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Reference to rabbits

Mark Richard (Harvard) : Reference to rabbits

There seems to be a quick argument for the conclusion that what we
refer to with practically all of our names and nouns is indeterminate.
The major premise is that names like ‘Peter Rabbit’ and predicates
like ‘rabbit’ are vague since there are a host of different
collections of molecules such that it is utterly indeterminate which
of those collections collects all and only the molecules that are part
of Peter Rabbit. Thus, there are a host of different objects such
that it is indeterminate which of them the name ‘Peter Rabbit’ refers
to. Likewise for the noun ‘rabbit’ –there are countless disjoint
candidates for its extension. Likewise for pretty much every name and
The issues here are partially semantic, partially metaphysical. One
way to respond to the argument is concede the major premise but insist
that, since vagueness is epistemic, no interesting conclusions about
reference follow. A second way to respond takes the vagueness of
’rabbit’ to be substantive –there is no fact of the matter as to what
’rabbit’ is true of, and thus the term does not determinately refer to
anything. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t refer –’rabbit’ refers to
rabbits, what else ? Rather, it means that the only serviceable notion
of reference is a lightweight, "disquotational" one. A third way to
respond to the argument is to question whether ’rabbit’ is vague in a
way that supports the argument’s conclusion. The argument, after all,
moves pretty quickly from the premise, Peter’s physical constitution
is a vague matter, to the conclusion that Peter is a vague matter.
Perhaps here it moves too quickly.
So far as I can see, these are the only responses to the argument
worth taking seriously. In this talk, I propose to sort through them.
I’ll conclude that a bunny’s being a determinate object doesn’t
require that it have a perfectly determinate collection of parts, or a
perfectly precise location, so reference to rabbits is not threatened
by the problem of the many. On the way there I will have a good deal
to say about and against various views of vagueness.