of empirical intermediaries that especially demonstrates the kinship (and anticipation) of James’s ideas with the new causal theory.  Again, in Burch’s words: "…the existence of a chain of empirical links running continuously from the referring act to the referent is actually constitutive of the reference.  That is to say, the existence of such a chain is a necessary condition of a successful reference.  Without it, one has at best only intended reference. [p. 293]"

            Finally, Burch argues that this position of James is held not only for reference in general, but also for proper names.  This is exemplified in the discussion, in The Meaning of Truth, of Julius Caesar.  In underscoring his position that a statement’s truth invokes the concept of its workings, James asks how it can be that my statements about Caesar can be true and can refer to the original person, Caesar.  His answer is there are (or would be) "…finite intermediaries between the two original facts.  Caesar had, and my statement has, effects; and if these effects in any way run together, a concrete medium and bottom is provided for the determinate cognitive relation…The real Caesar, for example, wrote a manuscript of which I see a real imprint, and say, ‘the Caesar I m! ean is the author of that.’ [p. 222]"  Burch concludes by asking: "What could make it any clearer that the heart of the ‘new’ theory of reference was genuinely new only to James? [. 293]"

Concerns and criticisms

            Now, I think that Burch is absolutely right that James’s ideas about reference resonate with the new causal theory.  I also agree with much of his characterization of just what James’s ideas about reference are.  However, in the final analysis, I claim that Burch is mistaken on several counts.  I will argue that, while he is essentially correct in his portrayal of James’s position, James’s position is less like the causal theory than Burch asserts.  First, I suggest that Burch has mis-characterized the causal theory in some respects.  Second, I will flesh out what I see as James’s position on reference and why I see it as distinct from and superior to the causal theory.

            So why isn’t Burch’s account of the causal theory correct?  It is not correct on two of the three features that he discusses, first, that reference is a speech-act, a! nd, second, that reference is so intimately associated with truth.  To the first claim, that reference is a speech-act, Kripke, Donnellan, Devitt, and others have all insisted that there is a clear difference between the semantic meaning (or referent) of a term/name and the speaker’s meaning (or referent).  So. I might mean to refer to James when I utter the name ‘Peirce’, but the name ‘Peirce’ refers to Peirce, not to James.  Of course, referring is a act made by a speaker, but for the causal theorists, the semantic reference of a term/name is not at all the sort of thing that speech-act theorists are talking about.  The name, once established (say, in a baptismal act) has a semantic life of its own, independent of how I use it or misuse it.&! nbsp; This is important, I believe, in distinguishing James’s position from the causal theory, and I will return to this below.

            The second feature of the causal theory that Burch identifies is the intimate connection between reference and truth.  He rightly points out that the truth of sentences is dependent upon the terms in the sentence referring.  Nevertheless, the nature of the relation between reference and truth is more than this.  For one thing, terms/names refer, but they are not true; sentences are true, but they do not refer.  Because of this, Kripke simply does not discuss truth, or theories of truth, in fleshing out his picture of reference.  For him, it simply is not necessary.  In addition, though this point is not crucial for the present concerns, there is the question of whether the truth of a sentence is in fact dependent upon the successful reference of its terms.  For example, suppose that after a quarrel, I want to say something disparaging about my friend Richard Robin.  So, I sneeringly refer to him as ‘Peirce’, as in: "Well, I see fine Mr. Peirce decided to show up for this talk."  My utterance is true (he’s here!), though, of course, the name unsuccessfully (improperly) refers.  (Or, one might say that the utterance, along with the speaker’s reference, is true, while the sentence, along with its semantic referenc! e, is false.)

            As with Burch, though, my main concern here is with James’s ideas of reference.  What are they?  Burch quite correctly points out that the concept of workings underlies and is central to James for both truth and reference.  He is also right to insist that, for James, any theory of reference must be intimately connected with a theory of truth, precisely because both depend on workings.  (And this is exactly one of the differences between James and Kripke!)  As noted earlier, James explicitly remarks: "You cannot get at either the reference or the adaptation without using the notion of the workings. [MT, ! p. 218]" And, as Burch points out, these workings involve empirical intermediaries between the individual belief and an object referred to or believed to be true.

            However, these intermediaries are not the historical causal links going back to some baptismal naming ceremony, as they are for Kripke.  Rather, the sociality of the intermediaries is, for James, of a different sort.  First, for James the point is that the connections between the name and the object cannot simply be a matter of private mental associations.  This sounds very much like the causal theory, but not quite.  As Burch himself points out, James’s notion of workings is future-oriented, not pas! t-oriented.  He says that this is still a version of the causal theory (in which the intermediaries are obviously past-oriented causal connections) because the past (and future) is the only means of access to the past.  I take James’s position somewhat differently.  Workings is future-oriented; truth happens to sentences and reference happens to terms/names because of how we use them in the future, not simply because of a past-causal chain of uses.  Of course, there might well be a past chain of uses of a name, but, for James, those cannot be constitutive of the name’s ability to refer (much less a speaker’s ability to refer by using that name).  The socialty of reference, indeed the social of language generally, is the future-oriented working! s for James.  Past referrings, "older truths" as James says, are clearly a significant part of the future orientation, but they do not define or constitute it.  The very possibility and fact of reference change speaks on behalf of James’s position and against Kripke’s.  As Gareth Evans5 showed, the reference of the name ‘Madagascar’ changed from its original object, namely, a portion of the African mainland, to the island off-shore.  In addition, reference to abstract objects (such as numbers) or to future objects (such as, say, my first grandchild) is unproblematic under James’s notion of workings and his future-oriented view of the sociality of reference.  So, while both James and Kripke insist on reference! as a social, public function of language, and object to reference as a purely private, mental affair, they conceive of the sociality of language in different ways.  James’s, I believe, is superior.

            This difference can be highlighted by reference to James’s "skrkl" example, given in The Meaning of Truth.  He proposes that we take an example of a term that has no possible workings, an utterance of the (to us, nonsensical) term ‘skrkl’.  Perhaps I say, "Peirce was quite a skrkl."  Either my claim is true, or false, or irrelative (i.e., unrelatable to anything).  James says:

For it not to be irrelevant (or not-cognitive in nature), an object of some kind must be provided which it may refer to.  Supposing that object provided, whether ‘skrkl’ is true or false [i.e., refers or not] of it, depends, according to Professor Pratt [for our purposed, Professor Kripke], on no intermediating condition whatever.  The trueness or the falsity [read: the semantic reference] is even now immediately, absolutely, and positively there. [MT, p. 171]

            I take, then, the sort of causal chains enunciated in the causal theory of reference to be something different than the! needed intermediaries outlined in James.  His sociality has to do with the future uses of a term/name as constitutive of its reference at least as much as its past and present uses.

            This is related to another difference between the causal theory and James’s ideas, viz., the nature of truth.  While I think that Burch is completely correct to insist that James’s pragmatic theory of truth is properly seen as a correspondence view, I would characterize it a bit differently.  Clearly, for a statement to be true, it must connect to reality.  In addition, however, James is explicit about truth as a form of expediency.  As ! he says in "Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth:"6 "’The true’, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. [P, p. 86]"  This axiological base for truth points to the coherentist aspects of James’s notion of truth.  So, he claims: "A new opinion counts as ‘true’ just in proportion as it gratifies the individual’s desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock. [P, p. 25]"  How I would characterize this position is that, for James, truth is not a dyadic relation simply between reality and the statement (or belief) or a dyadic relation simply between a past stock of statements (or beliefs).   Rather, it is a triadic relation among reality, a past stock of statements (or beliefs), and the present statement (or belief) at issue.  Likewise, for reference.  It is not simply a matter of being part of a causal nexus and having a semantic correspondence.  Nor is it simply a matter of having a set of beliefs or descriptions associated with a term/name.  Reference presupposes an ability by speakers to use language, and this language use is dependent upon purposive, social behavior.


Final remarks


            &nbs! p;I have argued in this paper that Burch has not made his case that James anticipated much of the causal theory of reference.  I first suggested that Burch’s portrayal of the causal theory is not quite accurate and I second claimed that James’s ideas are actually importantly different than the causal theory.  In this short paper, I have only hinted at why I take James’s ideas to be not just different than, but superior to, the causal theory.  A more thorough explication there is subject for a larger paper.  I will finish this paper, then, with one fuller hint in this direction.

            One element of Kripke’s vie! w is the unimportance of the question of haecceity and individuation of objects.  His notion of rigid designation (that a name refers to the same object in all possible worlds in which it refers at all), I believe, rests on a particular conception of individuation and a conceptual comfort with haecceities and bare particulars.  For example, he says: "Unless we assume that some particulars are ‘ultimate’, ‘basic’ particulars, no type of description need be regarded as privileged…Don’t ask: how can I identify this table in another possible world, except by its properties?  I have the table in my hands, I can point to it, and when I ask whether it might have been in another room, I am talking, by definition, about it. [pp. 51! , 53]"  I confess, I at least, have qualms about this, but more importantly for now, I believe that James does, too.  For example, in "Two English Critics" (in The Meaning of Truth), James criticizes what he sees as Russell’s "vicious abstractionism:"

The abstract world of mathematics and pure logic is no native to Mr. Russell that he thinks that we describers of the functions of concrete fact must also mean fixed mathematical terms and functions.  A mathematical term, as a, b, c, x, y, sin., log., is self-sufficient, and terms of this sort, once equated, can be substituted for one another in endless series without error.  Mr. Rus! sell…seem[s] to think that in our mouth also such terms as ‘meaning,’ ‘truth,’ ‘belief,’ ‘object,’ ‘definition,’  [and I would add ‘reference’] are self-sufficients with no context of varying relation that might be further asked about…But may not real terms, I now ask, have accidents not expressed in their definitions? And when a real value is finally substituted for the result of an algebraic series of substituted definitions, do not all these accidents creep back? [MT, pp. 276-278]


The point here is that I take James to be concerned with the sort of formal stipulation of reference or identity independent of the concept of workings, as it applies to both the object itself and our beliefs about ! it.  This, I take it, holds for James in the case of Russell and, had he known of him, in the case of Kripke.








1Burch, Robert.  "James and the ‘New Theory of Reference’"      Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, pages 283-297.


2Kripke, Saul. (1980). Naming and Necessity.  Cambridge: Harvard Univeristy Press.


3Devitt, Michael. (1981). Designation.  New York: Columbia University Press.


4James, William. (1970). The Meaning of Truth.  Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.


5Evans, Gareth. (1985). Collected Papers. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


6James, William. (1995). Pragmatism. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.