Read (as "The Concept of Referent") at the New Jersey Regional Philosophical Association, Douglas Campus, Rutgers University, November 3, 1973 (with corrections and additions).
I should like to begin my paper on THE "ONTOLOGY" OF REFERENT with an explication of Quine's treatment of the problem of reference.
His is typical of a delimiting approach with which I find fault.
Quine's major concern regarding the existence of real things is concentrated on the development of genuine referral expressions, which, for him, necessarily involves bound variables. He was apparently led to this solution out of the necessity to solve the problem of speaking meaningfully of non-existents. In doing so he appears to have ignored other complex functions of referral expressions despite his admitted acceptance of a behavioristic theory of meaning and language.
If I interpret Quine correctly, natural language is inoperable as an instrument for testing ontological commitments. This is so because it is permeated with the subjectivity of sensory data, sloppy usage, indeterminacy of translation and inscrutability of reference all of which are the outcome of behavioral response and socialistic evolution.
The validity of ontological commitment to the physical and the abstract depends upon circumventing the four items above. Hence, the formal logic of bound variables is, for Quine, the most useful instrument, to date, for circumvention of such linguistic disorder, or as he puts it "ontological slums."
We have ontological slums in the mainstream of philosophic (and non-philosophic) discourse in the form of outlandish ontological commitments. For example, existentialists speak of a Substantive nothingness and many of us speak of a Santa Claus as if these things exist. I believe these are the kinds of concepts upon which Quine wishes to bring to bear the principles of utility and efficacy in ontological commitment, i.e., principles similar to those of science. To quote Quine:
Our acceptance of an ontology is similar in principle to our acceptance of a scientific theory. . . . We adopt. . .the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disordered fragments of raw experience can be fitted and arranged. (16, Logical Point of View, 1961)
Quine is concerned to distinguish, for the purposes of ontological commitment, between referral expressions that are authentic and those that are not.
From this we may draw the conclusion that such legitimate referral expressions point to ontological commitments as the closest thing to referents possible and that expressions which cannot be converted to a categorical system of bound variables do not.
Nevertheless, Quine is quite clear that he is talking about real things also. "Semantic ascent, as I speak of it, applies anywhere," he says. (p. 271f Word and Object, 1960)
He wishes to include theory, but offers an example of semantic ascent as "
. . .the shift from talk of miles to talk of
'miles.' Quine wants, in other words, to insist that semantic ascent is the linguistic device for dealing with what is and that philosophy deals with what is as well as with the analysis of language.
The use of semantic ascent, then, is not to deny the sensibility of discussing real objects but rather to help the various expert authorities to deal with the different categories of their disciplines.
Quine, then, is concerned with devising the means through semantic ascent whereby the confusions of subjective sensory data, constructs of fantasy, willy nilly conceptual whims, illusion of understanding and knowing, hypostatization of words and concepts, etc., can be successfully sifted out through a systematic, utilitarian efficacy somewhat analogous to the successful theoretical and predictive constructs of science. Thus is derived an acceptable ontological commitment as opposed to the illusions of one.
What distinguishes between [an] ontological philosopher's concern and all this is only breath of categories. Given physical objects in general, the natural scientist is the man to decide about wombats and unicorns. Given classes, or whatever other broad realm of objects the mathematician needs, it is for the mathematician to say whether in particular there are any even cubic numbers. On the other hand it is scrutiny of this uncritical acceptance of the realm of physical objects itself, or of classes, etc., that devolves upon ontology. Here is the task of making explicit what had been tacit, and precise what had been vague; of exposing and resolving paradoxes, smoothing kinks, lopping off vestigial growths, clearing ontological slums. (p. 275, Ibid.)
The (physical) book exists. Ideas exist. Numbers exist. Geometric shapes exist. Democracy exists. By 'chair,' I mean "that object used to sit on." By 'idea,' I mean some "thought," "concept," "belief." By, 'God' I mean "a supernatural entity," and on and on as used by "everyman."
When we use the terms 'exist' (ontology) and 'mean' this
loosely, each is an on-going process, and as such experientially and ontologically some "referents" cease to exist as soon as they come into being, like Heraclitus' "river."
Quine, of course, insists that the general term 'river' should not be confused with the stages of a river and that there really is no difficulty in stepping into the same river twice.
Likewise, he would insist that in speaking of a Mr. Smith, for instance, we are referring to the same person even if at various time intervals.
It is only the stage of the person that is different. Assuming he is correct, it does not solve the problem of reference.
Rather, it seems each stage becomes a referent, that is, if we are going to hypostatize
'referent,' And, under certain linguistic
covenants, we should. If my grandson speaks of Mr. Smith as the same teacher I studied under forty years ago, there is little doubt that there will be a radical difference between our separate understandings (referents) of who Mr. Smith is in terms of his appearance, present personality, etc.
Surely, also, he was not Mr. Smith, the teacher, when he was 15 years old.
I am, in turn, opting for a concept of 'referent' which will, from the point of view of understanding, eliminate the concept of ontology and circumvent arbitrary and conventional linguistic covenants for the term, while at the same time, permitting the implication of the first and the socio-culturally necessary use of the second. There is, of course, little doubt that the inscrutability, untranslatability, and indeterminacy of a shifting, changing ontology -- whether physical, phenomenological, conceptual, or what have you pose difficulties. This is particularly the case in uses of language which demand a uniqueness (spatio-temporal or other) of reference for communicative purposes. It is herein, however, that it might be said that 'referent' means many things dependent upon the level of language or the linguistic context in use (or in Quinean terms, background language.) My position is that Quine's is one of many fulfilling a special purpose, and that neither he nor anyone else will solve the problem via bound variables if ontological commitment is taken as a test of ontology, or referent is the object of specific referral expressions. Certainly a referent can be said to "hold" its character discursively as the enduring thread (term -- like Quine's "river") upon which is woven the fabric of the psychological or phenomenological referential data.
The real issue is to identify the use of the term 'referent' with its specific "ontological" range or process, if you will: that is, to identify its existence as idea, as memory, as perception, as conception, or as something physical, imaginative, illusory, hallucinatory, or sensory, etc., each a process, each a focal point of referral attention nounized according to the linguistic context (i.e., ordinary language, scientific language, historical language, etc., required. Thereby clarity of thought may ensue dependent upon the degree of clarity needed as is the case with the need for varying degrees of explanation.
On the extensional level of language all "referents" are complex "entities" of activity, "held together" for discussion by an enduring term. Not only are such so-called "referents" complexes of beginning, on-going, or ending, processes, but given the reality of the fact that language refers to our perceptions, not to a physical reality, each perception is a construct of an ď'infinity' of dates" -- if Einsteinís theory of relativity has merit. This verifiable fact alone creates the need to invoke pragmatic ordinances of linguistic usage. As Einstein points out, "The universe of ideas [the giving of meaning, i.e., language], is just as little independent of the nature of our experiences as clothes are of the form of the human body." However, the individual governing agents are to be found intentionally. They are acts of mind which lay down the determinants permitting such designations as "referent," "symbol," "inference," etc., according to whether various particular minds, at a particular time, use the same object of attention as a focus for a referring act of mind, a symbolizing act of mind, or an inferring act of mind, etc.
Strictly speaking symbols, referents, and inferences do not exist outside the mind, however much we colloquially refer to them as "things," "words," etc. Any thing (process) can serve as a focus for those acts of mind which we call "symbolizing," "referring," "inferring." When something is not so serving because no mind is present, it cannot validly be called a "symbol," a "referent," or an "inference." Furthermore, in the presence of different minds, what is a symbol to one often is a referent to another, and an inference to a third*
*P. S. Schievella, Critical Analysis: Language and Its Functions (New York: Humanities Press, Inc., 1968), p.37, footnote. See also: -------- "Symbols, Referents, and Communication in the Human Use of Language," The Journal of Critical Analysis, Vol. I, July 1969, No. 2, p.82.
Certain acts of mind are acts of referring -- sometimes manifested in referring expressions, sometimes not.
Others are acts of symbolizing, reflecting, criticizing, synthesizing,
analyzing, and many more. Each of these, of course, is in turn manifested in reflective expressions, critical expressions, analytical expressions, etc.
Each act is different in character from every other as are various kinds of referents different -- one from another.
Strictly and ultimately, there is no entity that can be called a criticism, a synthesis, an analysis, etc., separate from those acts.
In kind there is no referent (strictly speaking) that is the substantive object of the referral expression inherently possessing the quality of referent such that one special set of "objects" (not to be construed here as merely physical) can be relegated to the category of "referent" while others cannot.
Any "object" can be made to fit that category. In short, much of the confusion arising out of the problem of trying to determine the character and nature of referent lies in identifying acts of referring with "objects."
It is the act of referring that induces the pragmatic conversion into noun form, the designation, and individuation of an "object" which is thereby "objectified" as a referent.
What needs to be emphasized is that what refers in every instance of referral is some "entitizing" process in the mind.
Some of these processes are stimulated into "existence" by some presumed, acknowledged, or inferred "entity" outside the mind.
Some are stimulated by various processes of thought (like conceptualizing).
Pursuit of a basic definition that will serve as the complete answer to what is the "meaning" of a referral expression (or a word) comes close to pursuit of an ideal language -- a will-o-the-wisp -- primarily because "referents" (as are "meanings") for the "symbols" constituting the expression are so diverse and multi-faceted. The exception, of course, is a linguistic or cononical covenant -- a Quinean bound variable, for example -- directed to a particular need and to a particular linguistic orientation that will fit only particular human needs, which in the final analysis is analytical in character and cannot apply to the many diverse functions of language.
There is no inherent referential quality with ontological status.
When some "thing" is designated (or individuated) as a referent, (or an ontological commitment), the designation "referent" is but a social covenant of referral (finding expression in noun form, i.e., 'referent') which is in fact but a linguistically functional term (as opposed to ontologically functional entity) designating an act of mind -- often expressed in verb form, i.e., "refers."
Acts of referring manifested (but not always) in referral expressions often do not commit us to the existence of anything.
Yet. they are by linguistic covenant (without ontic referral) accorded referents.
My thesis is that there are no referents ontologically and that use of the term 'referent' is only a linguistic convenience of speech act.
(The same object is accorded the term 'symbol' at the same moment by a different mind.)
Once this is recognized, we can begin to distinguish the kinds of "ontology" (sensa, phenomena, concept, percept, memory, abstraction, operation, etc.) to which the term 'referent' alludes and referral expressions refer.
There are no such things as referents as such because there is no such thing whose principle function is to be a referent.