Monday Mill Blogging (#006)

Monday Mill blogging makes its triumphant return to Tuesdays, apparently.

Today’s post covers book 1, chapter 2, section 3.

§ 3.  General Names and Singular Names


Section §3 is largely focused on the distinction between general and singular names.  Mill’s infamous doctrine about singular names won’t be put forward until two sections later, but there are some interesting elements to this discussion nonetheless.  The section opens:

All names are names of something, real or imaginary; but all things have not names appropriated to them individually. For some individual objects we require, and consequently have, separate distinguishing names; there is a name for every person, and for every remarkable place. Other objects, of which we have not occasion to speak so frequently, we do not designate by a name of their own; but when the necessity arises for naming them, we do so by putting together several words, each of which, by itself, might be and is used for an indefinite number of other objects; as when I say, this stone: “this” and “stone” being, each of them, names that may be used of many other objects besides the particular one meant, though the only object of which they can both be used at the given moment, consistently with their signification, may be the one of which I wish to speak. (p. 27)

First off, I am not sure, but it sounds like Mill might be going in for a quasi-Meinongian view, given that opening claim.  There might be a way to cash it out that doesn’t involve quantifying over non-real entities, but it seems like Mill is suggesting that, while not every object has a proper name, every name has a proper object.  This sort of commitment is relevant to evaluating, for instance, what we can take Mill as having to say, if anything, about Frege’s puzzle and/or other puzzles for the Millian view of proper names.  For instance, if Mill is positively committed to imaginary objects as being denoted by meaningful terms, this provides him with something of a response to at least one problem arising from “empty” names.  Actually, it might be apt to call it a “presponse”, since it looks like Mill recognized that not all meaningful names correspond to real objects, and offered a view about those cases antecedent to a specific challenge being issued.

So, Mill thinks that putting together general names into complexes can supply us (perhaps only incidentally and temporarily) with names for objects that don’t have their own proper name.  This is a pretty plausible thesis, I’d say.  However, this is not the only purpose for general names.  Mill suggests that if all general names were for is to allow ad hoc construction of names for objects that don’t have their own proper names, they “could only be ranked among contrivances for economizing the use of language”.  There is a parallel here between Mill and Locke on the role of general terms/names.  Both recognize that a language where every objects possesses only a proper name would be unmanageable, and accept some sort of argument from the practical necessities of language in favor of general terms.

As noted, Mill does not think this is the only role of general terms:

But it is evident that this is not their sole function.  It is by their means that we are enabled to assert general propositions; to affirm or deny any predicate of an indefinite number of things at once. The distinction therefore, between general names, and individual or singular names is fundamental; and may be considered the first grand division of names. (p. 27)

Mill then defines a general name as a name that is capable of being truly affirmed, in the same sense, of each of an indefinite number of things.  Individual or Singular names, then, are capable of being affirmed, in the same sense, of one thing only.  Mill’s example of a general name is “Man” and his example of a singular name is “John”.  Mill is not concerned about the fact that lots of people are named “John”, because he thinks that “John” in “John Lennon” has a different sense than “John” in “John Fitzgerald Kennedy”.  Here is the interesting part.  In defending this claim, we get a preview of Mill’s famous claim about proper names:

For, though there are many persons who bear that name, it is not conferred upon them to indicate any qualities, or anything which belongs to them in common; and cannot be said to be affirmed of them in any sense at all, consequently, not in the same sense. (p. 28)

I am not sure how to make sense of this claim made here, that “John” cannot be affirmed of people named “John” at all, and the earlier claim that “a singular name is a name which is only capable of being affirmed, in the same sense, of one thing.”  The definition seems to suggest that singular names are affirmed of individuals, while the latter remark seems to suggest that (some) singular names are not affirmable at all.  Now, Mill goes on to say that “The king who succeeded William the Conquerer” is a singular name, and presumably that can be affirmed, so some singular names would still be affirmable.  However, Mill’s point that the propriety of calling someone “John” does not depend on their antecedently possessing some feature that is designated by “John” seems right.  Intuitively, the dependence goes in the other direction, the quality of “going by the name ‘John'” is had in virtue of being called “John”.  Mill’s reason for taking “The king who succeeded William the Conquerer” to be singular is this: “that there cannot be more than one person of whom it can be truly affirmed, is implied in the meaning of the words.”  In other words, there is a sort of semantic guarantee of the term applying to at most one object, and this suffices for it to be singular.

I have not mentioned revisions or amendments to the text, though the Liberty Fund edition of the text I am using has ample detail about changes to the text between the manuscript and different editions.  I do want to make mention of an interesting revision to the passage I’ve just been discussing.  The earlier text had, as the example definite description, “The present King of England” and in the explanation of it qualifying as singular, he said, “never can be more than one person at a time of whom it can be truly affirmed”.  This revision is interesting to me because I think Mill would still want to count “The present king of England” as a singular name, but it seems that it is a messy example to use, since it can, at different times, be affirmed truly of different people.  I suppose one could say that it is being used in different senses at different times, but then to explicate this, one would have to suggest that the word “present” undergoes a continual change of sense.  While this might, ultimately, be the best thing to say about it on Mill’s view, it would make things much messier to lay all this out when trying to explain the division than to treat of the quirkiness of the example later, when more of the machinery is in place.

Back to the main text: Mill observes that even an incomplete definite description, such as “the king”, can, in the right context, count as an individual name.  Like the point about “the present king of England”, this looks to open the door to all sorts of complications, at least if one tries to reconcile the official definitions of singular and general names with a willingness to allow context to dictate the singular/general nature of a name.

The last two things Mill does in this section are: a) complain about use of the word “class” to define “general name” and b) distinguish between collective singular names and general names.

On (a):  Mill says that it is common for people to define general names by saying general names are names of classes.  “But this, though a convenient mode of expression for some purposes, is objectionable as a definition, since it explains the clearer of the two things by the more obscure.”  Mill goes on to propose that the definition be reversed, seemingly insensitive to the fact that this would rule out unnamed classes.  I don’t know if that is a major issue, but it seemed worth observing.

On (b): Here Mill is essentially telling us that general names are predicated distributively, collective names predicated jointly.  “The 76th regiment of foot in the British army” is a collective singular name for a group of soldiers.  There is only one group (at a given time) of whom you can properly affirm that name, and you can’t affirm it of each of the individual members.  “Regiment” is Mill’s example of a collective general name, since it can be affirmed of a lot of different groups in the same sense.  Mill suggests that it is “general with respect to all individual regiments, of each of which separately it can be affirmed: collective with respect to the individual soldiers of whom any regiment is composed.”  This last line suggests that collectivity is type-relative.  This is good, because it means we don’t have to decide all questions of collectivity in our basic semantics.  “Mt. Everest” can be non-collective with respect to the category mountain, but still turn out to be collective with respect to the category particles of matter.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §4, “Concrete and Abstract Names”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: