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Why Pseudonyms Don't Always Co-refer To Their Owners

Updated on January 17, 2015

In the philosophy of language, arguments against John Stuart Mill's direct theory of reference often make use of proper names that are purported to be co-referring, such as Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens. The central idea of using such names as a counter-example involves granting that the two names refer to the same individual and demonstrating that they separate in truth value in applied scenarios. The conclusion that follows from the separation in truth value is that Mill's theory of reference, which states that the meaning of a proper name is the object or individual it refers to, leads to contradictions and thus cannot be a correct theory. Purported co-referring names in these counter-examples, however, falsely equate individuals with objects. In this paper I will attempt to show that many of the counter-examples include two names that are not necessarily co-referring as they can refer to different individuals in certain respects. Counter-examples that make use of co-referring names against Mill's theory of reference ultimately ignore individual perspectives and defining social conventions of individuals that can make two supposed co-referring names refer to two distinct individuals by use.

The first example, which is commonly used as a primary example of co-referring names, is that of Superman and Clark Kent. To better understand this problem, let's assume that Lois Lane assents to proposition 'Superman can fly' while also assenting to the proposition 'Clark cannot fly'. Furthermore, let's assume that assenting to a proposition is sufficient criteria to ascribe belief in said proposition. From this, we can say that Lois Lane believes that Superman can fly while simultaneously not believing that Clark can fly. Under the interpretation of Mill that equates individuals to objects, we can safely replace Clark Kent with Superman while theoretically preserving the meaning of the sentence. That is, a sentence like 'Lois Lane believes Superman can fly but she does not believe Clark can fly' would be changed to 'Lois Lane believes Superman can fly but she does not believe Superman can fly'. From this, advocates of such counter-examples against Mill's theory of direct reference conclude that the Millian picture cannot be correct because it leads to contradictory beliefs, such as with Lois Lane. This argument, however, fundamentally assumes that the notion of Clark Kent and Superman being the same object is synonymous with being the same individual. This assumption is unfounded, as it is not clear that Mill was using individuals in a context that was synonymous with objects. In A Systemic of Logic, Mill states that:

"Proper names... denote the individuals who are called by them, but they do not indicate or imply any attributes as applying those to individuals. When we name a child by the name Paul, or a dog by the name Caesar, these names are simply marks used to enable those individuals to be made subjects of discourse." (Mill, Bk. 1 Ch.2)

Regardless of whether or not Mill meant for the word 'individuals' to be synonymous with objects or physical entities, I contend that taking the two to necessarily be synonymous is mistaken. To see this, let us consider Lois Lane when she still believed Superman and Clark Kent were two distinct physical entities. Lois Lane assigned different memories, demeanors, and degrees of affection separately to Clark Kent and to Superman. At some moments she liked one more than the other, even going as far to discuss Clark Kent with Superman or vice versa to gain insight on their convoluted friendship. Developments in which some have legitimately referred to as a love triangle. Yet, how do we differentiate Clark Kent and Superman as individuals versus objects? In essence, the individual that is Clark Kent or Superman is defined by the perspective of the speaker when the said speaker uses the name, relying on their own personal experiences or on social conventions that are associated with the names. Lois Lane forms her psychological conception of Clark Kent or Superman as separate individuals by her own experiences involving them or by underlying social conventions. This is evident by Lois Lane finding Superman to be more romantically appealing because he was more assertive and outgoing, as opposed to Clark Kent's mild-mannered nature. A common resident of Metropolis, on the other hand, may form their conception of Clark Kent and Superman as individuals differently. Let's say that the said resident knows Clark Kent personally but has not met Superman. They rely on personal experiences to form their conception of Clark Kent as an individual and social conventions to form their conception of Superman. The latter involves the typical Metropolis depiction of Superman as superhuman, having a strong moral compass, and being able to fly. In this manner, the individual that is Superman is psychologically qualified by the resident of Metropolis. Their depiction is a distinct individual which has distinct qualities from that of Clark Kent, of whom they are accustomed to on a regular basis.

Now let us consider two names which seem to refer to the same individual, yet still can come apart in truth value. Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens are such an example, in which the pen name of Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain does not have any apparent qualities that Samuel Clemens does not have, except for being denoted as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The argument that follows for Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens against Millianism is the same form of that of Superman and Clark Kent. If Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens refer to the same individual then statements such as 'Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer' and 'Samuel Clemens wrote Tom Sawyer' should mean the same thing from the interpretation that individuals are synonymous with objects. Yet, if another person were unaware that Mark Twain was the pen name for Samuel Clemens, they most likely wouldn't believe that the two statements mean the same thing. From this, they would have contradictory beliefs as prescribed by Mill's theory of direct reference, so the conclusion is that Mill's theory cannot be correct. I contend that even with cases such as Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens, the two do not necessarily refer to the same individual. In this case, however, the two names only refer to different individuals when their usage or conception does. In other words, when an individual knows that Mark Twain wrote Tom Sawyer but is not aware of the name Samuel Clemens they conceptualize Samuel Clemens as being a different individual. This conception of Samuel Clemens as a separate individual is why 'Samuel Clemens = Mark Twain' is not a necessary truth because there are uses in which 'Samuel Clemens ≠ Mark Twain'. From this, one cannot say that Millianism is false due to contradictions as the counter-examples proposed involve a conception of separate individuals that makes 'Samuel Clemens ≠ Mark Twain' from their perspective.

Arguments that employ purported co-referring names to lead to contradictions ultimately ignore how we form our conception of an individual and how that conception is used in our speech. I contend that even though Superman and Clark Kent are the same object, they are distinct individuals. The qualities and conception of an individual much depends on the perspective of the person accustomed with the individuals, forming their conception by way of personal experiences or social conventions regarding the individuals. It is this reason that denoting 'Superman = Clark Kent' or 'Mark Twain = Samuel Clemens' is not a necessary truth, as what we mean by Superman or by Clark Kent may be a conception of the individual instead of a physical entity that is directly pointed out by the name.

An objection one may raise towards separating individuals from objects and permitting subjective conceptions of individuals concerns how two names can be resolved with overriding information. That is, what if the person in the Mark Twain example became aware that Mark Twain was the pen name for Samuel Clemens? Do they suddenly go from conceptualizing two individuals to conceptualizing one? Is that really sufficient to say that what was the conception of two individuals is suddenly one? I contend that solely from the perspective of the person acquiring the overriding information, did the conception of Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens change from two individuals to one. No such change in conception occurs with a person that is already aware that Mark Twain is a pen name for Samuel Clemens, but the person that acquires overriding information is the most relevant for the arguments against Millianism. Nothing in the person's beliefs indicated anything by way of a physical object. The only thing that was indicated was an individual that belonged to a name, of which can differ from an object by way of its use.

The objection applied to the Superman and Clark Kent example, however, becomes much more complex than that of Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain. If Lois Lane, who has taken part in a complicated love triangle, is told by Clark Kent that he is Superman, what changes? Does the love triangle suddenly cease to exist? Does Lois Lane's conception of Clark Kent change as an individual? Doesn't that make the depiction of individuals distinct from objects problematic? I contend that upon Clark Kent telling Lois Lane that he is Superman, a number of perspectives changed. First, Clark Kent consciously decided to fuse personalities of both identities around Lois Lane, even going as far as behaving as an intermediate of the two personalities around her. Second, Lois Lane's original depiction of Superman and Clark Kent ceased to exist as she believed them to be separate individuals, which they were from her perspective. Furthermore, after hearing Clark Kent's revealing news, Lois Lane forms the psychological conception of a new individual that is not quite her original depiction of Clark Kent or Superman, but rather a juxtaposition of the identities. From this juxtaposition and the behavior of the new Clark Kent that intermediates the old Clark Kent and Superman creates a different individual altogether. This means that from Lois Lane and the new Clark Kent's perspective, the new Clark Kent is one individual to himself and Lois Lane. This is the case even when the new Clark Kent does not exist to the people in Metropolis without overriding information about Clark Kent's identity. To them, Clark Kent and Superman both exist, and they have no conception of a new Clark Kent. It is for this reason that we must balance the conception of individuals from the frame of reference of those forming the beliefs, rather than in an objective sense. Doing so avoids the alleged contradictions aimed at Mill's theory of direct reference and properly describes scenarios in which names are not necessarily co-referring.

(1) Mill, John Stuart, A System of Logic, University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, 2002


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