There is a gnome in my garden, which I've christened 'Barack Obama'. (This is the plaster-of-paris sort, not a fictional one.) Is there a possible world in which the two swap? What does Kripke say?

Surely rigid designators do not just apply to men and women. But to pets, to cars, to planets. I assume its an easy exercise to extend Kripke's work to cover pets - does he do it? Or is he only interested in the human subject? If extending to pets, then why not planets. Then if both, what's to prevent a planet getting mixed up with a pet?

Although the question is phrased whimsically, the intent is serious. Surely every object in this universe (including the universe itself) has a rigid designator, a name for itself. Names surely are not restricted to human beings.

If Kripke doesn't accept that - then what are his arguments against that? Or rather what conceptual appartus does he put in place so that designators do not go astray across possible worlds.

  • LOL. Mickey Mouse's pet is called Pluto, which, in a previous world, was a planet. :) [Is that the answer?]
    – user3164
    Commented May 10, 2013 at 14:44
  • I forgot about Pluto! That adds an entertaining twist. Commented May 10, 2013 at 23:54
  • Why must everything have a name? Surely (and I do not know this for certain), only mankind has names for things, feels compelled to name them. Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 16:31
  • @Nquande:There are names as labels and names as descriptions and names as identities. In a world without names there are still descriptions and identities. Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 17:53
  • As I understand it, if that's the name of your garden gnome, then it's a rigid designator. But clearly rigid designators can be duplicated. John Smith is a rigid designator for any individual named John Smith, even though there are a lot of them. Am I understanding the term correctly?
    – user4894
    Commented Mar 7, 2014 at 6:00

2 Answers 2


Shane's answer is perfectly correct as to the question as worded, but I figure we could use some added background.

I think the question doesn't seem to grasp what Kripke means by rigid designator. A rigid designator by definition is a term that picks out only one thing and continues to pick out the same thing regardless of everything else. That is its definitional property. In this respect, it differs from non-rigid forms of designation like "President of the United States" or "my dog" or even "planet on which life exists."

Rigid designators are also thus always proper names but not every proper name is a rigid designator. Thus, "Jimmy" might be a proper name but it only rigidly designates when we declare "This is Jimmy" and attribute this to an object. As shane indicates, if we do so for multiple objects, we will need to further distinguish them which is tedious in normal language. But that doesn't represent a further challenge to Kripke's view.

In fact, it represents an affirmation. A major purpose of his account of rigid designation is to solve the naming problem faced by philosophy of language. The solution is to add to the account of acts of designation. From henceforth, we shall call this X. That means that rigid designator picks it out in all worlds. That doesn't mean that every world has to have given it the same conventional name -- just that the rigid designator continues to attach to the object regardless of what the thing is called.

Returning to Barack Obama, if we have assigned that to rigidly designate the Barack Obama who is our current president, then that picks out the same person in all worlds regardless of what he's doing in any of them (Messiah, Great Satan, Community Organizer, President, Lawyer, etc., etc.). It doesn't matter what name he goes by in any of the worlds either. What matters is that a rigid designator is by definition something that sticks to him -- not to his roles. If the same object is somehow a garden gnome in another world, that would be Barack Obama.

The "barack obama" garden gnome doesn't present a problem in the real world, because even if we make "barack obama" the rigid designator for the gnome and the same words the rigid designator for the current president, we've really just created to homonyms that are rigid designators -- rather than a conundrum. If they were mere names, it created a conundrum because it would not be clear how they pick out their objects (thus the problem Hesperus and Phosphorus)

  • I gathered after I wrote this question that rigid designator is part of the conceptual equipment of possible worlds, that is by definition. A rigid designator sounds similar to what an older philosophy might call essence, that is the rigid designator of Barack Obama is his essence, or more properly put, the name of his essence. As essences identify, they identify across worlds, and hence so does the name of the essence. Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 20:59

All proper names are rigid designators, according to Kripke, so anything you can give a name will be referred to by that name across all the possible worlds. Now, of course, logically speaking the names have to be unique--barack obama has to designate one and only one object in each world in which barack obama exists. Your gnome barack obama would still be the object referred to by barack obama in other possible worlds, even if the people in those worlds called him something different, because we've simply stipulated, logically that his name will refer to this object, come hell or high water.

This is the clue to solving the puzzle about synonymy you're worried about. It is a fact about English, because we are often loose and uncareful about our use of language, that sometimes we assign the same symbol as the name of more than one object. Usually this doesn't cause us trouble in communicating because the context usually clarifies ambiguous references (I know whether you're talking about the gnome or the president from context.) But, if we wanted to be more precise, in the way that we should be when we are doing logic, we could immediately rectify any confusion about which object is being referred to with subscripts. Call the president barack obama1 and the gnome barack obama2. Now, when you say "barack obama2 is in my garden" I know perfectly what you mean. And if you say "barack obama2 won the election" you have said something false. We don't usually find it convenient to be so precise in our ordinary language practices of naming, but we need to be that careful in logic in order to avoid the kind of problem you're talking about here.

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