Causal theory of names

From Academic Kids

A causal theory of proper names is any of a family of views about what kind of meaning a proper name (or "proper noun") has, what object it refers to, and how it acquires these features. In its strongest contemporary form, it involves the following claims:

  • the meaning of a proper name is simply the individual to which, in the context of its use, the name refers, or a proper name has no meaning
  • the name's referent is originally fixed by a baptismal act, whereupon the name becomes a rigid designator of the referent
  • later uses of the name succeed in referring to the referent by being linked by a causal chain to that original baptismal act.

Weaker versions of the position (perhaps not properly called causal theories), claim merely that in many cases events in the causal history of a speaker's use of the term, including how he acquired it, must be taken into account to correctly assign references to his words.

Causal theories of names became popular during and after the 1970s, under the influence of work by Saul Kripke and Keith Donnelan. Kripke and Hilary Putnam also defended an analogous causal account of natural kind terms, and work on causal theories eventually expanded into other parts of language.

The theory

The theory is usually advocated by philosophers who deny (1) that most proper names are disguised descriptions (as Russell held), and (2) that there is anything like a Fregean sense attached to a proper name (for example, Saul Kripke, the originator of the theory), where a Fregean sense is supposed to be equivalent to some kind of description. They say: in order to give the meaning of a proper name, you don't have to express such a sense; you don't have to give an identifying description of the individual that bears the name. They say that, in order to say what a name means, all you have to do is account for what causes proper names to refer to the individuals to which they refer.

The argument for the view is something like this. In naming a newborn baby, traditionally we have taken the baby to a priest or pastor who baptizes and names the baby, say "Jane Doe." So the pastor says, "This child's name is 'Jane Doe'." And henceforth everyone calls the little girl "Jane." With that initial act, the act of christening as it is called, the pastor gives the girl her name. This seems all fairly straightforward. So we were asking: How do proper names come to refer to the individuals that they do refer to? In the case of our Jane, how does the name "Jane Doe" come to refer to Jane? The answer is obvious: Jane was christened "Jane."

However, not everyone who knows Jane was at Jane's christening. So how is it that when they use the name "Jane Doe," they are referring to Jane? Well, that's obvious too: there is a causal chain that passes from the original observers of Jane's christening to everyone who uses her name. For example, maybe Jane's friend Jill wasn't at the christening, but Jill learns Jane's name from Jane's mother, who was at the christening.

On the causal theory, then, proper names—whether of a person, a ship, a town, a planet, or anything else—are made to name the things they name by an original act of naming. The act of naming, and the causal chains that connect later speakers to that act, fixes the reference of names (such as "Jane Doe") to their objects (such as Jane herself). It's vital to distinguish this claim from the quite different claim that the meaning of a proper name is given by a phrase such as "the person who was named 'Jane Doe'" or "the person whose naming is causally connected in the appropriate way to my use of the name 'Jane Doe.'" The causal theory holds that the causal process itself which is said to fix the reference of the name, not that a description of that causal process gives the meaning of the name; most proponents of the causal theory, remember, deny that you can give the meaning of a proper name at all in the sense intended.

What's the difference? Well, the name "Jane Doe" and the description "the person who was named 'Jane Doe'" have different modal properties: advocates of the causal theory hold that "Jane Doe" is a rigid designator whereas "the person who was named 'Jane Doe'" is (or could be used as) a non-rigid designator. What that means, in brief, is that when we use the name Jane Doe, we can talk about what might or might not have been true of Jane in any given situation (in all possible worlds) in which she would exist. In particular, Jane Doe could have been named "Joan" instead of "Jane" (if her mother had changed her mind at the last minute, etc.). But the person who was named "Jane Doe" could not have been named "Joan"; if Jane's mother had changed her mind, then there would have been no person who was named "Jane Doe" (at the appropriate time, etc.). When we use the name "Jane Doe" (the argument goes) we pick out Jane (as it were) come what may, no matter what actual or counterfactual situations we are considering. But that seems to entail that our ability to identify a person in a hypothetical situation as "Jane Doe" cannot depend on any of the accidental properties that she would have in that situation (properties which she might or might not have had, while still remaining the same person), and having happened to be named "Jane" is surely among those.

Criticisms of the theory

  • Gareth Evans has argued that the causal theory, or at least certain common and over-simple variants of it, have the consequence that however remote or obscure the causal connection between someone's use of a proper name and the object it originally referred to, they still refer to that object when they use the name. (Imagine a name briefly overheard in a train or café). The theory effectively ignores context and makes reference into some magic trick. Evans describes it as a "photograph" theory of reference.
  • The links between different users of the name is particularly obscure. Each user must somehow pass the name on to the next, and must somehow "mean" the right individual as they do so (suppose "Socrates" is the name of a pet aardvark). Kripke himself notes the difficulty, John Searle makes much of it.
  • Mark Sainsbury has recently argued (Departing from Frege (, Essay XII) for a causal theory similar to Kripke's, except the baptised object is eliminated. A "baptism" may be a baptism of nothing, he argues: a name can be intelligibly introduced even if it names nothing (p. 212). The causal chain we associate with the use of proper names may begin merely with a "journalistic" source (p. 165).


  • Donnelan, Keith. (1972) "Proper Names and Identifying Descriptions."
  • Evans, G. (1985) "The Causal Theory of Names". in Martinich, A. P. ed. The Philosophy of Language. Oxford University Press.
  • Evans, G. The Varieties of Reference, Oxford 1982
  • Kripke, Saul. 1980. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Kripke, S. "A Puzzle about Belief", 1979, in Martinich (ed) 1996, pp 382-409.
  • McDowell, John. (1977) "On the Sense and Reference of a Proper Name."
  • Sainsbury, R.M. "Sense without Reference" from Building on Frege, Newen, A., Nortmann,U., Stuhlmann Laisz, R., (eds.), Stanford 2001

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