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Interpreting Passage 79 of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations
By Steve Hoenisch
Last updated on Feb. 18, 2006
Copyright 1996-2006 www.Criticism.Com
Table of Contents
3 Primary Target: Bertrand Russell
4 Wittgenstein's Argument
5 In the Aftermath of Passage 79
6 End Points: Kripke
7 Related Pages
The purpose of this presentation is to stimulate discussion of passage §79 by doing two things:
Now let me take a moment to set the stage for Wittgenstein's attack.
Russell, who is Wittgenstein's primary target in passage 79, argues that such sentences as "The present king of France is bald" contain several separate propositions.
If, Russell says, any propositional component of a sentence is false, the whole sentence is false.
Russell further says that what seem like proper names are really descriptions, either definite or indefinte, and that "it is only of descriptions ... that existence can be significantly asserted" -- which is another of the points to which Wittgenstein has objections.
"And so," Russell continues in Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, "when we ask whether Homer existed, we are using the word `Homer' as an abbreviated description: we may replace it by (say) `the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.' The same considerations apply to almost all uses of what look like proper names."
In passage 79, Wittgenstein argues that you cannot draw such a sharp boundary around descriptions, an argument which continues the theme begun in such preceding passages of P.I. as Number 76.
Proper names, Wittgenstein argues, are not as definite as Russell supposes. Wittgenstein attacks Russell's view by making several objections:
To summarize, then, if Wittgenstein is making a proposal at all here, it is that a name has no meaning absolutely fixed by one or more definite descriptions, but that it rather has a certain family of meanings.
But rather than put forth his own developed theory, Wittgenstein merely attempts to dispel the misconceptions surrounding the issue and to present the issue in a clearer light -- perhaps making passage 79 a hallmark of Wittgenstein's therapeutic methodology that we have seen surfacing elsewhere in his work.
But where Wittgenstein stops short of presenting a theory of proper names, Searle picks up the slack, developing Wittgenstein's clarifying remarks into a so-called cluster theory of proper names, encapsulated in Searle's suggestion in 1958 that
"it is a necessary fact that Aristotle has the logical sum, inclusive disjunction, of properties commonly attributed to him: any individual not having at least some of these properties could not be Aristotle."
Thus, Searle extends Wittgenstein's remarks into the argument that a name has meaning when a reasonable large part of the corresponding battery of descriptions turns out to be true.
Let me end by pointing out a powerful rebuttal to the cluster theory of names that passage 79 has spawned: Kripke's book Naming and Necessity contains an extended critique of the theory.
Part of Kripke's criticism rests on powerful counterfactuals, one of which is applicable here:
If all the descriptions that we have about Moses from the Bible turn out to be false, then Searle finds himself unable to account for the fact that Moses nevertheless existed, went by that name, and continues to be referred to meaningfully by the name "Moses." Searle, based on his view as quoted above, would be forced to say that Moses did not exist.
Indeed, the Jonah case is the best of Kripke's arguments against Searle because it is a case in which all the known descriptive information about Jonah is presumed false. Searle would thus be forced to say -- counterintuitively -- that Jonah did not exist.
In Kripke's view, a proper name is a rigid designator, which means that it designates the same object in every possible world. The rigidity of 'Nixon' stems from the stipulation that the token of the proper name `Nixon' is being used to speak of the same contextually specified individual in every possible world.
As Kripke puts it: "It is not the case that he might not have been Nixon (though he might not have been called `Nixon.'" [Naming and Necessity, p. 49.]