In a recent paper, one of Kripke’s many empirical arguments against the description theory in Naming and Necessity has been challenged. This example concerns a fictional scenario in which someone named “Schmidt” in fact was the first to prove Godel’s incompleteness theorems; Machery, Mallon, Nichols, and Stich argue that speakers in Hong Kong think that “Godel” then refers to Schmidt. If correct, this is a good contribution, since it would give us information about which claims in a certain branch of semantics are most robust. But it is hard to see any kind of broader significance here. First, the case is one that Kripke himself regarded as pretty shaky (Kripke writes “But it may seem to many of you that this is a very odd example”), which is why he immediately follows up the fictional case by providing an actual case – the case of “Peano” (Machery, Mallon et. al. do not even attempt to argue that mathematicians in Hong Kong think that “Peano” refers to Dedekind). And indeed even if we abandon all cases, fictional and actual, of the “Godel”-“Schmidt” variety, Kripke still provides an overwhelming case against the description theory of names in Naming and Necessity. In forthcoming work, Mallon, Machery et. al. go on to argue against what they call “The Method of Cases” (basically appeals to speaker intuitions about truth-conditions) solely on the basis of their one experiment about “Godel”-“Schmidt”. This is an argument directed against the entire methodology of linguistic semantics. To base a case against a branch of science, practiced in the main by people completely ignorant of philosophy, on a single experiment about a rather insignificant claim made by a philosopher thirty years ago seems a bit odd, a bit like rejecting the entire methodology of chemistry because of a single false claim made in a largely true article in one area of the subject.
Update: As Justin Sytsma points out below, I messed up a bit in the original post, because in the original paper the study was of an English-speaking group of Hong Kong residents - so the experiments were uniformly in English. I have adjusted the post accordingly.
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