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.


  1. Eric Thomson

    I like the analogy of the lens, but if the lens is a (linguistically/culturally conditioned) justificatory apparatus (say, as Brandom envisions), then we have the danger of McDowell’s frictionless spinning in the void, a game of chess that justifies a bunch of moves but signifies nothing outside of itself. Alternatively, we have folks like Dretske who would see justification as truth-conducive partly because some statements are more reliable than others because of their causal/informational/historical grounding (which ultimately will be a biological/psychological story of the type that inferentialists often undervalue).

    I bring this up not as an objection (because I am unsure where you are heading with this interesting set of posts!), but just to highlight a possible concern about where you *could* be heading, given the vagueness of, “the unique object whose properties the subject will be unlucky to get wrong in justifying the beliefs the way she does.”

    Looking forward to your posts.

    • Imogen

      Thanks Eric. Sorry to have been slow to reply. You’re absolutely right that the void looms frictionlessly just over my shoulder – I *think* I’ve got an account of how the justification works that lets me have something richer (more normative) than a causalist story without being inferentialist – post 3 (about to go up…) sketches the details.

  2. Hi Imogen, thanks so much for blogging this week. Here’s a question that may reveal my ignorance of the contemporary debate: How does your account of reference compare to Williamson’s proposal in The Philosophy of Philosophy that — as I recall and understand him — the content of thoughts (assertions?) should be determined in a way that maximizes knowledge on the part of the thinker? Is your appeal to justification (and luck) doing similar work? And if so, do you have reason to think that this is superior than appealing directly to knowledge? (Alternatively, am I just getting my wires crossed here?)

    • Imogen

      Thanks very much John.

      The ‘aboutness and justfication principle’ part of the framework certainly has many historical antecedents – Richard Heck brings some out in his comments for the forthcoming PPR symposium (these tremendously useful comments – entitled ‘Cognitive Hunger’ – are up on Richard’s website).

      One difference from ‘knowledge maximisation’ views is that I’m not actually doing things in terms of *maximisation* of knowledge (or of rationality (compare Davidson) or truth (compare Quine). You can actually take my talk about ‘focus’ quite literally: the suggestion is that what makes your thoughts *about* an ordinary object is that it’s the thing whose properties your justified beliefs will get right *unless some unlucky spoiler intervenes*: there’s no pressure (I think…) in my framework towards minimisation of the presence of spoilers therefore maximisation of gettings-right.

      With respect to ‘knowledge first’ – yes you could run my framework in terms of knowledge rather than justified/rational belief: the idea would just be that a reference-fixing relation is a relation that puts you in a position such that beliefs formed by what I call the ‘proprietary’ route (uptake from an attentional perceptual feed in the perceptual demonstrative case; careful uptake from testimony in the proper names case) will count as knowledge unless some unlucky spoiler intervenes.

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