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1. The Theory of Reference is Retro-chic

Imogen Dickie, Fixing Reference (Oxford, 2016)

Remember the causo-descriptivist wars? If your education was anything like mine, at some point you were walked across the old battlefield and shown some of the main sights: early naïve descriptivism about proper names; its cluster theoretic successor; Kripke’s attack on descriptivism in Naming and Necessity; his causal inheritance picture; Evans’s ‘dominant causal source’ proposal – a whole landscape of descriptivist proposals and causalist counters and descriptivist tweaks and causalist replies.

Now ask yourself a question. Did the debate resolve itself? Is there a definitive account of what makes it the case that the thought you would express by saying ‘Bertrand Russell was a philosopher’ (in an ordinary situation with no special stage setting) is about Russell or (for the case of demonstratives) what makes it the case that the thought you would express by saying ‘That is orange’ as you watch a grapefruit roll across table in front of you is about the grapefruit? The answer is ‘No’. The battlefield is quieter than it was. But this is for reasons of philosophical sociology rather than philosophical progress. The old problems of the theory of reference are still there – only their centrality to philosophical fashion went away.

Fixing Reference develops a new solution to the old problem set. Here is an analogy to bring out the central idea. Imagine a telescope focussed on an object in the night sky. The fact that the telescope is focussed on the object does not guarantee that the information it delivers will match what the object is like. But it does guarantee that this information will match what the object is like unless some unlucky spoiler – a dusty mirror; a cloud of cosmic dust – intervenes. Fixing Reference treats the aboutness of our ordinary thoughts about ordinary things as a kind of focus – what I call ‘cognitive focus’. Very roughly, the suggestion is that a relation to an object that enables you to think about it does its aboutness-fixing work by making available a means of forming justified beliefs which does not guarantee that the resulting beliefs will match what the object is like, but does guarantee that there will be such a match unless some unlucky spoiler intervenes.

Here is this central idea again, approached from the direction of one of the arguments I use to motivate it. Consider the following two principles, one connecting aboutness and truth, the other truth and justification:

Principle connecting aboutness and truth – An <a is F> belief is true iff the object it is about is F. (If my belief that Jack has fleas is about my dog, it is true iff he has fleas.)

Principle connecting truth and justification – Justification is truth-conducive: if your belief is justified, you will be unlucky if it is not true.

Given these two principles, it will be sad and surprising if we can’t cut the intermediate term and obtain a third principle connecting aboutness and justification: a principle which brings out the significance for accounts of aboutness and reference of the fact that justification is truth conducive. Here is the aboutness and justification principle that I suggest, in initial approximate form:

Principle connecting aboutness and justification (approximate version) – A body of beliefs is about object o iff o is the unique object whose properties the subject will be unlucky to get wrong in justifying the beliefs the way she does.

The aboutness and justification principle generates a blueprint for accounts of how relations to objects that enable us to think about them do their aboutness-fixing work: an aboutness-fixing relation is a relation that secures cognitive focus; a relation to an object that makes available a means of justification for a body of beliefs such that you will be unlucky if beliefs justified by this means do not match the object and not merely lucky if they do.

The main project of Fixing Reference is to work out the details of this proposal. Over the next week I’ll try to explain and motivate the central moves.

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