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Consider this quote by Richard Feynman (from "What Do You Care What Other People Think?": Further Adventures of a Curious Character, edited by Ralph Leighton, 1988, available at archive.org):

The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, "See that bird? What kind of bird is that?" I said, "I haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is." He says, "It's a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you anything!" But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: "See that bird?" he says. "It's a Spencer's warbler." (I knew he didn't know the real name.) "Well, in Italian, it's a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it's a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it's a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it's a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing-that's what counts." (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

This is quite a deep insight. Which philosopher is best known for emphasizing a distinction between knowing the name of something and knowing something?

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    Is it deep? Kids ask "what/who is [name]?" so they already understand the difference. This strikes me as predating philosophical reflection on language, already ancient theories of language presuppose the difference.
    – Conifold
    Sep 3 at 22:54
  • @Conifold What is the nature of knowing something, if it is not simply knowing the name of something (or more generally, knowing how the thing is talked about)? What would Wittgenstein have to say on the subject?
    – causative
    Sep 3 at 22:59
  • @Conifold see also this: smbc-comics.com/comic/2014-04-23 many problems in philosophy are simply disagreements over what words to use to describe something, not about the thing itself.
    – causative
    Sep 3 at 23:44
  • 1
    As it happens, Wittgenstein's starting point in PI is Augustine's Theory of Language that separates names from objects they name, as Feynman does (and as Epicurus and Diodorus did before Augustine). And on Wittgenstein's own theory, knowing a name is far short of knowing its use.
    – Conifold
    Sep 4 at 0:08
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    "The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things." - Lao Tzu
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 4 at 0:43
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I find Feynman’s example a bit confusing. If a translator knows what “brown-throated thrush” is called in different languages, he still may be completely unable to identify a bird as a brown-throated brush.

For this, at least an identification-skill is necessary, to look for salient features and not confuse the bird with other kinds. We simply prove having this skill to others by giving the name.

And some basic knowledge comes from the fact that the kinds or classes of things that we dignify with words in a language, involve some sort of connection or similarity.

Especially in this case, since we’re talking about a biological species.

Anyway, the most modern philosopher I know, who arguable talked about this distinction, is C. S. Peirce.

In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Peirce distinguishes three grades of clearness. An idea reaches the first grade when it “will be recognized whenever it is met with, and so that no other will be mistaken for it” (W3:258). This first grade can be exemplified by a seasoned pawnshop owner’s idea of gold. His idea of gold allows him to recognize that an object is made of gold the moment he sees it, and it allows him to interpret sentences that contain the word “gold.” All that is needed to attain this first grade of clearness is familiarity with gold objects. Though this first grade of clearness is primarily a sensuous clearness (R254:6), it need not be narrowly empirical. One can obtain a clear idea of unicorns, electrons, or the trinity by becoming familiar with how these concepts feature in our language and culture. […]

Merely having familiarity with an idea, however, is in Peirce’s view not sufficient for the precision and logical security that is typically required in science and philosophy. The second grade of clearness seeks to accommodate for this. It is reached when the idea is not merely clear but also contains nothing that is not clear. We attain this second grade when we provide “an abstract logical analysis of it into its ultimate elements, or as complete an analysis as we can compass” (CP6.481). The definition of gold as the chemical element with atomic number 79 is an example of this. Here, the abstract definition steers our understanding of the concept. […]

A problem with abstract definitions, however, is that they become disconnected from experience. With his third grade of clearness, Peirce seeks to accommodate for this by returning to the world of experience while retaining the precision gained at the second grade. Peirce famously casts this third grade in what is now called the pragmatic maxim:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. (W3:266)

Unless the maxim shows a conception to be vacuous, application of the pragmatic maxim to ideas at the second grade of clearness renders what Peirce calls a pragmatistic definition, which he defines as, “a definition by means of characters that might conceivably influence rational conduct” (CD 11:348). In his Syllabus for the 1903 Lowell lectures, Peirce gives as an example the following pragmatistic definition of lithium:

If you look into a textbook of chemistry for a definition of lithium, you may be told that it is that element whose atomic weight is 7 very nearly. But if the author has a more logical mind he will tell you that if you search among minerals that are vitreous, translucent, grey or white, very hard, brittle, and insoluble, for one which imparts a crimson tinge to an unluminous flame, this mineral being triturated with lime or witherite rats-bane, and then fused, can be partly dissolved in muriatic acid; and if this solution be evaporated, and the residue be extracted with sulphuric acid, and duly purified, it can be converted by ordinary methods into a chloride, which being obtained in the solid state, fused, and electrolyzed with half a dozen powerful cells, will yield a globule of a pinkish silvery metal that will float on gasolene; and the material of that is a specimen of lithium. (CP2.330)

– Cornelis De Waal: Peirce: A Guide for the Perplexed

Clearness of the first grade would be knowing the name of some X (including identification) and clearness of the second and third grade would be knowing X.

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    This really fits the quote perfectly. Feynman criticizes the other child as only having the first degree of clarity - knowing the name of the bird when he sees it - instead of the third degree: "let's look at the bird and see what it's doing-that's what counts."
    – causative
    Sep 5 at 22:19
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Plato's Socrates in Plato's Dialogues. Went around asking folks who spoke a lot about "justice" and "courage" and such what they knew about the meaning of the term and unveiled that they didn't know what the term they were using meant. But it's been a timeless theme in the Western philosophical tradition since then, and there are countless angles to approach it from.

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  • Good... that's the right spirit. I'm really hoping for a post-Wittgenstein philosopher who champions the perspective that knowledge of words and language in general is only knowledge about what human beings do, and that to truly know a subject is to know something more than how others talk about it.
    – causative
    Sep 5 at 9:39
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On the face of it, it calls for no specific philosophy to value the workable knowledge of a thing above parroting its name pretending to knowledge; common wisdom suffices for that. However, this should not conceal the deep significance names and the act of naming have for the human being, as a popular paraphrase from [Confucius, chapter 13] acknowledges: "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name."

By the act of naming, we carry the named thing over from an ineffable realm into the realm of language and linguistic behaviour. Thus, we start conversing with the thing and that brings us a kind of power over the thing. A footprint of such power is the persistent and colourful theme in cultural history across religions, geographies and societies of the belief that a dominance or a creation begins with knowing and reciting names (just recall the magical word “abracadabra”). Moreover, we not only stand in an almost instinctive need to name, but also to be named – imagine for a moment yourself as nameless.

Beside functional aspects, naming enables us to articulate a discourse around a thing, to internalise it, attaching associations, finding out connections. Hence, the name serves as an epistemic substratum. A name is, so to say, a peg to hang an identity on the named thing. We may discern this aspect of naming clearly in mathematics, where the importance of notation cannot be overstated and naming has a central role in forming notation.

Consider we are trying to work out a solution for a geometrical involving a triangle. We draw the figure and concentrate on it. Standing by itself unnamed, it is beyond our control of reasoning. It is, as it were, on the limbo of existence as a mathematical object, hanging over there:

enter image description here

Now, label the edges and vertices of this triangle and take a look at it again and consider the determinative difference:

enter image description here

This step is not merely a matter of functional convenience, it is the power of naming. The following observation from a colleague of the eminent mathematician Alexandre Grothendieck, who was one of those explicitly deliberating over naming, is quite illuminating:

[Grothendieck] was a master at naming, and he used that ability as one of his main intellectual strategies. He had a particular talent for naming things before possessing and conquering them, and many of his terminological choices are quite remarkable. . .

His strategy, then, was to name. That is where I took the title of this article: "A country of which nothing is known but the name", because that was truly his way of going about things. ([Cartier, p. 289] emphasis in the original)

Hence, descriptive or not, sooner or later, we have to attribute, to use Frege’s term, an Eigenname in order to further our knowledge. It is worth taking into account in the present context that by ‘Eigenname’ (translated in philosophical texts as ‘proper name’ which is its usual English equivalent, but notice that ‘Eigen’, a cognate of English ‘own’, is a peculiar word, thus left untranslated in some technical cases as eigenvector, eigenvalue and eigenvariable), Frege actually signifies a logical name rather than a grammatical name, a close analogy being the logical/physical name difference in computer science.

Returning to Feynman's anecdote, we may say that it is not entirely trifling to merely link a name with an object. We may say that it is a preliminary stage of an epistemological buildup.

Surely, we may cite other interesting ramifications here (Wittgenstein's connection between meaning and use is only one of them). However, the foregoing remarks are intended not to lay out a thorough consideration of the intrinsic relation names bear to knowledge, but to suggest a subsequent course of discussion. As Friedman bluntly puts it, “in the world of ideas, to name something is to own it. If you can name an issue, you can own the issue.”


Cartier, Pierre. "A Country of Which Nothing is Known but the Name: Grothendieck and "Motives"" in Alexandre Grothendieck: A Mathematical Portrait edited by Leila Schneps (International Press of Boston, Sommerville, 2014).

Confucius. The Analects. https://china.usc.edu/confucius-analects-13

Friedman, Thomas L. “The Power of Green” in New York Times Magazine April 15, 2007.

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  • Well, names are useful. However, they are not knowledge about the object, which is Feynman's point; names are arbitrary tags. Often we do see people engaging in the confusion Feynman points out - using complex words to seem authoritative and disguise a lack of true knowledge. Traditional Chinese writing was incredibly complicated, and required a lifetime just to learn to read and write. Perhaps this is part of the reason Europe leapfrogged ahead of China technologically; Chinese scholars spent so much effort learning to write names of things, they had little time for true knowledge.
    – causative
    Sep 9 at 17:49
  • @causative Names are not useful. Names are simply indispensable. Why are they indispensable? Sep 9 at 17:58
  • In some cases names are not necessary. Wordless understanding is possible; we can think with shapes and images, and other sensory associations. We can forget the name of someone, while remembering their face and many other things about them. Names are important, sure, but there's more to the world than words.
    – causative
    Sep 9 at 18:05
  • @causative That's the point of Eigenname; we, homo sapiens, have to put something in name's place. We may eliminate names, but after we have learned how to use them. We may remain zoon logon echon when there's nobody around to speak, but after we have acquired language. Sep 9 at 18:33
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    @TankutBeygu I love what you have written and you’ve made a both interesting and compelling argument for overlooked importance of names and naming. However, I do agree with causative that they are not knowledge about an object (though they do contribute to the ability to generate knowledge about an object). I almost wish someone would ask a different question you could post your answer to. Sep 11 at 18:17

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