The Description Theory of Reference: Gottlob Frege v. Saul Kripke

Alright philosophers, so I know I’ve been promising something besides my pensive self-loathing, and I come to you now to make good on that promise. It isn’t about esoteric morality, which I will eventually get to, but at the moment I am working primarily with language. You see, language is an extraordinary thing, and we never even really stop to think about the mechanics of language; how the fuck does it work? How can we have different conceptions of the same object, yet both be talking about the same thing? Or is it even the case that we do refer to the same thing if we have different senses of an object? These are all interesting questions, so I’ll address some of them over the next (insert period of time here). For now, please enjoy this treatment on descriptions, and reference. Oh, and as always, corrections and insight are more than welcome!!!

Yours in Contemplation,




How an object is “picked out” by language is a complex, and significantly challenging problem that many philosophers have attempted to solve. Unfortunately, philosophers have been known to further obfuscate the questions that they endeavor to answer, and nowhere is this more evident than the debate on how we come to refer to specific objects. Gottlob Frege developed a descriptive approach to this sort of problem, arguing that descriptions of objects provide us with a sense of the object, and we then assign a name to that sense, thus referring to a specific object. Saul Kripke disagrees, and argues through various means that this is not so, and presents several counter arguments in objection to the description theory. Here, we will examine the work of Frege and Kripke, and determine if Frege’s theories can stand against Kripke’s objections.

The descriptive theory advanced by Frege says that the semantic content of a sentence is provided by the descriptions assigned to the object; this means that for any name that we assign to an object, we could just as easily replace the name of the object with a description of it, because they are equivalent. Our understanding of the meaning of a sentence is called the “sense”, which is supplied by the propositions within the sentence, so the propositions provide the “sense” in any sentence. Finally, the sense (or thought) that we have from a sentence is the “mode of presentation” of the object, or referent, that meets the descriptions of it; the sense, therefore, determines the reference of a term or expression. Here we have the crux of Frege’s theory, that sense determines reference. This concept is not too difficult to grasp when put into an everyday situation; imagine that you and your friend are talking about a concert that you both attended the night before, and a guy named Jason was a real “douche bag”. Let’s say that you saw a few “douche bags” that night, so when your friend says, “Hey, remember that douche bag last night?” you would be rightfully confused. Perhaps your friend names the person, “His name was Jason,” but since you didn’t know that, you cannot pick out the referent. Your friend then says, “He was the chubby guy with moles all over his face and was wearing the baseball hat.” (This description will be abbreviated by, “the chubby douche bag.”) Instantly you remember the exact douche bag that your friend was talking about thanks to the description provided by your friend. This is an example of how the description theory refers to specific objects.

Kripke intends to attack the very claim that a sense determines the reference of a term or expression, and does so by leveling three arguments against Frege, namely, the epistemic, modal, and semantic arguments. In the epistemic argument, Kripke argues that a name and a description have different contents, and as such, knowing “Jason is Jason” would be very different from knowing “Jason is the chubby douche bag.” Here, the former can be known a priori, while the latter can only be known a posteriori; this is intended to show that the name and the description are not equivalent, thus disproving Frege’s theory. But Frege can parry this attack easily; we know analytically that “Jason is Jason,” and come to know through experience that “Jason is the chubby douche bag.” However, once we are made aware that “Jason is the chubby douche bag,” the fact that being “the chubby douche bag” is equivalent to being “Jason” becomes an analytic truth. In this way, the content of the sentence “Jason is the chubby douche bag” possesses equivalent propositions, and is the same as saying “Jason is Jason.” This argument would not qualify as the strongest argument against Frege, then.

Next comes the modal argument. Here Kripke argues that while “Jason is Jason” is a necessary truth, it is not a necessary truth that “Jason is the chubby douche bag.” The motivation for this argument is that it is possible that Jason is not a chubby douche bag in another possible world; in those worlds, “Jason,” may not be associated with “the chubby douche bag.” In a case like this, the semantic content of “Jason” and “the chubby douche bag” would differ. In fact, in another possible world, “the chubby douche bag” may actually refer to someone else entirely, and “Jason” in that world may be described as “the athletic and friendly guy.” In this way, Kripke is again trying to disprove that descriptions are semantically equivalent to their associated names. However, this argument based on other possible worlds is easily overcome by “world indexing” each expression, or, by assigning a specific world to which the expression and the associated description obtains. An example of this “world indexing” would be to simply add, “In world A, Jason is the chubby douche bag.” This avoids the trouble of having the proposition be true in one world, and false in another by specifying which world the expression is assigned. The modal argument, therefore fails as well.

Having dispatched the other two arguments, we are now left with the strongest argument of Kripke’s; the semantic argument. As the argument goes, it is possible to talk about an object without having a description in mind that is satisfied by the object. An example of just such a scenario could be a case of mistaken identity. For example, lets say that (in some crazy possible world) there is a vast Reptilian conspiracy that controls the world, including the USA, and her politics. As a result, they have rigged elections in defiance of the will of the American people. As a result, people refer to Barrack Obama when referring to the duly elected President of the United States. But suppose that the American people actually elected John McCain in 2008; this case we see that the duly elected POTUS is John McCain, not Barrack Obama. According to Frege, these people are really intending to refer to McCain when talking about the duly elected POTUS, not Obama. But when people refer to the POTUS, they severally understand that they are speaking of Obama. Although they are mistaken, there is no mistaking who they are talking about; they’re talking about Obama, not McCain. Here we see that it is possible for people to refer to Obama despite there being no description that Obama actually satisfies, so, therefore, sense cannot determine reference. In responding on behalf of Frege, one may say that correct descriptions are critical when determining the referent of a given sense. In our example, mass ignorance has caused the application of a false description to confuse the sense to which it refers. This is not, however, a nail in the coffin for Frege. In fact, enriching the descriptions of Obama and McCain will serve to rectify this problem. Once the descriptions become rich enough to actually satisfy the object to which they refer, then there would be no confusion when referring to “the duly elected POTUS.” As in all things, true and accurate information is required when trying to communicate the way that things really are.

Although the semantic theory poses the gravest challenge to the description theory in that it demonstrates how people can refer to objects without accurate (or even false) descriptions, Fregeans can be confident that this can be remedied, and in general, that the strength of their position lies in having a complete and accurate description, which in turn develops a properly developed sense that accurately refers to the specific object.

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2 Responses to The Description Theory of Reference: Gottlob Frege v. Saul Kripke

  1. whitefrozen says:

    I’m not familiar with Kripke beyond knowing that he’s apparently one hell of an expositor of Wittgenstein – Frege I know only seconhand through Wittgenstein. But I think I would agree that of the three arguments Kripke has here, the semantic is the strongest. The modal argument is interesting, but honestly, it’s just too abstract for my tastes. I’ve actually been thinking on this topic (language, logic, etc) since I saw this post – hopefully I’ll scribble together a more coherent take on it in the near future.

    • Well, I look forward to reading what you put together! May I also suggest checking out Grice? His work is foundational to pragmatism in language, e.g. Conventional implicature, conversational implicature, etc.

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