In the news, I read

"Recently, the oldest man in the world died."

I know the intended meaning of the above sentence, but language wise it might be kind of a stretch.

Is this a sentence where the descriptive and the causal theory of names disagree on the semantics?

(Also, I was searching for an appropriate tag. I came to the conlclusion that this sure is a reference request, hehe. Then I was trying to predict the counter arguments, and when I was thinking about the semantics of the reference request as such, my head exploded.)

  • 2
    Another famous instance from English: "The King is dead, long live the King!" Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 12:09
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    Haha! (Merely) related: math.stackexchange.com/q/349155/56801 (Note some of the smart-ass comments/answers.)
    – user3164
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 12:32
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    +1 Why the vote to close? I like the question. It gives a real-life example where we can discern two views about meaning. I might even steal it :)
    – DBK
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 16:05
  • @DBK: Na euda??
    – Nikolaj-K
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 16:17
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    Will one of the people who have voted to close please state your reason? This is both "a real question" and "on topic" as far as I can tell.
    – Dennis
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 22:13

3 Answers 3


One minor complication, is "the oldest man in the world" a name or a description? It reads to me like a description. In that case the question becomes whether descriptions can be rigid designators.

Kripke, in arguing against the descriptive theory of names in Naming and Necessity held that descriptions couldn't rigidly designate. That was one of his objections to descriptivism. If all names are hidden descriptions, and descriptions aren't rigid (i.e., don't refer to the same individual at all possible worlds) then we will have to give up on the necessity of identity, for instance. Even though Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great, someone else could have taught him and so there is a world where "the teacher of Alexander the Great" doesn't refer to Aristotle.

On the other hand, you could hold that there is a way of rigidifying descriptions, or that certain kinds of descriptions are rigid. One thing I've always thought a bit odd given Kripke's views on the essentiality of origins: why wouldn't "the person born to such and such on such and such a date" be a rigid description? If descriptions can be rigid, then you can use the description to refer unambiguously to the same individual, without the reference switching to the next oldest man upon his death.

Although it seems to be (or at least was around the time of Naming and Necessity, I haven't followed the contemporary literature here) a matter of controversy among philosophers as to whether descriptions can rigidly designate, many linguists I've talked to take it as a given. I'm not quite sure the import of this, but I've been told that there is plenty of linguistic evidence that we do use descriptions rigidly (like in your newspaper headline).

TL;DR If the description is rigid, then the oldest man in the world can die. If the description is not rigid, then the referent of the description will change once the current oldest man in the world dies. So, in a sense, although the person who once satisfied the description will have died, "the oldest man in the world" cannot die.

Further reading:

"Description and Identification": in this article Bernard Harrison claims that the descriptivist theory of names can accommodate rigidity, precisely because some descriptions are rigid designators.

This paper is a response to Harrison and argues that the descriptions Harrison claims are rigid, are in fact not.

In sum, I see this not so much as a question of descriptive vs. causal theories of names, but the (admittedly very closely related) question of the rigidity of descriptions.

  • Please explain "snafu".
    – user3164
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 21:11
  • @Gugg It's something like "a little snag that complicates things". See for instance Webster's (in particular the second half. Although I didn't know about the military origin (Siutation Normal All F-d Up), and so it seems a bit too strong for what I intended. What's the import of your second comment?
    – Dennis
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 21:16

I think your evaluation of the problem is accurate: depending on the theory being used, "the oldest man in the world" can or cannot die.

The descriptive theory says in short that meaning of a name is effectively identical to the descriptions people associate with them. For example, "the person typing out this answer" and "the person looking at this monitor" (assuming "this answer" and "this monitor" are properly defined) both refer to me, so long as I am that person. When I'm done using this computer the second descriptor will no longer refer to me (and it may not refer validly to anyone if there is nobody at my computer). In this theory "the oldest man in the world" always refers to someone who is alive, because if a man were dead that description could not apply to him. Thus, "the oldest man in the world" cannot "die," strictly speaking. When, the man who was oldest in the world dies (note that by using the past tense, I'm maintaining reference to the same person within the descriptive theory), then someone else will be the oldest, so "the oldest man in the world" would never have died.

On the other hand, the causal theory says that basically, we assign a name to a thing, and within the causal realm of influence of that naming action, the name always refers to that thing. For example, we named the closest planet to the Sun "Mercury" and henceforth since the name causally spread through communication, anywhere in our civilization (within the proper context - e.g. not ancient mythology), "Mercury" refers to that planet. Likewise, we name the oldest man alive at a certain time "the oldest man in the world," and in the causal theory this name always refers to that person until we reassign it. Then, "the oldest man in the world" can and will die, at which point we will call someone else (the person who is now the oldest man alive) the oldest.

There's some room for tricks, though. For example we could in the causal theory say "the name 'the oldest man in the world' refers to the man to whom the description 'the oldest man in the world' applies." In this case, we've basically made a descriptive name within a causal theory by proxy, and "the oldest man in the world" cannot die.

  • Thanks for the analysis. You picked up the two theories I know of - what are others?
    – Nikolaj-K
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 15:17
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    Unless he's also the last man... :)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 22:34
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    @JosephWeissman Does that then relate to "The present King of France is bald."?
    – user3164
    Commented Jun 19, 2013 at 6:02

The answer to your question is an absolute yes. If every man on Earth died, the oldest would have died, so it can happen.

  • "Can the oldest man in the world die?" Yeah, the title question was just to catch attention :) The actual question in the post is about the semantics of "Recently, the oldest man in the world died."
    – Nikolaj-K
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 10:50

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