Thomas Kuhn expressed grave doubts about whether the protagonists on opposite sides of a given scientific revolution even “live in the same world”. His doubts were based on many historical examples where the opposite sides disagreed deeply about the reference of important terms that they shared. In later essays he emphasized that the participants could understand each other, and rationally make choices about what theory to adopt based on reasonable criteria, but he never gave up this fundamental concern.
Kuhn’s examples from scientific revolutions are especially well documented cases of the sort of shifts of reference that occur all the time in our language. Kuhn’s analyses make clear the stakes: if we want to understand how beliefs can and should change, we need a concept of reference that adequately supports these kinds of changes, and that gives us some basis for judging whether the changes are appropriate.
We can approach the needed concept by observing that a reference can’t be understood in isolation. A speaker’s reference can’t succeed unless it picks out a referent for some listener. Success depends on a shared context; typically others understanding references or making them, but in some cases a context of the same person’s earlier or later referencing. (As a software developer, I am very familiar with the need to understand my earlier self’s choice of references – “When I named this variable, what was I thinking?”)
The typical philosophical definition of reference elides this need for context. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins its article on reference by saying “Reference is a relation that obtains between expressions and what speakers use expressions to talk about.” The article continues with an exploration of the relationship between expressions (typically words) and things; speakers drop out of the picture. And listeners were never really in the picture.
The causal theory of reference in a way admits this need for context, but quickly jumps to defining rules for using very stereotyped historical context to pick out the correct target of a reference. In effect, the elision performed rhetorically in the article is performed formally in these theories of reference – speakers and listeners are simply carrying out their formal roles (more or less perfectly). Reference depends only on the very narrow aspects of the situation specified in the formal account.
This may work as an approximation to the use of some kinds of references in stable, unproblematic situations, but it fails badly in situations where the references of terms are unstable, murky, and being negotiated – that is, in precisely the sort of situations Kuhn documents, and more broadly, the sort of situations where we need to understand how reference actually works! This seems to me to be a philosophical case of looking under the lamp-post when we know the car keys were dropped in the alley.
Other philosophers have taken this goal of a formal account of reference as valid, but then either deemed it “inscrutable” (Quine) or vacuous (deflationists). In either case, we are left with no useful tools to interpret or judge situations involving reference conflict or change. This would be a case of denying that there ever were such things as car keys, or if there were, that they did anything useful.
I think Kuhn suffers from a related problem. He seems to have felt that formal accounts fail in scientific revolutions (as they clearly do), and that only a formal account could explain reference. So during revolutions something very mysterious happens, and people come to live in “different worlds”. Within each world reference could perhaps be formally described; across worlds formal descriptions break down.
Let us use our original intuition to take the analysis of reference in a different direction. “Reference is a relation that obtains between expressions and what speakers use expressions to talk about.” If a speaker is using an expression to talk about something, then there is a listener (at least hypothetically) who will have to understand it (correctly) for the speaker to be successful. Correct understanding, in this sense, means that it picks out an aspect of the world that satisfies the purposes of the speaker. This is the minimal context of reference.
Considering this context leads to a view of reference which is neither formal nor useless. Expressions in context do refer. Given enough context, people are very good at figuring out what a speaker refers to. But the aspects of the situation that could be relevant are unbounded and the process of figuring out can’t be specified by a fixed set of rules. In particular, if participants find that their ability to refer successfully is breaking down for some reason, they resort to searching for potentially relevant new aspects of the situation, and arguing about what sort of rules should be followed – behaviors characteristic of scientific revolutions, as well as other episodes of belief and meaning change.
In this account, even though no complete formal account of reference is possible, reference is not mysterious, opaque or incomprehensible. In fact, the process of achieving consensus on the reference of terms is simple and robust enough that it has been implemented in populations of robots. In these experiments, each robot did live in a “different world” – each robot sensed and classified the world in a unique way. Furthermore, there was never a fixed procedure for them to negotiate agreement on which terms to use. But very quickly, through rough pointing and a desire to coordinate their references, the whole population converged on common terms, often after some disagreement (i.e. different subgroups temporarily agreed on different terms). Under some circumstances (such as a large influx of new robots who didn’t know the consensus terms) references again came “up for grabs” and sometimes got reassigned. None the less, the terms used during any given period of consensus did refer; a speaker could use an expression to pick out a piece of the world, and a listener would reliably guess the correct referent.
In some sense, I am pointing at (but by no means adequately setting forth) a causal theory of reference. However the causal process is one of approximate (and shifting) consensus in a population of speaker/listeners, not one that can be stereotyped as “dubbing” or reduced to any other formal account based on specified factors. I hope my description gives some sense of why I think this addresses Kuhn’s concerns. In addition it provides a natural way to address issues of vague reference, reference to fictional entities, etc. — but such bald assertion needs some followup which won’t be forthcoming right now.
I have a sense, however, that this account would be profoundly unsatisfactory to most philosophers who are concerned with reference. If such a philosopher finds it unsatisfactory (in its goals and means, not its current state of extreme sketchiness), my question is Why? Why have philosophers spent so much effort on such problematic formal approaches, when a relatively simple account based on actual (and simulated) use of reference will do the job?