chapter  7
6 Pages

Reference to the Object of Curiosity

Although our aptitude for inostensible reference, as a general feature, is a precondition for curiosity, it does not follow that on a particular instance of curiosity successful reference to the object of curiosity is required. This becomes quite evident when an inostensible term that corresponds to an instance of curiosity turns out to be an expression that fails to refer. In such a case, there is neither semantic reference nor speaker’s reference to the object of curiosity given that there is no such object. Scientists were curious about Vulcan, which involved no successful reference to any planet because the defi nite description that was used to attempt to fi x the reference of the name turned out to be an expression that lacked a referent. In such cases, as long as the user does not know that the defi nite description has no referent, it will be an inostensible term for him giving rise to the possibility for him to be curious. Such forms of curiosity, in which the corresponding inostensible term turns out to fail to refer, should not be confused with existential curiosity. Scientists at the time were also curious about whether Vulcan exists or, in descriptive terms, whether there was a unique planet perturbing Mercury in a certain way. Again if we follow Frege here and take declarative sentences to be referring to their truth values, then in cases of existential curiosity, the object of curiosity does in fact exist. When someone asks, “Does Vulcan exist?”, the object in question is not a planet, on the Fregean account, but rather a truth value, which the declarative sentence within the interrogative refers to. The corresponding inostensible term will be “the truth value of the sentence ‘Vulcan exists’,” which is a referring expression given that on the Fregean account it refers to the False. But scientists at the time were not only curious about Vulcan’s existence. They were also curious about certain properties of Vulcan as well, such as its location or mass. All these would have involved inostensible terms that failed to refer, such as “the location of Vulcan” and “the mass of Vulcan” corresponding to the interrogatives “where is Vulcan?” and “What is the mass of Vulcan?”, respectively. These questions may have been used to express curiosity, and unlike the curiosity expressed concerning Vulcan’s existence, this time the object of curiosity does not exist. These are genuine and actual cases of curiosity that involve neither semantic reference nor speaker’s reference. In

fact, on my account, even the name used as a single word may have been suffi cient to express curiosity: Vulcan? This could be taken as a shorthand for the interrogative “what planet is Vulcan?” or even “what is Vulcan?” The fact that we do not normally use such interrogatives to express curiosity about a certain object by no means shows that they do not pose genuine questions. If the interrogative “where is Vulcan?” could be used to express curiosity concerning the location of an unknown planet, then there is no reason that we cannot take the interrogative “Vulcan?” to express curiosity about that very planet that was unknown. If the location of an entity could be an appropriate object of curiosity that we express by a where-interrogative, then that very same entity could well be the object of curiosity in case it is unknown. It is an odd fact about our language that a simple proper name of a planet such as “Vulcan”, preceded by the phrase “what” to get the interrogative “what is Vulcan?”, is not considered to be an appropriate way of expressing curiosity about an unknown planet. If someone were to use this interrogative to ask a question, the listener will normally take it to be asking for what kind of thing Vulcan is, which he could answer by “well, it is a planet”. It is odd that the question is usually taken in this way, for a what-interrogative followed by a defi nite description in many contexts will not be taken to be asking for the kind that something belongs to. If someone asks “what is the smallest perfect number?” or “what is the closest star to our sun?”, we do not take the asker to be asking for a kind at all. In the fi rst case we are being asked for a number, and in the second case a star. So why should it be any diff erent in the case of Vulcan? It seems to me that the main reason for this is that an interrogative that is formed by a what-phrase followed by a proper name such as “what is Vulcan?” is interpreted diff erently from one in which we use a defi nite description. If we asked “What is the planet causing the perturbations in the orbit of Mercury?”, things stand diff erently. One reason for this is that the kind that the entity belongs to is already contained within the defi nite description, so we take it that that cannot be what is being asked for. But if we were to adopt a descriptivist account of non-referring names, then “what is Vulcan?” should be expressing the very same question as its descriptive counterpart. In fact they will turn out to be synonyms. At least descriptivists should acknowledge that “what is Vulcan?” may simply be asking for a planet rather than a kind. In either case, the name “Vulcan”, whether it is taken to be an abbreviated description or not, was an inostensible term for these scientists as much as its reference fi xing description was. So Vulcan-type cases of curiosity involve neither semantic reference nor speaker’s reference to the object of curiosity given that the inostensible term that gives rise to curiosity turns out not to refer to anything.