The Gettier Problem: A Study–Part 7




Reference and Meaning

We’ll start our exploration of belief with a puzzle. In his paper, “A Puzzle About Belief”[1] Saul Kripke contrasts the Millian view of names with the Frege-Russell view and in doing so discovers what seems to be a problem that is not easily solved on either theory. Kripke largely is concerned with how names function in belief contexts. While an analysis of proper names will play a role in a larger theory about belief, it will not be our only concern. Still, I think examining Kripke’s puzzle will raise some important distinctions about belief that will set up the broader discussion. We will return to proper names throughout our analysis of belief as names play a key role in some types of Gettier cases.

According to Kripke, Mill held that proper names are simple: they pick out or refer to the thing that bears it. Names on this theory should not be associated with any properties of their bearers: they do not describe the objects that bear them. On the Frege-Russell theory, names are linguistic containers for definite descriptions. They are associated with bundles of properties possessed by the things that bear them. These properties constitute the sense of the name.

On Mill’s view, Mohammad Ali and Cassius Clay refer to the same individual and can be used salva veritate interchangeably (the two proper names pick out a single person and so can be substituted in sentences without changing the truth value of those sentences). On the Frege-Russell view however, referent of names are determined by descriptive properties the speaker identifies with the name. Aristotle, when described as the teacher of Alexander the Great and when described as the philosopher who studied under Plato, has two different senses though they do refer to the same object (p. 240). The way of describing Aristotle–the sense–however, does fix the reference and so the same name cum unique description could be said to refer to different objects. If Plato turned out to be the teacher of Alexander the Great, the name ‘Aristotle’ would refer to Plato since he satisfies the description.

In the first section of the paper, Kripke explores the Millian view he presented in Naming and Necessity that names, but not descriptions, could be substituted salva veritate in modal contexts. He acknowledges that his position could be seen as decidedly non-Millian in belief contexts because in these contexts, it seems that neither names nor descriptions can be substituted and be guaranteed to preserve truth value. While arguments against Mill to tend to (sometimes strongly) favor Frege-Russell, Kripke cautions that the reason one ought to be critical of Mill’s position may not be due to the success of Frege-Russell. The reason is that common terms usually have common senses and these common senses could be identical even though the believer doesn’t identify the referent of the term. A person could believe that Cicero is bald and Tully is not and, when asked who Cicero and Tully are, respond with, “a famous Roman orator.” The description–the sense–is the identical but the believer does not understand that Cicero and Tully are the same famous Roman orator. This argument is meant to show that the failure of interchangeability of codesignative terms in belief contexts is not due to a difference in the senses of the terms based on counter-examples that show otherwise.

In section two, he presents a difficulty. If Kripke is correct in following Mill, “if reference is all there is to naming, what semantic difference can there be between” two names that reference the same thing? Is it possible for a person to believe some proposition is true without believing another proposition with a codesignative name is true? Could one believe that Allen Konigsberg directed Crimes and Misdemeanors and disbelieve that Woody Allen did? In order to address these questions, he introduces three principles:

The disquotational principle: If a normal English speaker, on reflection, sincerely assents to ‘p,'[2] then he believes that p. (248-249) That is, if a person assents to a statement, then that person believes that the proposition expressed by that statement is true.

The strengthened disquotational principle: A normal English speaker who is not reticent will be disposed to sincere reflective assent to ‘p’ if and only if he believes that p. (249). This principle establishes that assent indicates belief and that a lack of assent indicates a lack of belief.

The principle of translation: If a sentence of one language expresses a truth in that language, then any translation of it into any other language also expresses a truth (in that other language).

Given the disquotational principle, he posits that the principle of substitutivity is incorrect. For an English speaker using the language normally can believe ‘Cicero was bald’ and ‘Tully was not bald’ without contradiction (given that he may not know that Cicero and Tully are the same person). This problem, when applying the disquotational principle, seems to tacitly support Frege-Russell. But there are problems. If the substitution of codesignative names leads to contradictions in propositional contexts, it’s not clear how Frege-Russell solves them (see above — a believer can apply the same indefinite description in order to fill out the sense of a name and still not know that the two names refer to the same individual). Further, Kripke’s ‘puzzle’ will show that this mystery can be invoked by not using substitution of names at all. It appears in normal context when the general principles of disquotation and translation alone are applied.

In this section Kripke presents his puzzle. A “normal” French speaker, Pierre, comes to assent to the sentence “Londres est jolie” through looking at lovely pictures of the city and what he has heard. Sometime later, he moves to a particularly unattractive part of London not realizing that London and Londres refer to the same city. None of the people in his neighborhood know French so Pierre learns English by the “direct method” of not by translating French terms into English terms. Over time he learns the name of the city he is inhabiting and assents to the sentence “London is not pretty.” Of course, while assenting to this sentence, he still assents to the French sentence about London above. What, then, does Pierre believe about the city? It would appear that he believes both even though they are contradictory.

One way to solve the puzzle might be to acknowledge that Frege and Russell were correct. If Pierre learns to identify both London and Londres by certain definite descriptions that are uniquely identifying, he will be forced to conclude that both terms refer to the same city. But this need not follow. For if Pierre comes to learn each of the terms used in the definite descriptions in each language by direct method, he may not realize that the describing terms themselves have the same referent. The description of London in English would be just as isolated doxastically as the description of Londres in French. Kripke argues that such problems can exist even for natural kind terms which would seem to have a prima facie resistance to this problem.

Finally, he argues that the puzzle arises even in situations where the same name is used in the same language. He considers Peter who learns of a man named Paderewski and that he was a famous pianist (and who also was a statesman but this is a fact Peter did not come to learn). He assents to the sentence, “Paderewski had musical talent.” Then later, in a different context, he comes to learn of a man named Paderewski who was a Polish Prime Minister. Assuming that this man has the same name as the famous pianist but skeptical of the musical abilities of politicians, Peter assents to the sentence, “Paderewski had no musical talent.” Here, Peter believes that the referent of the name “Paderewski” is satisfied by two individuals even though metaphysically they pick out the same man. What does Peter believe?

Kripke’s concern is not with the “conventional judgment” that belief contexts are referentially opaque but with whether codesignative proper names are interchangeable salva veritate in belief contexts (like they are in modal contexts). Even if they are “Shakespearian” in this sense, he doesn’t believe that this is enough to establish the Frege-Russell theory of reference over Mill’s. Whether Kripke’s puzzle succeeds in demonstrating this is somewhat tangential to my purpose. What Kripke’s paper demonstrates is that there is a difference in the way reference is established in belief contexts and modal or logical contexts and this is the relevant point.

Kripke’s puzzle essentially is this: a believer can appear to assent to two contradictory propositions and believe them without contradiction. This is because the truth conditions of a proposition are not always accessible from the first person point of view. Kripke demonstrates that the truth conditions and relations that may be analyzable in logical, “third-person” analyses may not hold in belief contexts because beliefs are irreducibly phenomenological. As Kripke argues in Naming and Necessity, this is partly because in logical contexts we establish the truth conditions by linguistic fiat: we can describe propositions and their relations to other propositions and the world in whatever way suits our cases as long as those relations don’t violate logical rules. This is only possible if belief as a phenomenological act is distinct from a third-person, linguistic description of the propositions believed. What is contradictory logically and even metaphysically, may not be contradictory doxastically which gives weight to the idea that belief that a proposition is true is constrained in ways that a logical analysis is not. As I’ve already suggested above and we’ll see more clearly later, this distinction is critical in dissecting what is going in many if not all Gettier counterexamples. It’s also key to understanding knowledge.


[1] Kripke, S. A. (1979). A Puzzle About Belief. In A. Margalit (Ed.), Meaning and Use. Dordrecht and Boston: Reidel.

[2] The variable ‘p’ in each of these principles stands for any appropriate English sentence.



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