Searle on Proper Names and Intentionality

Christopher Hurtado —  April 21, 2010
Searle on Proper Names and Intentionality | Christopher Hurtado


How names refer to objects has been a perennial problem in the philosophy of language. The descriptivist account has long prevailed. But is it correct? Before Kripke came along and attacked it, many philosophers thought it was. Since Kripke, however, many philosophers have changed their minds and agree with Kripke, but not all of them. Some are die hard descriptivists. John R. Searle is one of these. Searle argues in Proper Names and Intentionality that Kripke failed to address the actual beliefs of descriptivists, accusing him of what can only be seen as straw man arguments. This is ironic, since Searle’s argument against Kripke is a straw man argument. I will argue against Searle in favor of Kripke. I will argue that Searle’s critique of Kripke is a straw man argument and that intentionality, though necessary, is not sufficient to give the meaning of a name. In fact, I will argue with Kripke, names do not have meanings, all they do is reference objects.



Frege, whose contribution to the philosophy of language was inspired by his work in logic and mathematics, and, ultimately, directed towards it, worked in the semantic tradition. That is, he attempted to explain how language works by appealing to properties of the symbols it uses. He was concerned with the epistemic issues of how language is cognitively significant, how it represents the thoughts of its users, and how it connects those thoughts to the world. Frege proposed a two-part theory to answer these questions, in which words and sentences have two semantic properties: (1) a sense, or mode of presentation, and (2) a reference. Words and sentences represent the thoughts of the user through the sense, while they connect to the world through reference. Frege’s theory of proper names is that they are shorthand for definite descriptions.

Frege accounted for how we know the reference of a name (i.e.i.e., the object it represents) according to what he called “sense.” He argued that the sense presented a set of properties that the reference uniquely satisfied. According to Frege, determining the referent is simply a matter of identifying the object that has the properties the sense specifies. Under this theory, names function as “disguised” or “abbreviated” definite descriptions.

Frege also held the epistemic view that we could have significantly wrong beliefs about an object (i.e., wrong beliefs about the sense or meaning of a name) and still reference it because there are certain aspects of the object we cannot get wrong. That is, there are certain things we know a priori about objects with names. Frege also held the modal view that we cannot talk about certain aspects of objects (in particular aspects of the sense of names) being other than what they are because these properties are necessary. This leads to the problem of trans-world identification. That is, if certain properties of objects are necessary, I cannot even talk about that object not having those properties.


Kripke was concerned with several problems in philosophy of language: (1) distinguishing between names and definite descriptions, (2) distinguishing between epistemic and metaphysical concepts (especially with regard to a priority and necessity), (3) equivocation in the notion of sense, i.e., fixing the referent, or meaning of a word, (4) de re modality and trans-world identification, and (5) descriptivism (the Frege-Russell theory of names).

Kripke argued that the Frege-Russell descriptivist theory failed to meet most of its claims, mainly due to epistemic matters such as a priori versus empirical status, and due to metaphysical matters such as necessity claims. Kripke gave a “rough statement of a [causal] theory” (qtd. in Searle 332) of names that he argued better accounted for how names function and how we use them. He argued that they are rigid designators. That is, all they do is refer to an object.

 Like the Frege-Russell theory before his, Kripke’s “theory” has made a huge impact on philosophy, especially philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, particularly in terms of how we think reference or linguistic representation of the world works. He argued that some terms, particularly names and natural kind terms, refer in virtue of an initial interaction with an object and thereafter through a causal chain of interactions with that object, rather than in virtue of concepts the object satisfies.

Kripke criticizes the Frege-Russell theory of names, arguing that users of names do not actually know the things the theory claims they do or must know for the theory to work,. Or, that whatever it is they do know does not uniquely specify an object. Kripke states this own “theory” which posits a causal chain from the first use of the name to its present use to account for how names refer.

Kripke argues that it is false that we know things a priori as the Frege-Russell theory of names implies. This, he further argues, refutes Frege’s idea of sense as the meaning of a name. Kripke also argues that the properties the Frege-Russell theory of names implies are necessary, are, in fact, contingent. Thus, they are not built-in to the name, as it were, or part of the meaning of it. He further argues that the problem of trans-world identification stems in part from this misunderstanding of names  (i.e., as descriptions). Kripke’s “theory” posits names as rigid designators devoid of any “conceptual content” (i.e., sense). All they do is refer. Kripke’s “theory” avoids both of the above problems he pointed out in the Frege-Russell theory of names.


Searle’s strategy is to resurrect sense, but in a new incarnation. He argues that there is crude  descriptivism and sophisticated descriptivism. Whereas sense in crude descriptivism is a cluster of properties, sense in sophisticated descriptivism is intention, or in other words, what is going on inside my head when I use a name to refer to an object.

According to Searle’s theory of intentionality, my mental state is “about” or makes reference to something, even if that something doesn’t exist. For Searle, intentional states, which include thinking about proper names, are always states with meanings.  Searle’s descriptivist theory claims proper names are internal states of mind with meaning that are part of a “network” of meaning. In other words meaning is internal. It’s in my head. and therefore must be explained in terms of meaning.

Searle claims that the causal theory is disguised descriptivism because, he argues, the causal chain does not work. For Searle, what matters is the name I use has been handed down to me by my community in the way the other member of my community use it and that the community started using it correctly in the first place. Whereas for Kripke baptism is the start, for Searle there can be no initial baptism unless it is set up such that the object being named is correctly picked out by description or by intentionality.

Searle claims that the historical account is descriptivist, though there are some differences between the descriptivist theory and the causal “theory”: (1) the causal chain is incidental to the descriptivist account, (2) much more than just the use of the name’s intention gets transferred, and (3) causal changes only matter insofar as they might sometimes help us identify what other users in our community are referencing.


Searle accuses Kripke of being a descriptivist in disguise because Kripke’s causal “theory” requires intentionality. Searle argues that Kripkean baptism is descriptivist since social convention and the ability of the baptizer’s interlocutors to recognize the object being baptized are required in addition to external causality. Searle also argues that Kripkean baptism depends on intentionality since the speaker baptizing an object must intend his baptism to be of one object causally related to him and not others. He further argues that the intentionality comes into play on the part of the the baptizer’s interlocutor also.

Searle claims that there are a number of effective counterexamples to the causal theory of meaning in the literature – names which, according to him, don’t work according to the theory. He claims these that counterexamples show that the causal theory does not “give us sufficient conditions of successful reference using proper names” (Searle 333). I He cites three such examples. I will here examine and discount ll threethe counterexample Searle called “the most graphic” (Searle 333): Gareth Evans’ “Madagascar” counterexample. Ironically, this counterexample is one of the easiest to refute. Searle explains that although “Madagascar” originally referred to a part of Africa, Marco Polo used it to refer to the island off the coast of Africa we now call Madagascar. Searle’s contention is that “’Madagascar’ satisfies a causal condition that connects it with the African mainland, but that is not sufficient to enable it to refer to the African mainland” (Searler 333). He then asks how and why it refers to Madagascar and not the African mainland when the causal chain goes back to the mainland. The answer to Searle’s contentions is that the reason “Madagascar” can no longer refer to the African mainland is that “Madagascar” does not any longer satisfy a causal condition that connects it to the African mainland. It now refers to Madagascar. Causally, this can be explained as a rebaptism, to borrow Kripke’s term. There is a point in the historical causal chain in which “Madagascar” ceased to refer to the African mainland and began to refer to Madagascar as users intended.

Incidentally, considering that Searle argues that “the world does not come to us divided up into objects; we have to divide it; and how we divide it is up to our system of representation, and in that sense is up to us” (Searle 330), it seems arbitrary that Searle should say that “’Madagascar’ was originally a part of Africa (Searle 333), whereas now it refers to an island off the coast of Africa. Isn’t what is considered a part of Africa up to us? Is not Madagascar a part of Africa? Geography is logical, not physical. The Aleutian Islands are considered part of North America. Japan is considered part of Asia. Why can’t Madagascar be considered a part of Africa?

But Kripke never failed to recognize the necessity of intentionality along with external conditions i.e., a historical causal chain. Neither did he fail to recognize that description might be used in the baptism of an object. In fact, Searle knew this when he called Kripke a descriptivist in disguise. Searle quoted Kripke as saying that “[an] object may be named by ostension, or the reference of the name may be fixed by description. When the name is ‘passed from link to link’, the receiver of the name must, I think, intend when he hears it to use it with the same reference as the man from whom he heard it” (qtd. in Searle 332). This is why I say Searle is making a straw man argument against Kripke. Kripke never said his “theory” was devoid of description or intentionality. What he did say is that description and intentionality are not enough

Searle, on the other hand, fails to recognize the need for external conditions i.e, that external conditions play an essential role along with intentionality. Searle claims that external conditions are completely unnecessary for names to make reference. Searle argues that it takes four things for names to make reference and none of them are external: (1) “independent representation of the object …by way of perception, memory, definite description, etc., but there must be enough Intentional content to identify which object the name is attached to,” (2) “Intentional content … to refer to what others are using it to refer to,” (3) (and this is where Searle makes the boldest unequivocal claim that external conditions do not matter) “All reference is in virtue of Intentional content … whether the reference is by way of names, descriptions, indexicals, tags, labels, pictures, or whatever,” and (4) a system of representation rich enough to individuate objects as targets for naming and referring and to identify and re-identify objects. Searle added, in conclusion, that the system that constitutes principle 4 is necessary for principles 1-3 to be effectual (Searle 344-5).

The problem is, definite descriptions can fix the referent of a name and pass it along, but they cannot give its meaning because definite descriptions as meaning imply the necessity of properties that are clearly contingent. For Kripke, external conditions constitute the meaning of a name. Or, rather, the meaning of a name is just the object it references. For a name, the link to reality, or what determines the reference, is a historical chain or sociological community relationship to the object. External historical use is reference. Intentional things need to be in place, but are historical. Whereas for Searle, historical use is not what really makes reference but what is going on in your head.


Considering that Searle argues that Kripke’s causal “theory” is descriptivism in disguise on the grounds that it relies on descriptions and/or intentionality, that Kripke never denied this, but rather said so himself, and that these are necessary but not sufficient causes for names to make reference according to Kripke’s “theory,” Searle is making a straw man argument against Kripke. Ironically, Searle’s theory of intentionality relies on external conditions, such as the community of language users. Also, Searle’s argument that definite descriptions give the meaning of names is untenable because it implies that properties of objects that are, in fact, contingent are necessary. Most properties of objects could have been otherwise. Therefore, definite descriptions cannot give the meaning of names. In fact, names do not have meanings. All they do is refer to objects and they do so as rigid designators across all possible worlds.

Works Cited

Searle, John R. “Proper Names and Intentionality” 326-42. The Philosophy of Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Kripke, Saul A. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980. Print.

Works Consulted

Kripke, Saul A. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980. Print.
Searle, John R. “Proper Names and Intentionality” 326-42. The Philosophy of Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.