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David Boersema: Pragmatism and Reference.

David Boersema

Pragmatism and Reference.

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 2008.

Pp. 279.

US$36.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-262-02660-4).

Here Boersema explores the contribution of pragmatism to the current philosophical debate on reference. He presents pragmatism as an alternative to the dominant views on reference and argues that such an alternative is a useful corrective to the contemporary debate in analytic philosophy of language.

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce Searle's cluster theory and Kripke's causal account, which are commonly portrayed as irreconcilable views on reference. Searle's cluster theory is an amended version of Frege and Russell's descriptivism, which regarded names as equivalent to definite descriptions. Descriptivism entailed that, for reference to occur, the definite description underlying a name must be analytically true of the object to which that name refers. Searle, conversely, claims that names refer to objects hy virtue of open-ended clusters of descriptions, the disjunction of those descriptions being analytically true of the object to which a certain name refers.

Kripke's criticism of Searle is consistent with his rejection of Frege and Russell's descriptivism. Boersema highlights that descriptive elements are incorporated in Kripke's causal account. This is not an unusual argument; indeed it is one which Kripke himself advanced. According to the causal account, reference is fixed by an initial 'baptism'. This secures a causal chain that stretches back to the original act of naming. Kripke explicitly allowed for the possibility of naming via a description, though he posed it as neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for reference. Similarly, Searle acknowledged that ostension, by virtue of the intentions of a pointer, fits the descriptivist thesis. Boersema states that intentionality appears to be the point of convergence of both accounts: in both cases 'intending to refer to a given object by the use of a name is a necessary condition for reference' (45).

In Chapter 3, Boersema explores Wittgenstein's view of names. He maintains that a pragmatic approach to reference is suggested in Wittgenstein's theory of family resemblance, which is often labeled as an antecedent of Searle's cluster account. Contrary to descriptivist and causalist accounts, Wittgenstein suggested that it is not possible to establish necessary and sufficient conditions for the applicability of words--including names--independently of their use. Thus construed, Wittgenstein's view of reference prepares the reader for Boersema's investigation of pragmatist accounts of reference.

Chapter 4 discusses the writings of classical pragmatist philosophers. Boersema's reconstruction of Peirce's view of reference shows that it eliminates many difficulties posed by the causal account. According to Peirce, a name, when encountered for the first time, is an index. This seems to suggest the purely denotative character of names, a point that has been interpreted as in line with the causal account and its emphasis on rigid designation.

However, considered as signs, names for Peirce mediate between an object and an interpretant--the interpreting thought that a sign determines in an interpreter's mind. The notion of interpretant is crucial to Boersema's argument, which successfully captures the spirit of Peirce's semiotics. Names in Peirce have the 'force to draw attention of the listener to some haecceity common to the experience of the speaker and listener' (Collected Papers, ed. C. Hartshorne, A. Burks and P Weiss, Harvard UP 1931-5, Vol.3. [section]640), thus they cannot be rigid designators. Peirce's emphasis on the interpretant runs counter to the essentialist core of the causal account, as it hinges on the commonality of experience of speaker and listener. Boersema's insistence on the pragmatic and semiotic aspects inherent in Peirce's account of names clarifies his initially elusive appeal to intentionality as a point of convergence between descriptivist and causalist approaches, and it lays the foundations for his discussion of intentionality in the last chapters.

The conflation of pragmatism and the causal account is further corrected in the section on James' views of reference. Boersema examines James' notion of 'workings', which appeals to a series of empirical intermediaries between an individual belief and the object to which such belief refers. This is only superficially similar to the historical chain posed by Kripke at the basis of the causal account. The pragmatic concept of 'workings' entails a futureoriented understanding of the sociality of reference, which contrasts with the past-oriented chain of uses postulated by the causal account.

The sociality and purposefulness of language and reference are a central part of Boersema's discussion of Dewey. Language for Dewey encompasses our organic reaction to the world. Like James, he considers naming and reference as future-oriented processes which depend on the interaction and social cooperation of language users. Moreover, Dewey's view of naming as a purposive activity exemplifies once more the incompatibility of pragmatism and the causalist concept of rigid designation.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Boersema illustrates the views of six contemporary pragmatist philosophers. Hilary Putnam, Catherine Elgin and Richard Rorty figure as three American philosophers whose works display a pragmatist orientation. This is evident in the case of Putnam. Despite being often associated to Kripke in setting the agenda of the causal theory of reference, Putnam has insisted on the interconnectedness of semantics and pragmatics. Boersema shows that even the perceptual turn that characterizes Putnam's latest formulation of direct (or natural) realism draws on pragmatist insights and echoes James in its appeal to the interactive and transactional nature of perception.

The reader might find some difficulty in regarding Elgin as a pragmatist. Her constructionalism entails a holistic view of meaning and reference originating from her epistemological concern with the pursuit of understanding as opposed to the pursuit of truth. In her view, reference is fixed by language users' choices, and the act of drawing categorical boundaries cannot be determined by previous usages. Boersema stresses that Elgin's anti-essentialism, along with her views on the purposefulness of inquiry and the open-ended nature of symbols, are 'all concerns held in common with the pragmatists' (118). Nevertheless, her emphasis on the symbolic nature of verbal and non-verbal representations (as opposed to their iconicity or indexicality) is reminiscent of her association with Nelson Goodman and his constructive nominalism. The reader (and Elgin herself) might struggle to consider this as fully compatible with pragmatism.

In discussing Rorty's pragmatism, Boersema highlights that his position, often labeled as irrational and relativistic, is not too distant from Putnam and Elgin. His arguments against a correspondence theory of truth are grounded in a concern with the nature and goals of inquiry. Yet, Rorty's rejection of realism raised concerns among pragmatists. Even more worrisome is Rorty's contempt of the problem of reference, which he defined as a pseudo-problem to be dissolved, rather than a question to be dealt with. Boersema's emphasis on Rorty's commonalities with contemporary pragmatists seems to overlook the consequences of such a strong position.

Chapter 6 presents Umberto Eco, Karl-Otto Apel and Jurgen Habermas as 'continental' pragmatists. Drawing on Peirce, Eco proposed to define naming as a form of abductive inference. Boersema advances interesting considerations on the interconnectedness of abduction and evidence and insightfully stresses 'the ineliminability of evidence in relation with reference' (141). Yet, his emphasis on the commonalities between Eco and Peirce may prevent the non-specialized reader from grasping the import of Eco's strongly conventionalist position on language and reference, which often clashes with Peirce's philosophy.

Peirce's pragmatism is a central theme in Boersema's discussion of Apel's transcendental semiotics. Apel integrates the causalist emphasis on extensionality and designation with a pragmatic account of the mediated aspects of reference (intensionality) and its language-constitutive function (intentionality). Furthermore, in articulating a pragmatic concept of intersubjectivity against 'methodical solipsism', Apel provides a corrective answer to Searle's subjective account of intentionality.

The influence of Peirce upon contemporary pragmatists plays an important role in Habermas' account of reference. His theory of communicative action proposes a universal pragmatics as the basis for communicative rationality and draws on Peirce in characterizing reference as involving action and agency. Boersema points out that Habermas' rejection of the separation of semantics and pragmatics offers a valid corrective to purely semantic accounts of reference.

In the last three chapters, Boersema articulates his own pragmatic account of reference. He claims that descriptivism and the causal account are committed to a strongly realist view of two basic aspects of reference, namely individuation and similarity. As a consequence, they both share a commitment to essentialism and reduce reference to a private matter. According to Boersema, these commitments are misleading. He does not deny the existence of a world 'out there', nor does he embrace an idealist position on reference. Instead, he proposes that individuation and similarity are theory and interest-dependent in a pragmatic sense. Reference to states of affairs is mediated by our epistemic concerns: a pragmatic account insists on the interplay between the reality of phenomena and their conceptualization with respect to the purposes of a community of inquirers.

Contrary to the received views focusing on what names and reference are as part of a purely theoretical analysis, Boersema aims to show that a pragmatic understanding of reference discloses what names do with respect to context-dependent interests and goals. In this he is most successful. The non-specialized reader might struggle to approach the complexity and variety of views discussed in the book. Despite this, this book offers a genuine contribution to the literature and there is reason to believe that it will lay the foundations for further philosophical work on reference.

Chiara Ambrosio

University College London
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Author:Ambrosio, Chiara
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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