Under The Sun

Thursday, February 05, 2004


"You can take any theory of reference that you'd like and the results all come out the same for "Atrios" and "Sullivan"."--Matt Yglesias

This is dead wrong, and even the most naive theory of reference shows why. Sir Walter Scott is the author Waverly. Therefore the proposition "Sir Walter Scott is the author of Waverly" is true. Now substitute the fact into the first clause, replacing 'Sir Walter Scott' with 'The author of Waverly'. Result: "The author of Waverly is the author of Waverly." But that's a tautology. Therefore the original, equivalent phrase, "Sir Walter Scott is the author of Waverly", is also a tautology. But of course it's not; it's merely a contingent truth.

The point of this exercise (which was conducted by Bertrand Russell in 1904, so Yglesias really ought to be familiar with it) is that references are not interchangable, even when they refer to the same object. Why does this matter? Well, suppose I google "Nick Kristof", and I find that someone called him "human scum". That's part of Nick Kristof's reputation, and it affects everything he does under the name 'Nick Kristof'. Which is--because 'Nick Kristof' is his real name--everything. Whereas if Kristof were to call Atrios "human scum", that would pertain to Atrios, but it would not pertain to whoever Atrios is in real life. No one will know--except in this abstract sense--that the person who is Atrios indulges his penchant for namecalling by hiding behind masks. The same insult affects Kristof more than it does Atrios, because Kristof is a person and Atrios is merely a persona.

So I wouldn't say that Atrios is "immune" from personal attacks, but he's certainly much less vulnerable.

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