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On the Real and Natural-Kind Terms
by Adrian Price
Adrian Price

This paper was first published as an introduction to Ian Hacking's paper "Putnam's Theory of Natural Kinds and Their Names is not the Same as Kripke's", in Hurly-Burly, The International Lacanian Journal of Psychoanalysis, Issue 7, May 2012.

Even within the field of analytic philosophy, unpicking the subtle divergence between Hilary Putnam and Saul Kripke on the question of natural-kind terms may read like a mere footnote to an ostensibly more engaging debate on the logical modalities of naming and individual essences. As Ian Hacking observes, whilst the theory of the rigid designator is one of the most memorable contributions to twentieth-century philosophical thinking about denotation and reference, it stands at one remove from the issue of naming natural kinds. From within the psychoanalytic field, the question is seemingly more marginal still: Lacan states clearly in Le séminaire XVIII that what psychoanalysis can learn from the logical formalism of nomination pertains to the analysis of the proper name and not the common noun.[1] However, in the wake of the linguistic turn of twentieth century philosophy we are witnessing an unprecedented vacillation in the categories of the "real" and the "natural", as Jacques-Alain Miller reiterated recently in his presentation of the theme for the 2014 WAP Congress.[2] This vacillation was felt first in contemporary science, in philosophy, and perhaps above all in psychoanalysis itself, which in its short history has heralded many of the advances in the logical formalisation of the real. Today, "everyone feels that the real has broken away from nature". Ian Hacking's article "Putnam's Theory of Natural Kinds and Their Names is not the Same as Kripke's" allows us to trace the first responses to this vacillation from two major contributors to late twentieth century philosophy, and to ascertain in the divergence between them the logical vicissitudes that bear out this vacillation.

Lacan's Realism of the Name

Lacan alludes briefly to the 1972 publication of Kripke's Naming and Necessity lectures[3] in Seminars XXI and XXII. He doesn't appear to have been familiar with Putnam's early work (Putnam's 1975 paper "The Meaning of 'Meaning'" is not to be confused with the 1923 Ogden & Richards volume, The Meaning of Meaning, to which Lacan refers critically on several occasions).

Lacan's 1971 reading of Frege on Sinn and Bedeutung is remarkably similar to Kripke's 1970 reading, published in book form in 1972. Lacan may indeed have been acquainted with the article "Naming and Necessity" published in The Semantics of Natural Language.[4] In the final lesson of Seminar XVIII, Lacan observes that

if we replace the author of Waverley by Sir Walter Scott, we get the following sentence – King George III enquired as to whether Sir Walter Scott was Sir Walter Scott, which, quite clearly, absolutely does not carry the same meaning. On the basis of this simple logical remark, Frege inaugurates his fundamental distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung.[5]

Kripke is more critical of Frege, and reads him as anticipating Russell's descriptivist account of naming[6], but ultimately there is a powerful coincidence between Lacan's account of the name as distinct from descriptive meaning and Kripke's account. Together they revisit the theory of naming to cast doubt on the felicity of the connotation/denotation approach that reaches from Russell, through Strawson, to Carnap.

Lacan's allusion to Kripke's paper in the third lesson of Les non-dupes errent is explicitly concerned with naming the category "real" from the perspective of the proper name. Lacan's remark in the 11 March 1975 lesson from RSI pushes the point further. He effectively aligns Kripke's Naming and Necessity with a "realism of the name". This "realism of the name" stands in contrast to the "nominalism of the real". The realism of the name amplifies what lay hidden in philosophical nominalism, namely that the name produces an effect on the real. Naming is not merely a description appended to the real which leaves the real intact.

Kripke and Putnam take as their point of departure an insistence at the level of the name, a name that doesn't stop being written, despite the fact that no logical necessity links the name to the referent. Saying that there is no logical necessity that links name and referent means that we have sided with Kripke against the descriptivist theory of reference. The descriptivist theory holds that there is an a priori bond between the referent and at least one of a cluster of properties that correspond to the name.

Lacan dedicates a considerable portion of the final lesson of his twenty-second Seminar to an inquiry into naming and the real. Evoking once again the example of "Walter Scott" and "the author of Waverley", he insists that the referent is absolutely not an individualisation of a support at the level of a body. The referent effectively targets the real, as distinct from imaginary form.

Lacan sets the category of nomination apart from the three registers of imaginary, symbolic and real. It ties in with the other registers through the act of naming. Nomination may for example partake of the imaginary (which Lacan designates as Ni) or of the symbolic (Ns), which means it can operate within the signifying system, within the Saussurian model, but in both cases the referent will be on the side of the real. Thus, the nomination, the naming, as opposed to the name itself, entails the real.

Lacan contrasts the logicians' efforts to name what they imagine to be real (Ni) with the naming of the species in Genesis (Ns). This is developed further in the first lesson of Seminar XXIII which picks up where Seminar XXII left off:

I shall say that nature is specifically not one. Hence logical process as a means of broaching it. Through the process of calling nature that which you exclude by the very fact of taking an interest in something, this something being distinct by dint of being named, nature ventures nothing but to affirm itself as a potpourri of what lies outside nature.[7]

Lacan proceeds to look at natural kinds and species ("from bacteria to birds, because they do have names") from both the Biblical and Aristotelian approaches, which correspond to Ns and Ni respectively. As Éric Laurent has observed, behind this critical commentary, "the contemporary logosciences are being examined."[8]

Lacan's commentary on the Biblical approach (Ns) foregrounds the "necessity" of the fault-line we saw earlier, the gulf between language and the real. The proliferation of names merely swells the gulf between the signifier and the real. The doesn't stop being written of the series of names is correlative to the doesn't stop being written of the fault-line. The critical effect is that through naming, the real is affected, nature is de-natured.

Lacan's commentary on the Aristotelian perspective (Ni) foregrounds the singular which is excluded in the classical articulation between universal and particular. For all Aristotle's cunning, the name eludes his logic of the universal and particular. When the name is supposed to designate the imaginary form of a being, for example "the man called 'Socrates'", he can be held to be equivalent to the description that designates him, e.g. "is mortal". However, the very singular circumstances of the life of Socrates demonstrate very well that he cannot be held to be an example of man's mortality, and thus what might be extrapolated about Socrates at the level of his particularity says nothing of his singularity. Kripke's approach goes even further by including counterfactual possibilities to show that the name "Socrates" corresponds to a singular individual that cannot be equivalent to any particular property or cluster of properties. Trying to stipulate one particular descriptive property that "Socrates" would necessarily satisfy invariably ends up with an imaginary form of the real: for example "the man called 'Socrates'". As Kripke says:

Obviously, if the only descriptive senses of names we can think of are of the form "the man called such and such", "the man called 'Walter Scott'", "the man called 'Socrates'", then whatever this relation of calling is is really what determines the reference and not any description like "the man called 'Socrates'".[9]

The Ni is a naming that reins in, that inhibits the development of the series of properties. Thus, what counts in the Ni is not the description, which will always boil down to an imaginary element (i) but the N, which entails a real dimension in the very act of naming.

As Jacques-Alain Miller noted in his commentary on The Inexistent Seminar, to arrive at this point of the real dimension of nomination we have effectively emptied out all signification.[10] We have arrived at a kind of zero point of signification, and that is where the referent steps in.

This brings with it fresh considerations that were not of primary concern within the Saussurian model, notably the question of substances and essences. Indeed, Lacan ends his twenty-second Seminar with the observation that the next step will be to look at "the substance that has to be given to the Name-of-the-Father". Lacan's new vocabulary of the nineteen-seventies (notably "semblant" and "sinthome") stems from this effort to approach the referent of the real and its paradoxical naming in a "substantialist" way.

Naming Natural Kinds

The question of naming natural kinds stands at the crossroads of the two perspectives: Ns and Ni. From the perspective of Ns we have the problematic of the "natural" (the de-naturing of nature) and the necessity of the gulf between language and the real. From the perspective of the Ni we have the problematic of the proper name as either designating a referent or describing an imaginary form; a problematic which Kripke and Putnam extend to include natural-kind terms.

The issue of naming natural kinds features in the work of Kripke and Putnam as a logical extension of the wider issue of nomination. Although there is an important difference in their approaches, which Hacking sets about demonstrating, we may first note an important point of convergence. Kripke affirms that he came to realise

that the received presuppositions against the necessity of identities between ordinary names were incorrect, that the natural intuition that the names of ordinary language are rigid designators can in fact be upheld. […] It was a short step to realise that similar remarks applied to terms for natural kinds.[11]

He also affirms that, "my argument implicitly concludes that certain terms, those for natural kinds, have a greater kinship with proper names than is generally realised."[12] Putnam too asserts that the points he makes with regard to natural-kind words "apply to many other kinds of words as well. They apply to the great majority of all nouns, and to other parts of speech as well."[13] Indeed, Hacking builds his comparison of Kripke and Putnam's accounts of natural-kind terms on what amounts to their shared historical theory of denotation ("The Causal-Historical Account of Reference") derived from an analysis of the functioning of the proper name.

The distinction between proper names and natural-kind terms is summed up by Putnam as follows:

Natural kinds do not have analytic definitions.
The relation to Kripke's account of proper names is this: in both accounts things which are given existentially and not by criteria help to fix the reference. Actual things, whatever their description, which have played a certain causal role in our acquisition and use of terms determine what the terms refer to. A term refers to something if it stands in the right relation (causal continuity in the case of proper names; sameness of "nature" in the case of kinds terms) to these existentially given things. In the case of proper names, the existentially given thing is the person or thing originally "baptised" with the name; in the case of natural-kind words, the existentially given things are the actual paradigms.[14]

What implications are there for nomination when we approach it from the perspective of the natural-kind term?

We have seen that this perspective stands at one remove from the issue of the proper name, but that it may be subsumed under the theory of naming derived from the analysis of the proper name. Let's pick apart this tangle by recalling that, in psychoanalysis, the strict notion of the proper name found its first application in the theory of the subject of the signifier, the subject as represented by the signifier, the signifier as constitutive of the subject and the subject's experience. The perspective of the subject of the signifier is what in the main led psychoanalytic theory away from any consideration of "substances". It is also what, arguably, allowed it to steer clear of the semantic externalism debate. Psychoanalytic theory has generally found the Saussurian signifier/signified model to be much more fruitful than the Frege tradition of name/reference, essentially since the Saussurian model allows the place of the referent to be maintained as an empty locus.

However, as we have seen, this opens the door to a further consideration that accords with Kripke's account of the proper name as attached to a contingent act of naming, an "initial baptism", which gives rise a posteriori to a metaphysical necessity in the absence of any logical necessity establishing a bond between name and referent. This effectively hollows out the place of the referent from a descriptive standpoint.

We are not saying that proper names only designate subjects, far from it; we are saying that shifting our perspective to the analysis of natural-kind terms carries us beyond the strict field of the subject of the signifier with its specific paradoxes and solutions.

The important factor in the natural-kind term is that, with respect to the substance or even the "essence" involved, we meet the same gulf at the level of its descriptive aspect that we met earlier with respect to "Socrates" or "Sir Walter Scott". This is most evident in the examples of natural kinds where correlations that stand at the level of the deep structure of the substance have ostensibly been captured in a chemical formula, but where chemistry admits of some variance in the formula (for example water may be correlative to H2O, but equally in certain circumstances to H4O2, H6O3, D2O, D4O2, and D6O3).

This gulf, admitted by both Kripke and Puntam, is what leads to their contrasting approach. Kripke argues that this gulf calls upon a metaphysical necessity. We have to posit some kind of essence to each natural kind when we use a natural-kind term. Putnam meanwhile posits that, "the 'essence' that physics discovers is better thought of as a sort of paradigm that other applications of the concept […] must resemble."[15]

The Psychoanalytic Real

The question as to whether there is any necessity to the binding of signifier to referent has led us to introduce the category of the real, but in a paradoxical way. The category of the real emerges as denoting the sole permissible referent in the absence of any system of "necessary and sufficient" denotation. As a category, it stands in a paradoxical position of functioning as a referent for any name, for no name in particular, and thus counters any notion that there might be a particular name for the real.

Éric Laurent pursued this line of enquiry in 2001:

Whether the link [between signifier and signified] is assigned by convention, by arbitrariness, or by the word's appropriateness with the thing, a "correct sign of the real" as people have been saying since the Cratylus, the question remains the same. It is not sure that the formula meaning is use had delivered us of this illusion of the proper name. Lacan set about undoing this illusion at several points in the course of his teaching. One might say that each of the "paradigms of jouissance" brought with it its specific criticism of the illusion of the name, to which the practice of analysis pushes.[16]

Notice that we have moved from an account of the real reference to the question of how the real is specified. Here Laurent is examining how Lacan's teaching, driven by the analytic experience, undermines the notion that there might be any proper name for the real of jouissance. To speak of "jouissance" is to posit a general name for a category that emerges clinically through the subject's personal or "private" vocabulary. It sets a general specification for what can only be evinced in a singular way. This echoes Putnam's 1978 comment that "a theory of how reference is specified isn't a theory of what reference is; in fact, it presupposes the notion of reference."[17]

Let's look again at the path we have travelled:

  1. There is a necessary gulf between language and the real.
  2. The real is excluded from the Sinn of meaning, but emerges at the level of Bedeutung.
  3. It emerges paradoxically, not as the real to which a name is appended (nominalism of the real), but as the real dimension of the naming (realism of the name), i.e. a real that is affected by its naming.
  4. The real resists the proper name, as is indicated clinically by the absence of proper names for jouissance.
  5. The real, like jouissance, warrants specification in our theory. We use terms that we do not consider to be proper names, but which bring with them some of the paradoxes of the proper name.

What are these paradoxes? This in our view is the interest of Hacking's reading of the Kripke-Putnam divergence. Hacking suggests that, whereas in Kripke what allows for the use of a natural-kind term is the metaphysical positing of an essence, in Putnam the corresponding agent, or rather the contrasting agent, is "interest".

Putnam tends towards an avoidance of the metaphysical positing of an essence. The "paradigmatic" version of specifying natural kinds that we saw him arguing for earlier depends on this notion of "interest". Much as Putnam increasingly seeks to promote a physical necessity behind each apparent necessity of natural-kind terms, there is an underlying notion of what represents a viable and "interesting" physical structure for a community or culture.

In the case of jouissance, whereas the first position entertains an essence equivalent to an "enjoying substance", the second entertains "interest", with essence disappearing in favour of paradigms, which need not preclude a "substantialist" approach, but does not posit any essence as equivalent to paradigmatic substance.

When we consider the functioning of nomination in the clinic, whether we adopt the perspective of "essences" or that of "contingent interests", the category of jouissance emerges as a special category with respect to the referent. This means that whilst most if not all common nouns show that they function essentially as do proper names in as much as there is a gulf at the level of the logical necessity that links them to the referent, the term "jouissance" designates a special referent that comes to the place of the empty signification. The problem with natural kinds is that, when scrutinised as such, either they slide into the non-natural by dint of being singled out by a name, or, which amounts to the same thing, their physical structure leads to them being classified as compounds of other entities singled out by names. Jouissance therefore, in so far as we do not approach it as having a microstructure or any electrical or chemical underpinning, emerges as something of a natural kind par excellence.

However, our goal in this brief note is not to make a case for jouissance as a natural kind, any more than Kripke or Putnam are concerned with what natural kinds "are". Rather our objective is to introduce the thesis that the problematic nomination of jouissance, such as it is met clinically, stems from the same problematic inherent to the naming of natural kinds.

We are obliged, in our theory, to introduce "jouissance" as a quasi-natural-kind term, precisely because there is no proper name for jouissance. Jacques-Alain Miller has shown that the most fruitful theoretical approach to jouissance is to approach it paradigmatically[18], an approach which owes a great deal to the paradigmatic approach of contemporary sciences. This does not rule out however paradigms that posit a "substantial" condition of jouissance.

  1. Lacan, J., Le séminaire livre XVIII, D'un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant, Seuil, 2006, pp. 147-8 & pp. 171-2.
  2. Miller, J.-A., "Presentation of the Theme for the next WAP Congress, to be held in Paris 2014: A Great Disorder in the Real in the Twenty-First Century", presented in Buenos Aires, 26 April 2012.
  3. Kripke, S., Naming and Necessity, Blackwell, Oxford, 1980.
  4. Kripke, S., "Naming and Necessity", in Davidson, D., & Harman, G., The Semantics of Natural Language, Reidel, Dordecht, 1971.
  5. Lacan, J., Le séminaire livre XVIII, D'un discours qui ne serait pas du semblant, op. cit., p. 171.
  6. For Kripke, Frege understands the name as a "definite description abbreviated or disguised", Kripke, S., Naming and Necessity, op. cit., p. 27.
  7. Lacan, J., Le séminaire, livre XXIII, op. cit., p. 12.
  8. Laurent, É., "Le 'nom' de jouissance et la répétition", in La Cause freudienne, Issue 49, November 2001, p. 24.
  9. Kripke, S., Naming and Necessity, op. cit., p. 71. See Éric Laurent's commentary on this passage in "The Symptom and the Proper Name", translated by M. Julien & B. Bertrand, in Psychoanalytical Notebooks of the London Society, Issue 15, 2006, p. 58.
  10. Miller, J.-A., "Comentario del seminario inexistente", in Conferencies Porteñas, Tomo II, Paidós, Buenos Aires, 2009, pp. 84-5. An anonymous English language translation of this lecture has appeared as "The Non-Existent Seminar" at http://lacan.com/symptom12/?p=17. See also the slightly later text, Miller, J.-A., "The Inexistent Seminar" translated by P. Dravers in Psychoanalytical Notebooks of the London Society, Issue 15, op. cit., especially pp. 16-24.
  11. Kripke, S., Naming and Necessity, op. cit., p. 5.
  12. Ibid., p. 134.
  13. Putnam, H., "The Meaning of 'Meaning'" (1975), in Mind, Language and Reality: Philosophical Papers, Volume II, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 242.
  14. Putnam, H., "Reference and Truth" in Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers, Volume III, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 73.
  15. Putnam, H., "Possibility and Necessity", in Realism and Reason: Philosophical Papers, Volume III, op. cit., p. 64.
  16. Laurent, É., "Le 'nom' de jouissance et la répétition", op. cit., p. 23.
  17. Putnam, H., Meaning and the Moral Sciences, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1978, p. 58.
  18. Miller, J.-A., "Shifting Paradigms in Lacan", Address at the Inaugural Conference of Lacanian Ink, University of Los Angeles, March 1994 (unpublished) & "Six Paradigms of Jouissance", translated by J. Jauregui, in Lacanian Ink, Issue 17, 2000, pp. 8-47.