views updated Jun 27 2018


"Reference" is usually conceived as the central relation between language or thought and the world. To talk or think about something is to refer to it. Twentieth-century philosophy found such relations particularly problematic. One paradigm of reference is the relation between a proper name and its bearer. On a more theoretical conception all the constituents of an utterance or thought that contribute to determining whether it is true refer to their contributions (as, for example, a predicate refers to a property). In analytic philosophy discussion of reference was dominated until the 1960s by the views of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell and modifications of them (such as those by P. F. Strawson). Criticisms of assumptions common to those views then provoked a revolution in the theory of reference. The alternatives include causal and minimalist theories.

Objections to Descriptivism

One model of reference is that of descriptive fit. The paradigm is a definite description (such as "the tallest tree") that refers to whatever it accurately describes. Frege and Russell assimilated the reference of ordinary proper names to this case by supposing that speakers associate them with descriptions. Similar accounts were later given of mass terms (such as "blood"), natural-kind terms ("gorilla"), and theoretical terms in science ("inertia"). It was conceded that most terms are associated with vague and context-dependent clusters of descriptions and that reference might be to whatever they least inaccurately described, but such liberalizations did not challenge the underlying idea that descriptive fit determines reference. However, Keith Donnellan, Saul Kripke, and Hilary Putnam proposed counterexamples to that idea. Suppose, for instance, that speakers associate the name "Jonah" with the Bible story. Traditional descriptivism concludes that the sentence "Although Jonah existed, those things happened only to someone else" is untrue. For if one person satisfied the relevant descriptions, "Jonah" would refer to him. But then descriptivism proves too much, for philosophical reflection cannot show that the Bible story is not a mere legend that grew up about a real person; if those things really happened to someone else, of whom no word reached the biblical writer, the name "Jonah" would still refer to the former, not the latter. Similarly, traditional descriptivism permits someone who thinks of gorillas primarily as ferocious monkeys to conclude falsely that the sentence "Gorillas exist, but they are not ferocious monkeys" is untrue.

A second criticism was this. Say that a term t rigidly designates an object x if and only if t designates (refers to) x with respect to all possible circumstances (except perhaps for circumstances in which x does not exist). Most descriptions designate nonrigidly: "the tallest tree" designates one tree with respect to present circumstances, another with respect to possible circumstances in which the former is outgrown. The descriptions that traditional descriptivists associated with names were nonrigid. However, names designate rigidly: Although we can envisage circumstances in which the Danube would have been called something else instead, we are still using our name "Danube" to hypothesize circumstances involving the very same river. Thus, most descriptions do not behave like names.

The second criticism was met by a modification of descriptivism. The descriptions associated with a name were rigidified by a qualifying phrase such as "in present circumstances." "The tallest tree in present circumstances" rigidly designates what "the tallest tree" nonrigidly designates. The first criticism is less easily met. Some descriptivists used deferential descriptions such as "the person referred to in the Bible as 'Jonah.'" A more general strategy is to exploit the success of any rival theory of reference by building that theory into the associated descriptions. However, such moves jeopardize the connection between reference and speakers' understanding (a connection that descriptivism was intended to secure) as the descriptions that speakers supposedly associate with names become less and less accessible to the speakers themselves.

It is in any case clear that, as Russell recognized, not all reference is purely descriptive. If the sentence "It is hot now" is uttered at different times in exactly similar circumstances, associated with exactly the same descriptions, those descriptions are not what determines that it changes its reference from one time to the other. The reference of a token of "now" is determined by the time of its production and the invariant linguistic meaning of "now," the rule that any such token refers to the time of its production. Similarly, the presence of an object to the speaker or thinker plays an ineliminably nondescriptive role in the reference of demonstratives such as "this."


the kripke-putnam picture

Kripke and Putnam proposed an alternative picture. Something x is singled out, usually demonstratively ("this river," "this kind of animal"). A name n, proper or common, is conferred on x ("Danube," "gorilla"). The name is passed on from one speaker to another, the latter intending to preserve the former's reference. Such intentions are self-fulfilling: n continues to refer to x. The beliefs that speakers would express in sentences containing n play no role in making n refer to x, so it can turn out that most of them are false. The picture involves two kinds of deference. Synchronically, there is division of linguistic labor: Ordinary speakers defer to experts (as in deciding which animals "gorilla" refers to). Diachronically, later speakers defer to earlier ones in a historical chain. Thus, reference typically depends on both the natural environment of the initial baptism (to fix the demonstrative reference) and the social environment of the later use. An individual speaker's understanding plays only a minor role. The account may be generalized (as to many adjectives and verbs).

The picture needs qualification. Gareth Evans pointed out that a name can change its reference as a result of misidentification, even if each speaker intends to preserve reference. What matters is not just the initial baptism but subsequent interaction between word and object. Such concessions do not constitute a return to descriptivism.

causal theories

The Kripke-Putnam picture is often developed into a causal theory of reference, on which for n to refer to x is for a causal chain of a special kind to connect n to x. Such a theory goes beyond the original picture in at least two ways. First, although that picture required later uses of n to depend causally on the initial baptism, it did not require the initial baptism to depend causally on x. Kripke allowed reference to be fixed descriptively (not just demonstratively), as in "I name the tallest tree 'Albie'"; he merely insisted that the description did not give the meaning of the name. There is no causal connection between the name "Albie" and the tree Albie. Second, Kripke and Putnam did not attempt to define the notions they used in causal terms; the notion of an intention to preserve reference is not obviously causal.

Causal theories are often motivated by a desire to naturalize linguistic and mentalistic phenomena by reducing them to the terms of physical science. Such theories are therefore not restricted to proper names. Causal theorists will postulate that our use of the words "tall" and "tree" is causally sensitive to tallness and trees respectively, hoping thereby to explain the reference of "Albie." One problem for causal theories is that any word is at the end of many intertwined causal chains with different beginnings. It is extremely difficult to specify in causal terms which causal chains carry reference. For this reason, causal theories of reference remain programmatic.

direct reference

Consonant with the Kripke-Putnam picture, but independent of causal theories of reference, is the theory of direct reference developed by David Kaplan. A term t directly refers to an object x in a given context if and only if the use of t in that context contributes nothing to what is said but x itself. For Kaplan, proper names, demonstratives, and indexicals such as "now" refer directly. Ruth Barcan Marcus had earlier made the similar suggestion that proper names are mere tags. The reference of a directly referential term may be determined relative to context by its context-independent linguistic meaning, as for "now"; the claim is that what "now" contributes to the proposition expressed by an utterance of "It is hot now" is not its invariant linguistic meaning but the time itself.

Although all direct reference is rigid designation, not all rigid designation is direct reference: "the square of 7" rigidly designates 49, but the reference is not direct, for the structure of the description figures in the proposition expressed by "The square of 7 is 49." On one view all genuine reference is direct, sentences of the form "The F is G " being quantified on the pattern of "Every F is G " (as Russell held); "the F " is neither a constituent nor a referring term.

If "Constantinople" and "Istanbul" have the same direct reference, the proposition (C) expressed by "Constantinople is crowded" is the proposition (I) expressed by "Istanbul is crowded," so believing (C) is believing (I), even if one would not express it in those words. Similarly, when a term of a directly referential type fails to refer, sentences in which it is used express no proposition. The view is anti-Fregean. In suitable contexts Frege would attribute different senses but the same reference to "Constantinople" and "Istanbul" and a sense but no reference to an empty name; for him the sense, not the reference, is part of what is said or thought. Russell held that logically proper names are directly referential but concluded that ordinary names are not logically proper. The challenge to defenders of the direct-reference view is to explain away the appearance of sameness of reference without sameness of thought and absence of reference without absence of thought, perhaps by postulating senselike entities in the act rather than the content of thought. The theory of direct reference concerns content, not the mechanisms of reference.


Traditional theorizing about reference is ambitious; the possibility of a broad and deep theory such as it seeks has been questioned by Richard Rorty, Robert Brandom, Paul Horwich, and others. The following schema constitutes a minimal account of reference ("a " is replaceable by singular terms):
(R) For any x, "a " refers to x if and only if x = a.
"London" refers to London and nothing else. A minimalist account adds to (R) the claim that (R) exhausts the nature of reference.

Some qualifications are necessary. First, if anything but a singular term replaces "a " in (R), the result is ill formed, for only singular terms should flank the identity sign. If expressions of other syntactic categories refer, those categories will require their own schemas. The schema for predicates might be:
(R) For any x, "F " refers to x if and only if x = F ness.
Second, the notion of a singular term must be explained (can "my sake" replace "a "?). Third, (R) does not say which singular terms refer. When "a " does not refer, (R) may not express a proposition. Fourth, (R) cannot be generalized by the prefix "In all contexts": "today" used tomorrow does not refer to today. Rather, (R) should be understood as instantiated by sentences in different contexts (for instance, uttered tomorrow with "today" for "a "). Fifth, when one cannot understand the term "a," one cannot understand (R). Thus, one will find many instances of (R) unintelligible.

One's grasp of the minimal theory is not a grasp of each of many propositions; it is more like one's grasp of a general pattern of inference. For (R) the pattern is in the sentences that express the propositions, not in the propositions themselves (it is not preserved when a synonym replaces the unquoted occurrence of "a "). This generality does not satisfy all philosophers. Many accept the minimal theory but reject minimalism, because they postulate a deeper (for instance, causal) theory of reference that explains (R) and (R). Although the reductionist demand for strictly necessary and sufficient conditions for reference in more fundamental terms may be overambitious, a good picture of reference might still reveal more than (R) and (R) without meeting that demand.

See also Frege, Gottlob; Indexicals; Kaplan, David; Kripke, Saul; Marcus, Ruth Barcan; Philosophy of Language; Proper Names and Descriptions; Putnam, Hilary; Rorty, Richard; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sense; Strawson, Peter Frederick.


Almog, J., J. Perry, and H. Wettstein, eds. Themes from Kaplan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Brandom, R. "Reference Explained Away: Anaphoric Reference and Indirect Description." Journal of Philosophy 81 (1984): 469492.

Devitt, M. Designation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Evans, G. The Varieties of Reference. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Fodor, J. Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

French, P., T. Uehling, and H. Wettstein, eds. Contemporary Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 5. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.

Horwich, P. Truth. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Kripke, S. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Lewis, D. "Putnam's Paradox." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 (1984): 221236.

Neale, S. Descriptions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Putnam, H. Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2: Mind, Language, and Reality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Récanati, F. Direct Reference: From Language to Thought. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Rorty, R. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Schwartz, S., ed. Naming, Necessity, and Natural Kinds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Timothy Williamson (1996)


views updated Jun 11 2018

1. Referring to or mentioning someone or something, either directly or indirectly, and often in the form of an ALLUSION or a QUOTATION
2. Also objective reference. In logic and linguistics, the activity or condition through which one term or concept is related to another or to objects in the world
3. In sociology and psychology, the process by which, or the extent to which, people relate to elements in society as norms and standards for comparing such things as status and values
4. An indication or direction in a text or other source of information to all or part of one or more other text, etc., where further, related information may be found
5. The text or other source to which one is directed or referred. The term is often attributive in senses 4 and 5, as in reference book, reference library, reference materials. It may also be part of an of-phrase, as in frame of reference, point of reference, work of reference.

6. To provide a book or other source of information with references (books that are all thoroughly referenced) or to arrange (data, notes, etc.) for easy reference (all the background material is referenced in an appendix).

Reference materials have in the past depended mainly on surfaces that serve as receptacles of pictures and language symbols, from paintings on cliff faces, in caves, and on walls, through clay tablets and manuscripts of various kinds, to printed books and other products. Especially in the 20c, however, they have been extended to include audio- and video-recordings and electronically stored information on tape and disk. Distinct genres of reference book, such as the atlas for maps, the DICTIONARY for words, the directory for a variety of general or specific information (such as names, addresses, and telephone numbers), the encyclopedia for facts and opinions, the gazetteer for geographical information, have emerged over many centuries, gaining their present-day forms especially in the expansion of book publishing in the 18–20c.



views updated May 11 2018

ref·er·ence / ˈref(ə)rəns/ • n. 1. the action of mentioning or alluding to something: he made reference to the enormous power of the mass media | references to Darwinism and evolution. ∎  a mention or citation of a source of information in a book or article. ∎  a book or passage cited in such a way.2. use of a source of information in order to ascertain something: popular works of reference. ∎  the sending of a matter for decision or consideration to some authority: demanded the immediate reference of the whole dispute to the United Nations.3. a letter from a previous employer testifying to someone's ability or reliability, used when applying for a new job. ∎  a person giving this.• v. [tr.] provide (a book or article) with citations of authorities: each chapter is referenced, citing literature up to 1990.• adj. of, denoting, or pertaining to a reference library: most reference departments house magazine rooms.PHRASES: for future reference for use at a later date: she lodged this idea in the back of her mind for future reference.terms of reference the scope and limitations of an activity or area of knowledge: the judge will present a plan outlining the inquiry's terms of reference.with (or in) reference to in relation to; as regards: war can only be explained with reference to complex social factors.


views updated May 18 2018


The process by which a tribunal sends a civil action, or a particular issue in the action, to an individual who has been appointed by the tribunal to hear and decide upon it, or to obtain evidence, and make a report to the court.