Proper names, meaning and context

Abstract

From the apparently trivial problem of homonyms, I argue that proper names as they occur in natural languages cannot be characterised as strings of sounds or characters. This entails, first, that the proper names philosophers talk about are not physical entities, like strings, but abstractions that, second, may be better characterised as triples (s, m, C), where s is the string that conveys the meaning m in a set of contexts C. Third, the generality principle of compositionality may be put into question, for apparently its converse holds in some cases. Finally, the prominence of context for determining the meaning expressed by a sign suggests a strong connection between proper names and indexicals. This connection has been largely overlooked by the analytic tradition, in spite that both proper names and indexicals have been among their hottest topics. This may be because the analytic literature about proper names has been decisively influenced by Frege’s work, which was better suited for formal languages. Izydora Dąmbska and Jerzy Pelc, with their semiotic background, were able to have a finer understanding of this quasi-indexical character of proper names.

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Luis Felipe Bartolo Alegre
Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos

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