trouble for causal-historical theories of reference determination?

From the Jan 31, 2011 New Yorker:

"Lou Gehrig may not actually have had the disease that bears his name" (p.44).

So what happened at the baptism of the phrase 'Lou Gehrig's disease'?


Lewis Powell said...

At the risk of being way overly pedantic, it seems like it should be pointed out that "Lou Gehrig's disease" isn't a proper name, and thus, isn't any trouble at all for causal-historical theories of reference for proper names. If would be a description, roughly equivalent to "the/a disease of or relating to Lou Gehrig".

So, assuming the sensible relationship between Lou Gehrig and the disease (i.e. that he possessed it) this is really more of an issue for Russell's theory of descriptions than for a theory of proper names.

Rafal Urbaniak said...

I don't think this goes beyond standard Evans-or-Donnellan-style concerns that have been around since 1973 or so.

But that being the case, it doesn't seem too difficult to deal with this.

Option A. You take "Lou Gehrig's disease" to be a description, and you follow Lewis Powell.

Option B. You take the phrase to be a proper name. This option seems more intuitive, since the phrase passes the standard test for rigid designators: even assuming LG had the disease, it would still be true that this fact wasn't necessary, so LG didn't have to have LG's disease.

But then, how do you deal with the fact that he didn't have the disease after all? One way to go is to say that the phrase was once used as a description to fix reference and since than has been used as a proper name to refer to the disease which had been fixed as the referent. And what about the fact that the disease doesn't satisfy the description? In a Donellan-style near-miss cases you can fix reference by means of a failed description as long as you succeeded to use it referentially.

For instance, suppose I say:
"Do you see that man in the corner, drinking moonshine? Let's call him `Marvin'." From this moment on we use `Marvin' as a proper name referring to the guy I had in mind, even if it turns out that what he was drinking was martini. As long as you manage to figure out which man I have in mind saying "that man in the corner, drinking moonshine" and establish the reference of `Marvin' this is no major problem for the causal theory, because the baptism is successful even if the description used in the baptism failed.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hi Lewis and Rafal --

Thanks for the comments!

I wasn't inclined to think Lewis's account is what's going on here, for exactly the reason described in Rafal's Option A.

But I also don't think this is a standard Donnellan case of a bad description still managing to refer (Rafal's Option B). What's different? We are in _causal contact_ with the guy in the corner drinking a martini. When Lou Gehrig's disease was christened 'Lou Gehrig's disease', let's supposing a physician was standing in front of Lou Gehrig. Then the doctor is NOT in causal contact with Lou Gehrig's disease (supposing the New Yorker is right that Lou Gehrig did not have Lou Gehrig's disease). This is an important and relevant difference between this case and me looking at the man in the corner drinking a martini.

Unknown said...

Why not try the following response –
assuming the New Yorker is right and Lou Gehrig didn't actually have the Lou Gehrig's disease, can't we hold that our current use of the expression 'Lou Gehrig's disease' is due to a different baptism case, not the one in which Lou Gehrig himself took part? Suppose, this new baptism happened when some other patient who actually suffered from the Lou Gehring's disease was first time pronounced to have 'Lou Gehring's disease'. If our current use of this phrase causally connected to the second baptism case, then we have an explanation for the New Yorker's conjecture. The trouble here of course is that the physician (or whoever) who actually couched the current term 'Lou Gehring disease' apparently had no intention to do so, but simply misapplied the homonymous term which had already been in use at that time. I think, these worries could be overcome along the burgian social-externalist lines: the second baptizer was more sucessful in establishing expert community on the matter of 'Lou Gehrig's disease' than the first one. It seems cogent in this case to retrospectively qualify the misapplication of the term as baptism.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Sergei --

I like that response a lot. I'll have to think about it a bit; I'll post later if anything occurs to me.

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