Causal theories of reference

Any theory saying that if we are to refer to an object we must be in some relevant causal contact with it. We cannot therefore refer to fictitious objects, but must be using their names in some other way.

Suppose that I try talking about one ‘Ebenezer Pilkington, who is “F”‘ (where ‘F is some elaborate description, satisfied by one person only, who happens also to be the only person called ‘Ebenezer Pilkington’); and suppose that all this is pure coincidence and I have never heard of him or been in any causal contact with him.

On the views in question I am not referring to him, whatever else I am doing.

These views are akin to the causal theory of names, though not the same since only people refer.

S Kripke, Naming and Necessity (1980)

Exegetical points

Causal theories of names becamse popular during and after the 1970s as a result largely of work by Saul Kripke and Keith Donnelan, and were eventually expanded to other parts of language, such as natural kind terms by Hilary Putnam.
The theory is usually advocated by philosophers who deny (1) that most proper names are disguised descriptions (as Russell held), and (2) that there is anything like a Fregean sense attached to a proper name (for example, Saul Kripke, the originator of the theory)

Two problems with these passages.

1. Saul Kripke does *not* endorse a “causal theory of names.” The development of the causal theory clearly owes a tremendous amount to Kripke’s arguments in Naming and Necessity, but in N&N Kripke explicitly denies that he is offering any comprehensive theory of naming whatsoever–let alone a causal one. This may be a minor point for the purposes of this article; but it is a major one for Kripke’s own philosophical method.

2. Putnam’s “Meaning of Meaning” was clearly important in making the case for a causal theory of (at least some) natural kind terms. But this was not an “extension” of Kripke’s work into areas that Kripke had not already touched on: a very substantial part of the lectures that became Naming and Necessity were already devoted to applying something like his account of proper names to natural kind terms such as “gold” and “water” (and fictional natural kind terms such as “unicorn”).

I’ve edited the first sentence a bit to reflect Kripke’s work. I don’t know entirely what to do about the first point, though, so I wanted to throw the question out for further discussion. What do y’all think we should do to account for Kripke’s reticence about theorizing?

Radgeek 03:49, 15 Nov 2004 (UTC)

I think the first of the three listed characteristics of causal theories – that they equate the meaning of a name with its referent – is incorrect. While some causal theorists no doubt believe this, it is in no sense an essential feature of all such theories. Indeed, one of the major attractions of such theories is that they allow one to maintain the benefits of the sense/reference distinction for the purpose of avoiding the sorts of contradictions demonstrated by Frege and Russell without adopting a Russelian disguised-definite-description approach towards proper names. The causal chain between a term and its referent has, for instance, been considered by some to function as the sense of that term.

Also, for some of the same reasons, I find it odd that this article is entitled ‘causal theory of names’ rather than the (I believe) more standard ‘causal theory of reference’. The latter seems more appropriate since: 1.) causal theories of reference are applied to more than just names, and 2.) the meaning of a name is not necessarily exhausted by its (causally determined) referent.

Ncsaint 00:59, 20 October 2005 (UTC)

I contacted the original author (Larry Sanger) and have made a first set of changes along the lines outlined above.

Ncsaint 05:32, 20 October 2005 (UTC)

Name Change

I heard no objections to the move proposed above, and looking around the Wikipedia, it seemed that the redirect at ‘causal theory of reference’ was more widely linked to already. As the article contains information on reference for more than simply names, this seemed the more appropriate title. Ncsaint 20:03, 21 October 2005 (UTC)


Nice lead section ya’ got there!! Well done. No hassles at all. Just delete the old boy completely. I’m puttin’ this one up for FA candidate!!–Lacatosias 15:54, 31 March 2006 (UTC)


As I distantly recall (from a PhD I abandoned on the subject), Donald Davidson had interesting objections to the causal theory, somewhat similar to Evans. Perhaps someone should add them. Ben Finn 16:11, 3 April 2007 (UTC)

Inflammatory comment in criticism section?

In discussing the work of Stitch et al., it is written that “This, of course, assumes that administering surveys is doing philosophy.”

I find this comment not only unnecessary but irregular. It could be re-written as a legitimate counter-criticism but comes off more as a petulant graduate student’s sniffing at genuine methodological disagreements. I’d get rid of it. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 03:14, 2 December 2007 (UTC)

Ruth Barcan Marcus

She, and her direct reference theory, needs a mention in this article. Maybe I’ll get around to it… — Charles Stewart(talk) 09:23, 25 February 2009 (UTC)

A convenient distinction of two kinds of meaning

Link…–>      –Faustnh (talk) 19:47, 27 April 2009 (UTC)

Triangle of reference

Ogden semiotic triangle.png

Between the Thought and the Referent there is also a relation; more or less direct (as when we think about or attend to a coloured surface we see), or indirect (as when we ‘think of’ or ‘refer to’ Napoleon), in which case there may be a very long chain of sign-situations intervening between the act and its referent: word – historian – contemporary record – eye-witness – referent (Napoleon).

— C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (1923). The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. (p. 11).

User:KYPark – (talk) 15:43, 9 October 2009 (UTC)

Machery et. al. reference in criticisms

I think it’s a bit premature to cite Machery et. al. (2004) as evidence against the Causal Theory of Reference. There’s been several articles criticizing or outright refuting the results of that paper (such as Lam 2010 and Izumi et. al. 2017). Can we remove this criticism, or at least add the criticisms of Machery et. al. (2004) underneath the notation for it? 2600:6C50:487F:FBA0:DC77:ACEE:F6CF:9BC (talk) 02:42, 30 September 2017 (UTC)

2 thoughts on “Causal theories of reference

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