I cannot comprehend how is it philosophically interesting to research this stuff: whether causal historical-theory is correct or not etc. I am really puzzled by people working in the field: Clearly, no facts about linguistic behavior can ever settle that. Furthermore, "intuitions" about these questions are quite vague and cannot, in my humble opinion, help with ever conclusively determining the correct answer. In any case: How are we to specify the answer? It would be preferrable for many physicalist proponents of these (ex. causal-historical) reference theories (like Hartry Field, I think) to use the vocabulary of physics but I cannot see how it is any better in this aspect, given it is subject to great amount reinterpretation (due to what Quine called the inscrutability of reference). The fact that physics isn't vague, unlike colloquial language, doesn't help with the fact that reference is quite indeterminate. Furthermore, our intuitions, which are supposed to help guide this research, aren't ever about the entities referenced by modern physics! So this attempt seems hopeless. And I cannot see why anyone would attach any philosophical significance to our colloquial use of some terms (like "refers") in these contexts.

Two remarks to clarify:

  1. I am not objecting to, ex. Kripke's assertion that proper names are distinguished by their curious property that they reference the same object in each possible world. I am mostly wondering about his (and Putnam's) attempts to provide a theory of how words bind to objects which is in some sense superposed on the truth of the sentences (which contain these words and are about these objects). I don't see how that clarifies anything.
  2. I am wondering if some actual thinker who works in these fields responded to, ex. Davidson's Reality without Reference, or something similar. I am not looking for an opinion-based answer (I am saying that because someone voted to close this post, claiming that the answer has to be necessarily subjective - I don't think that's true) on why this might be significant - I am wondering about the arguments I see as sound can be addressed to prove, contra (for example) Davidson, the importance of theories of reference.

Where does the interest lie? Am I perhaps unable to see something?

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    @ChrisDegnen I don't grasp the significance of this remark to my question.
    – user71009
    Feb 4 at 19:34
  • Trying to understand the relation between names and objects. Feb 4 at 20:13
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA Well, that's quite obvious. I am asking: How does it help with doing that?
    – user71009
    Feb 4 at 20:14
  • i enjoy this question; i too find the intent annoying tbh. it's not difficult.
    – user66697
    Feb 4 at 20:45
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    @user66697 What they call "folk intuitions" is typically just linguistic intentions, i.e. indications of behavior. And neurobiology is moot when the intended subject is folk psychology, or, as in this case, folk use of language.
    – Conifold
    Feb 6 at 22:00

2 Answers 2


A lot of philosophy is motivated by the attempt to understand things most people take for granted, but on inspection don't make a lot of sense. Most people take for granted that when I say "Joe Biden", you know who I am talking about, but when you think about it, it isn't obvious how that can work in general and be at all reliable. We can't both just happen to be thinking about the same person; that would not be at all reliable. There isn't a physical connection linking us both to Joe Biden. We don't have the same experience of Joe Biden. You may be personally acquainted with him, and I may just know him by name as the current president, having no idea what he looks like or sounds like. So how do I identify the same person you are talking to? It can't just be function such as "the current president of the United States", because if you paid no attention to politics and had no idea that your friend Joe was president, our mutual reference would still be successful. Or would it? What if we had absolutely no common knowledge about Joe Biden; we just both happened to know of someone named Joe Biden and it happened by chance to be the same person, would that really be a successful reference? It's a puzzle how reference can work, and that is why philosophers think it is an interesting topic for discussion.

And any solution to the Joe Biden problem most likely would not solve the quark problem, which is the problem of how we can talk about scientific entities such as weak force, black holes, and quarks, and be referencing the same things. How do we come to refer to the same things when they aren't even detectable via the senses?

  • You're correct, in my opinion, that the study of reference is supposed to help articulate the intentionality of thought (and, possibly, action). I just don't see how it helps - all these constraints (also ones that you mention) seem to me very arbitrary. Your answer is perfectly fine on a more coarse-grained level, but I am persuaded by, ex. Davidson (in "Reality without Reference", for example) that there is a problem with this common-sense perception that reference is essential for understanding mind-world relation. I will edit my post accordingly to provide more context. Anyway thanks.
    – user71009
    Feb 4 at 20:56

I share your perplexity. Or should that be perplexedness? It seems to me that humans have managed to communicate to an acceptable extent without the need for explicit theories of reference. But perhaps I misunderstand what the effort is all about. Who knows, one day it might lead to some huge practical advance in communication, when we are told how we have been doing it wrong for tens of millennia.

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