Reference, Theories of

Referential relations hold between representations and the world; in particular, they hold between parts of sentences and the world and between parts of thoughts and the world (see LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT). The most striking example of such a relation is the naming relation, the sort that holds between "Babe Ruth" and the famous baseballer. However, it is usual to think of reference as covering a range of semantically significant relations; for example, between the word "dead" and deadness, and between the concept <bachelor> and all bachelors. Other expressions used for one or another of these relations include: "designate," "denote," "signify," "apply," "satisfy," "instantiate," "fall under," and "about."

Reference is important because it is thought to be the core of meaning and content. Thus, the fact that "Babe Ruth" refers to that famous baseballer is the core of its meaning and hence of its contribution to the meaning of any sentence -- for example, "Babe Ruth is dead" -- that contains it. And the fact that <bachelor> refers to all bachelors is the core of its content and hence of its contribution to the content of any thought -- for example, <Babe Ruth is not a bachelor> -- that contains it.

The central question about reference is: In virtue of what does a representation have its reference? Answering this requires a theory that explains the representation's relation to its referent. There has been a great surge of interest in theories of reference in the twentieth century.

Description theories are one sort. According to these theories, the reference of a representation is determined by certain descriptions associated with it by competent speakers; these descriptions identify the referent. The simplest form of description theory specifies a set of descriptions each of which is necessary and all of which are sufficient for reference determination (FREGE 1893; Russell 1912); for example, the reference of "adult," "unmarried," and "male" might be jointly sufficient and severally necessary for the reference of "bachelor." This theory calls to mind what is known in psychology as the "classical" theory of concepts. According to another form of description theory, the reference is whatever is picked out by (a weighted) most of certain descriptions associated with the representation. On this "cluster" theory, no one description is necessary for reference fixing (Searle 1958). Cluster theories call to mind theories of CONCEPTS known in psychology as "family resemblance," "prototype," and "exemplar."

Around 1970, several criticisms were made of description theories of proper names -- for example, "Babe Ruth" (Kripke 1980; Donnellan 1972) -- and natural-kind words -- for example, "gold" and "tiger" (Kripke 1980; Putnam 1975). Perhaps the most important are the arguments from ignorance and error. Speakers who seem perfectly able to use a word to refer are too ignorant to provide descriptions adequate to identify the referent; worse, speakers are often so wrong about the referent that the descriptions they provide apply not to the referent but to other entities or to nothing at all. Sometimes the whole speech community is ignorant or wrong about the referent. In brief, description theories of these words seem to require too much knowledge, to place too great an epistemic burden on speakers.

This is not to say that description theories fail for all representations: they still seem plausible for "bachelor," for example. But even where they work, description theories have a problem: they are essentially incomplete. Thus, suppose that a theory claims that the reference of "bachelor" is determined by the reference of "adult," "unmarried," and "male." We then need to explain the reference of those words to complete the explanation of the reference of "bachelor." Description theories might be offered again. But then the explanation will still be incomplete. At some point we must offer a theory of reference that does not make the reference of one word parasitic on that of others. We need an "ultimate" explanation of reference that relates some words directly to the world. Description theories pass the referential buck. The buck must stop somewhere if there is to be any reference at all.

This deep problem for description theories is brought out by Hilary Putnam's slogan, "Meanings just ain't in the head," which he supported with his famous TWIN EARTH fantasy (1975: 227; see also Burge 1979). The association of descriptions with a representation is an inner state of the speaker. No such inner state can make the representation refer to a particular referent. For that we must look for some relation that language and mind have to things outside themselves -- we must look for an external relation.

"Verificationist" theories of reference implicitly acknowledge this point, having a broader view than description theories of the required identification: speakers refer to whatever objects they would identify as the referents, whether by description or by recognition. Speakers recognize a referent by pointing it out in a crowd saying, for example, "That person." But these theories still seem to place too great an epistemic burden on speakers: we can but dimly call to mind the appearances of many objects we refer to.

Attempts to explain the external relation have appealed to one or more of three causal relations between representations and reality. First, there is the historical cause of a particular token, a causal chain going back to the dubbing of the token's referent. Theorists interested in this have emphasized the "reference borrowing" links in the chain: in acquiring a word or concept from others we borrow their capacity to refer, even if we are ignorant of the referent (Kripke 1980; Donnellan 1972; Putnam 1975; Devitt 1981). Second, there is the reliable cause of tokens of that type: a token refers to objects of a certain sort because tokens of that type are reliably correlated with the presence of those objects. The token "carries the information" that a certain situation holds in much the same way that tree rings carry information about the age of a tree (Dretske 1981; Fodor 1990). Third, there is the teleological cause or function of tokens of that type, where the function is explained along Darwinian lines: the function is what tokens of that type do that explains why they exist, what the type has been "selected for" (Millikan 1984; Papineau 1987; Neander 1995).

See also

Additional links

-- Michael Devitt


Burge, T. (1979). Individualism and the mental. In P. A. French, T. E. Uehling, Jr., and H. K. Wettstein, Eds., Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 10: Studies in the Philosophy of Mind. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 73-121.

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

Devitt, M., and K. Sterelny. (1999). Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Donnellan, K. S. (1972). Proper names and identifying descriptions. In D. Davidson and G. Harman, Eds., The Semantics of Natural Language. Dordrecht: Reidel, pp. 356-379.

Dretske, F. I. (1981). Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fodor, J. A. (1990). A Theory of Content and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Frege, G. (1893). On sense and reference. In P. Geach and M. Black, Eds., Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege (1952). Oxford: Blackwell.

Kripke, S. A. (1980). Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Millikan, R. (1984). Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Neander, K. (1995). Misrepresenting and malfunctioning. Philosophical Studies 79:109-141.

Papineau, D. (1987). Reality and Representation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Putnam, H. (1975). Mind, Language and Reality: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, B. (1912). The Problems of Philosophy. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Searle, J. R. (1958). Proper names. Mind 67:166-173.

Further Readings

Chastain, C. (1975). Reference and context. In K. Gunderson, Ed., Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science. 7, Language, Mind and Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 194-269.

Donnellan, K. S. (1966). Reference and definite descriptions. Philosophical Review 75:281-304.

Dummett, M. (1973). Appendix: note on an attempted refutation of Frege. In Frege: Philosophy of Language. London: Duckworth, pp. 110-151.

Evans, G. (1973). The causal theory of names. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 47:187-208.

Evans, G. (1982). The varieties of reference. Edited by J. McDowell. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Field, H. (1973). Theory change and the indeterminacy of reference. Journal of Philosophy 70:462-481.

Geach, P. (1962). Reference and Generality. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (1992). Indication and adaptation. Synthese 92:283-312.

Kaplan, D. (1989). Demonstratives: An essay on the semantics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology of demonstratives and other indexicals. Afterthoughts. In J. Almog, J. Perry, and H. Wettstein, Eds., Themes from Kaplan. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 481-614.

Kripke, S. A. (1979). Speaker's reference and semantic reference. In P. A. French, T. E. Uehling Jr., and H. K. Wettstein, Eds., Contemporary Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 6-27.

Mill, J. S. (1867). A System of Logic. London: Longmans.

Neale, S. (1990). Descriptions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Quine, W. V. (1960). Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Searle, J. R. (1983). Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .