Monday Mill Blogging (#009)

I’ve missed a couple of Mondays, but today: Monday Mill Blogging is back.

Today’s post is the second that will cover book 1, chapter 2, section 5.

§ 5.  Connotative and Non-Connotative Names


Let’s just start with a quote:

Proper names are not connotative: they denote the individuals who are called by them; but they do not indicate or imply any attributes as belonging to those individuals. When we name a child by the name Paul, or a dog by the name Caesar, these names are simply marks used to enable those individuals to be made subjects of discourse. It may be said, indeed, that we must have had some reason for giving them those names, rather than any others; and this is true; but the name, once given, is independent of the reason.  A man may have been named John, because that was the name of his father; a town may have been named Dartmouth, because it is situated at the mouth of the Dart. But it is no part of the signification of the word John, that the father of the person so called bore the same name; nor even of the word Dartmouth, to be situated at the mouth of the Dart.  If sand should choke up the mouth of the river, or an earthquake change its course, and remove it to a distance from the town, the name of the town would not necessarily be changed.  That fact, therefore, can form no part of the signification of the word; for otherwise, when the fact confessedly ceased to be true, no one would any longer think of applying the name. Proper names are attached to the objects themselves, and are not dependent on the continuance of any attribute of the object. (p. 33)

Charitably understood, the structure of this passage is this: Mill asserts a view about proper names, considers a possible objection—the objection that the reason for giving one name rather than another imbues the name with that reason as additional significance beyond its denotation—and gives reasons for dismissing that objection (an uncharitable understanding would be one that requires us to reconstruct a compelling argument in favor of Mill’s view of proper names from his response to this objection).

If we distinguish between the reason for assigning a name, and the reason a name applies to an individual, we can frame the point this way:  Mill’s position is that no attribute makes its way in to the application conditions for a name like “John” or “Dartmouth”.  The objection raises a worry based on the fact that there needs to be some reason behind the assignment of names, and Mill’s reply is to argue that, even granting some reason for the assignment of the name, it seems clear that the attributes which ground the assignment do not establish themselves as conditions of application.

One might be tempted to analogize this to Kripke’s distinction between reference-fixing descriptivism and meaning-giving descriptivism, but I think that might be a bit too quick.  To be sure, I can see why it might be thought a parallel, but it would be hasty to suggest that this is the best way of understanding Mill’s position.

In the next paragraph, Mill mentions the terms “God” (in the mouth of a monotheist) and “The Sun” as instances of connotative terms that might incidentally be indiviudal, but are linguistically general.  Mill points out that we can imagine a situation in which there are many suns, and that “the majority of mankind have believed, and still believe, that there are many gods” (p. 33).  Mill wants to set these aside, as he thinks they are general names which (in some sense) merely happen to name only one entity.  This is introduced to distinguish it from “real instances of individual connotative names”.  His examples include: “The only son of John Stiles”, “the first emperor of Rome”, “the father of Socrates”, “the author of the Illiad”, and “the murderer of Henri Quatre”.  Now, for some of these, color me puzzled about why they are getting a different treatment from “The Sun” or “God”.  For others, it is much easier to see why they linguistically require the uniqueness of the entity they name (in a way above and beyond that required by “the Sun”).

Mill explains that while it is possible that multiple people jointly authored the Illiad, the presence of the word “the” renders the name individual:

For though it is conceivable that more persons than one might have participated in the authorship of the Illiad, or in the murder of Henri Quatre, the employment of the article the implies that, in fact, this was not the case.  What is here done by the word the, is done in other cases by context: thus, “Caesar’s army” is an individual name, if it appears from the context that the army meant is that which Caesar commanded in a particular battle. The still more general expressions “The Roman army,” or “the Christian army,” may be individualized in a similar manner. (p. 34)

This treatment of incomplete descriptions is especially interesting, as it illustrates a sensitivity on Mill’s part to the importance of context.  The story appears to be that there are many different armies to which the name “Roman army” applies, however the use of the term “the” in conjunction with contextual factors, determines which of those specific armies the phrase operates as an individual name of on an occasion of use.

Mill next relates part of the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves:

If, like the robber in the Arabian Nights, we make a mark with chalk on a house to enable us to know it again, the mark has a purpose, but it has not properly any meaning.  The chalk does not declare anything about the house; it does not mean, This is such a person’s house, or This is a house which contains booty. The object of making the mark is merely distinction. I say to myself, All these houses are so nearly alike that if I lose sight of them, I shall not again be able to distinguish that which I am now looking at, from any of the others; I must hterefore contrive to make the appearance of this one house unlike that of the others, that I may hereafter know when I see the mark—not indeed any attribute of the house—but simply that it is the same house which I am now looking at.  Morgiana chalked all the other houses in a similar manner, and defeated the scheme: how? simply by obliterating the difference of appearance between that house and the others. The chalk was still there, but it no longer served the purpose of a distinctive mark.

When we impose a proper name, we perform an operation in some degree analogous to what the robber intended in chalking the house. We put a mark, not indeed upon the object itself, but, so to speak, upon the idea of the object. A proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in our minds with the idea of the object, in order that whenever the mark meets our eyes or occurs to our thoughts, we may think of that individual object. Not being attached to the thing itself, it does not, like the chalk, enable us to distinguish the object when we see it: but it enables us to distinguish it when it is spoken of, either in the records of our own experience, or in the discourse of others; to know that what we find asserted in any proposition of which it is the subject, is asserted of the individual thing with which we were previously acquainted. (p. 35)

I think I want to agree with Mill that the chalk mark on the house “does not declare anything about the house.”  It is true that one could devise a language of chalk symbols, in which different chalk marks were used to indicate different qualities.  But note that in such a language, the chalk symbols would be functioning like predicates (with their physical locations determining the subject of the proposition).  But I want to stress something crucial about Mill’s use of the analogy here: if Mill had not so steadfastly insisted that names signify objects rather than ideas, this doctrine of mere denotation would be harder to make sense of.  Note that Mill thinks the term is “connect[ed] in our minds with the idea of the object”.  Since our idea of the object likely includes a variety of attributes we take the object to have, the proponent of the view that terms signify ideas (e.g. Locke) would have no reason to suggest that the name lacks meaning.  It might well be that the meaning is not robustly public (as my idea of Dartmouth may not be the same as your idea of Dartmouth), but the term would signify a somewhat detailed idea.  Because Mill is committed to cashing out the relationship between the term and the object, and because no particular attribution of quality to Dartmouth is inherent in my calling Dartmouth “Dartmouth”, Mill can set aside the various qualities built in to my idea of Dartmouth as linguistically irrelevant.

I might have more to say about this analogy at a later time, but for now, I am going to pause again, and return next Monday (hopefully) to continue working my way through 1.2.5.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §5, “Connotative and Non-Connotative Names” (continued)

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