Additionally, if you think it is circular, is it fully circular or just partially circular, and does that distinction even make sense?

I feel like the notion of 'partially circular' is self contradictory, surely if something is partially not-circular then the total value of the thing just is not-circular, but I'm not sure

I've been thinking about this too much recently and can't think clearly anymore, would love some fresh perspectives/references, ta!

Relevant background: see the SEP article on rigid designation, esp. this section.

  • The correct way si "the meaning of the name "Feynman" is the famous physicist Feynman " Dec 11, 2023 at 8:29
  • 1
    "I've been thinking about this too much recently and can't think clearly anymore." Welcome to Philosophy SE! Dec 11, 2023 at 19:19

4 Answers 4


Not circular. The meaning of a symbol is the thing (in this case, the person) to which people refer when they make a certain noise which we represent by that symbol, or draw a certain squiggle picture. We know that "the noise represented by Feynman" is not a person, it's a noise, so we just have a homonym.

Symbols themselves are tautologically or circularly defined, i.e. the squiggle picture Feynman is this squiggle picture: Feynman. The squiggle picture Feynman is not this squiggle picture: Фейнман. (Even though they refer to the same sound and and the same person.)

  1. The most famous physicist is (called) Feynman = AxAy(Fxy --> x = f) = For all x, for all y, if x is more famous than y then, x is Feynman

If you'd said, f = f i.e. Feynman is Feynman, that would be circular.

In 1 you've identified "the most famous physicist" as Feynman. A definition is identification (look for "=").


The statement, taken in complete isolation, might be circular. But in practice, it isn't defining "Feynman" as "Feynman". It's answering the (perhaps implicit) question, "Which Feynman are you referring to?"

Language is inherently ambiguous and context-dependent. You generally shouldn't try to literally translate a normal colloquial statement into a formal logical statement. That way, madness lies.


Since names, even first-and-last-name (and middle name!) combinations, can be used to refer to multiple people, we should say: one of the possible referents of the words "Richard Phillips Feynman" is (was) a famous physicist historically referred to by those very words. If this seems like a circular definition rather than a noncircular ostensive one, it's in good enough company, since there will be ineliminably circular definitions even in indirect descriptivism (consider dictionary loops, for example).

Somewhat formally, and on the assumption of some sort of circularity, we should ask if we are dealing with a circular definition or a circular object. Sec. 1 of the SEP article on set theory without the exclusivist axiom of foundation reads:

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The example regarding HF is reminiscent of your example regarding Feynman, I should think.

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