McGinn explains Kripke's Feynman-Gellman problem as follows (Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained)

Most people are not experts in physics and will not be able to tell you what Feynman's unique discoveries were but can still say, "Feynman was a famous physicist." If the same person was asked who Gellman was, he could say, "Gellman was a famous physicist too." It is evident that with these two descriptions, nothing distinguishes the two physicists from one another. . . Now consider a case where someone comes along and tells our naive speaker, "Feynman is the man who originated the parton model." Our speaker clearly learned something . . . [which] is not a priori. . . . Kripke's point is that for any description that a person associates with a name, the description is always known empirically, not analytically.

I find this argument to be easily refutable. The description of Feynman that the naive speaker has is, precisely speaking, not "a famous physicist", but "the famous physicist whose name is Feynman." Here, the clause "whose name is N" can be analysed to "whose ID card has N written on it", or "who would turn their head when someone calls N", or an amalgamation of such properties. If the naive speaker was in a room with Feynman and Gellman, they could shout 'Hey Feynman', see which one responds, and realise that the responder is Feynman since he matches the description. Thus, the naive speaker does indeed have definite descriptions.

Is this refutation valid?

  • I got the same feeling when reading about analytic/synthetic in Kant, it doesn't feel like the distinction is unassailable.
    – Frank
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 17:31
  • You might know a priori, if their name sounds cool..? I think your points are valid. The idea of a priori, is thoroughly suspect though.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 21:08
  • It is still an empirical matter as to how we know Feynman's name is 'Feynman'. Also, there are lots of people called Feynman, so the definite description "the physicist whose name is 'Feynman'" might have more than one possible referent that we would have to disambiguate empirically. If you want to say merely that it is a priori that the person whose name is 'Feynman' is called 'Feynman' than that is plausible but rather trivial.
    – Bumble
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 8:37
  • Yeah, but Feynman en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Feynman also had a brother who did some interesting things. So "whose name is Feynman" is still not distinguishing. Then again, names are only labels. Einstein and his driver can exchange labels. redirect.cs.umbc.edu/~sourav1/Jokes/Einstein.html
    – Boba Fit
    Commented May 10, 2023 at 12:37
  • Indeed this could be said to lead to a much deeper question of the existence and scope of a priori knowledge, you seem inclined for its existence and then how much they cover your total knowledge and are you satisfied with them?... Commented May 12, 2023 at 23:16


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