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What Is an Empty Name?

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

An empty name is a proper noun, such as a person's name or the name of a particular building, holiday, or other unique entity, that does not refer to anything in reality. It is a word without a reference or a particular object to which the word itself refers. The empty name is a problem in the field of philosophy of language, as such names have understood meaning despite the fact that they do not refer to anything in reality. "Prometheus," for instance, is an empty name, as such a figure "exists" only in mythology and has no true reference in reality. In spite of this, people understand "Prometheus" to refer to the titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind.

Some philosophers of language believe that an empty name is inherently devoid of meaning. This raises problems, as such names can be understood regardless of the fact that they refer to nothing in reality. Additionally, the sentence "Prometheus does not exist," which is known to be true based on the understood meaning of Prometheus, would be utterly meaningless if the name "Prometheus" did not carry meaning. This conception of the empty name as meaningless is a part of the direct reference theory, which states that words and expressions derive meaning from what they correspond to in the world.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

One proposed solution to the issue of the empty name is that "meaning" and "reference" can be separate. In many cases, as with objects in the real world, they likely correspond in most cases. A name may, however, convey a meaning that is separate from a real-world reference, even if there actually is no real-world reference. This contrasts with the direct reference theory, as that theory only allows for meaning that is derived from the real-world reference. The idea that meaning and reference are separable is a part of the "description theory" of names.

The problems with the empty name concept are generally related to the difficulties of finding a theory that fits with practical use of the name in a sentence. It is sensible to state that a name, such as "Prometheus," with no referent is devoid of any inherent meaning. A sentence such as "Prometheus does not exist," however, makes no sense if it is taken to be true that "Prometheus" is meaningless. Similarly, by separating meaning from reference, it is possible to assign false meaning to real names in sentences. Saying, for instance, that "Abraham Lincoln was never the president of the United States" is self-contradictory as "president of the United States" is part of the "meaning" of the name "Abraham Lincoln."

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