A Debate about Words


Due to their lack of success in resolving problems, philosophers like to think that they are failing productively. For example, a philosopher might suggest that while the problem hasn’t gone away, one sees it more clearly after the debate. Such insight is a consolation prize awarded to the readers for the failure of the authors.

This blog post discusses one unsuccessful debate, a debate about the nature of words. I will summarise a series of papers and how the debate ends up being less than successful. Don’t hope for a final answer to conclude this post. My goal is merely to document one debate on the issue on the way towards the answer — and to warn against being side–tracked by metaphysics.

To those not engaged in philosophy of language and metaphysics, some terms in my summary and discussion might be unfamiliar. I’ve tried to include links in those cases, but the larger points I make at the end of the post should be accessible even if one never makes sense of those terms.

Kaplan’s Original Paper

In 1990, David Kaplan’s paper “Words” appeared, discussing the philosophy of words: What are they? What is the nature of words?

Kaplan is moved by issues relating to direct reference theory. Consider the statement “Hesperus = Phosphorus”. As it happens, both names refer to Venus, hence the identity statement is true. At one point in history the identification was a genuine discovery. But if the names refer directly, that is without mediation by e.g. descriptions (“Hesperus is the brightest star in the evening sky”), then how can the identity statement be informative?

To address such puzzles, Kaplan considers giving words a cognitive role. Hence, he is looking for a theory of words that aligns well with using a difference in names as a cognitive difference that can explain substitution effects in identity statements.

The target of Kaplan’s criticism is a form–based type–token conception of words, according to which words would be utterance tokens individuated based on their form that instantiate types of words. In its place, Kaplan proposes what he called back then a stage–continuant theory of words, according to which words were objects in this world with an initial creation event followed by repetitions and storage.

As part of his proposal, Kaplan faces the question of how to individuate words: What makes two utterances a repetition of the same word? Kaplan stresses intent. I might be mispronounce a name, but as long as I intend to speak a word I have previously acquired, my utterance will be a stage of it.

Because Kaplan is primarily interested in semantic puzzles typically phrased using names and their role in identity statements, proper names play an outsized role (Kaplan 1990: 110):

I have spoken of words, though my examples have often involved names. And truth to tell, it is names at which I aim. It is names that have been thought to challenge direct reference theory.

Due to this focus, Kaplan also discusses how people can be said to share a name. Hume, Kaplan, and yours truly all happen to be called “David”, but the reference seems to differ. In response to such worries, Kaplan distinguishes common currency names from generic names. Only common currency names are used as words, while generic names are cultural artefacts on which we draw for giving proper i.e. common currency names. Hume, Kaplan, and I share a name in the sense of having been given different common currency names using (?) one generic name.

Hawthorne and Lepore’s Response

In 2011, the debate continued with a response by John Hawthorne and Ernie Lepore, entitled “On Words”. The almost 40 page long paper response thoroughly to Kaplan, although not always honing in on what bothered Kaplan himself. For example, Hawthorne and Lepore objected at length against Kaplan’s stage–contiuant proposal, interpreting as a form of four–dimensionalism.

More on point, Hawthorne and Lepore worry about the role of intent in Kaplan’s account. Surely, at some point intent is not enough to make utterances instances of a word. If you utterly fail by community standards to speak the word you intended to speak, you have not uttered the word?

Based on the length of discussion, Hawthorne and Lepore’s main target is Kaplan’s distinction between common currency and generic names. They painstakingly go through different possible motivations for the distinction and reject one after the other. Again, this is an issue that is rather specific to proper names and I struggle to see why much would hang on it. Consider the questions: Should we say that Hume, Kaplan, and I have one name? How literally should we take the claim that we share a name? When it comes to the nature of words, these questions are a sideshow. At best, they are getting at something more important: What role does reference play in the individuation of words? To answer that question, we should consider words other than names.

Interestingly, Hawthorne and Lepore end on a sceptical note, doubting whether metaphysics can provide individuation criteria for words, either because the facts accessible to us are insufficient to establish them, or because words have no proper place in our final ontology. They don’t see much hope even when their lexeme-like conception of words were “supplemented with the tools of theoretical linguistics” (Hawthorne and Lepore 2011: 485).

Kaplan’s Response to the Response.

Kaplan responded with a further paper: “Words on Words”. A few misunderstandings are cleared up, and reading the paper is becomes apparent that Kaplan is much less wedded to any metaphysics than his interlocutors presumed — definitely less than to a good joke. Kaplan does not want to commit to four–dimensionalism, i.e. the metaphysical interpretation of his continuant–stage proposal by Hawthorne and Lepore. Kaplan also willing to accept the type–token distinction as long as one jettisons the form–based criteria for individuating words.

When it comes to the individuation of names, however, Kaplan sticks to his guns, defending both the role of intent and the common currency vs. generic names distinction. It becomes again apparent that the real subject of interest is not words in general, but names as they figure in arguments lobbed against direct reference theory. The question that troubles him is specifically whether he and Hume share a name (conceived of as a word) or have two different ones. Kaplan cares about the individuation of words insofar it might bear on the puzzles threatening direct reference theory.

As an aside, the response to the response is also the funniest paper in the debate. Kaplan cracks jokes on nearly every page. If you don’t solve the problem, you might at least be funny.

Bromberger’s Contribution

But there is another paper in the debate, one with a less catchy title: “What Are Words? Comments on Kaplan (1990), on Hawthorne and Lepore, and on the Issue”. In this brief paper, Sylvain Bromberger confronts the original contribution by Kaplan as well as the response by Hawthorne and Lepore with the linguistic reality.1

They key to the paper’s title is at the end: “on the issue”. My impression is that Bromberger is the only one to primarily care about words as units of language. Bromberger is invested in the topic, and in his paper argues that much is missing from the debate (Bromberger 2011: 489–490). For a start, he stresses that words function as constituents of phrases and sentences” (Bromberger 2011: 490), something that is oddly absent from the debate (except for identity statements). Names do not exhaust the set of words and words generally have their roles in sentences.

The paper brings in the linguistics that was previously consigned to footnotes, but in Brombergerian fashion, it ends on a sceptical note about our current epistemic status regarding the nature of words. As a result of his scepticism, Bromberger does not even claim to answer the question “what are words”, but instead hands out one of the philosophical consolation prizes (2011: 503):2

But at least we are at a point where we can appreciate with some precision what we know we do not know.


The question into the nature of words broad, sprawling, and to answer it we have to integrate large amounts of disparate information. We should not expect to do much better than Kaplan, Hawthorne, Lepore, and Bromberger — all serious philosophers and researchers in their own rights! — unless we build upon their work and that of others. Although I did not expect an answer, I looked into the debate, because I want to keep my eyes on the actual prize, the answer to the question what words are.

The debate serves as a warning about taking the question too lightly. Kaplan was troubled by a challenge to one of the most influential semantic theory, and thought a quick discussion of the nature of words could help resolve it. But the nature of words, what they are and how words can be individuated, is far too subtle a topic to allow a quick discussion to then be used for other purposes. The danger of ending up with a partial picture — in Kaplan’s case a picture limited primarily to proper names seen through the lens of semantics — is too great.

While Hawthorne and Lepore are motivated by broader concerns, they set up their response in a rather limiting way (2011: 448):

Our aim in this paper is to further advance an understanding of the nature of words, both by remedying the problems with Kaplan’s account, and also by achieving a suitable perspective on what the metaphysical investigation of word identity can hope to achieve.

Hawthorne and Lepore target the shortcomings of Kaplan’s account and otherwise discuss specifically the metaphysical investigation of the individuation criteria of words. Those are issues that can be debated, but they cover just a tiny fraction of the topic circumscribed by “the nature of words” and largely neglect linguistic or cognitive considerations.

Metaphysical issues are an excellent way to get side–tracked prior to proper engagement with a subject matter. This is not to say that metaphysical questions are nonsensical or that their answers are epistemically inaccessible,3 but it is a warning about the proper place of metaphysics. The greatest hope for addressing the metaphysical issues surrounding the nature of words lies in accumulating sufficient empirical knowledge about their linguistic nature to then bring it to bear on the metaphysical questions. The Kaplan–Hawthorne–Lepore exchange would have been improved by avoiding any of the issues surrounding four–dimensionalism and discussing e.g. compound nouns at greater length. The role intent is closer to the subject matter — cognition has some bearing on the nature of words — but the exchange on this issue does not reach very far.

The lesson is that empirical complexities cannot just be ignored away by focusing on those areas least accessible to empirical investigation. While it might appear more philosophical to debate four–dimensionalism and the role of intent, that does not make it the right approach to uncover the nature of words. That lesson is in line with Kripke’s insight: The nature of water needed to be uncovered using the relevant sciences, in this case chemistry and physics. Why would words be so different?



  1. The initial footnote of Bromberger’s paper makes clear that he never got proper access to Kaplan’s response to Hawthorne and Lepore. 

  2. I gather that this might be the “golly value” described by Bromberger in his paper “Rational Ignorance”

  3. Although that too might be the case. 

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