By JIM HOLT
"Imagine the following blatantly fictional situation.... Suppose that Gödel was not in fact the author of [Gödel's incompleteness theorem]. A man named 'Schmidt,' whose body was found in Vienna under mysterious circumstances many years ago, actually did the work in question. His friend Gödel somehow got hold of the manuscript and it was thereafter attributed to Gödel.... So, since the man who discovered the incompleteness of arithmetic is in fact Schmidt, we, when we talk about 'Gödel,' are in fact always referring to Schmidt. But it seems to me that we are not. We simply are not....
"It may seem to many of you that this is a very odd example..."
These words were spoken by Saul Kripke to an audience at Princeton University on January 22, 1970. Kripke, then a twenty-nine-year-old member of the Rockefeller University philosophy faculty, was in the midst of the second of three lectures that he was delivering without written text, or even notes. The lectures, which were tape-recorded and eventually published under the title Naming and Necessity (Harvard, 1980), proved to be an epoch-making event in the history of contemporary philosophy. "They stood analytic philosophy on its ear," Richard Rorty wrote in the London Review of Books. "Everybody was either furious, or exhilarated, or thoroughly perplexed." Kripke's lectures gave rise to what came to be called the New Theory of Reference, revolutionizing the way philosophers of language thought about issues of meaning and truth. They engendered hundreds of journal articles and dissertations about "possible worlds," "rigid designators," and "a posteriori necessity." They led to a far-reaching revival of the Aristotelian doctrine of essences. And they helped make their author, already something of a cult figure among logicians, into the very model of a modern philosophical genius--a stature The New York Times certified in 1977 by putting Kripke's glowering visage on the cover of its Sunday magazine.
Now imagine, if you will, the following blatantly fictional situation. Suppose that Kripke was not in fact the author of the New Theory of Reference. A woman named "Marcus"--let's call her "Ruth Barcan Marcus" for greater verisimilitude--whose warm body can still be seen tracing out mysterious trajectories through the campus of Yale University, actually did the work in question. The young Kripke went to a talk she gave in 1962 containing the key ideas; almost a decade later, he presented a greatly elaborated version of them without crediting Marcus. Thereafter they were attributed to Kripke. So, since the person who discovered the New Theory of Reference is in fact Marcus, we, when we talk about "Kripke," are in fact always referring to Marcus. Or are we?
This may seem to many of you a very odd story. Nevertheless, it is precisely the story that a philosopher by the name of Quentin Smith dared to tell a largish audience last winter at an American Philosophical Association conference in Boston. Only for Smith, a professor at Western Michigan University, the story was not blatantly fictional. It was true.
When Quentin Smith spoke to the Boston audience, it was something like a philosophical version of David and Goliath--an upstart forty-three-year-old professor from a minor Midwestern university attempting to rewrite intellectual history and take on the reputation of the man whom Robert Nozick has called "the one genius of our profession." The philosophical world first got wind of Smith's charges in the fall of 1994 when the paper he was to present at the upcoming APA conference--entitled "Marcus, Kripke, and the Origin of the New Theory of Reference"--was listed among the planned proceedings. Before long philosophy bulletin boards on the Internet were festooned with messages to the effect that someone was going to accuse the great Saul Kripke of plagiarism--a quite reasonable inference, given the inflammatory way the abstract for Smith's paper was worded.
The colloquium itself took place on December 28 at the Marriott hotel in Boston's Copley Place. It was not an altogether edifying spectacle. Ruth Barcan Marcus, whom Smith would be championing, did not attend. Nor did Kripke. Nor, for that matter, did most of his Princeton colleagues (their absence was interpreted by some philosophers as a token of their solidarity with Kripke, by others as a conspicuous failure to show support for him). Yet a contingent of Princeton graduate students did make their presence felt, heckling Smith ("Marcus put you up to this, didn't she?" one hostile auditor was heard to yell) and pointedly striding out of the room as he detailed the "historical misunderstanding" that led to Kripke getting credit for ideas that, he claimed, were properly Marcus's. "From the point of view of the history of philosophy," Smith declared, "correcting this misunderstanding is no less important than correcting the misunderstanding in a hypothetical situation where virtually all philosophers attributed the origin of [Plato's] Theory of Forms to Plotinus."
Smith's startling claims did not go unanswered. The chosen respondent was Scott Soames, a young philosopher of language at Princeton whom some in the audience seemed to regard as a sort of philosophical hit man dispatched by Kripke's department. (In fact, he had been approached with the request to serve as commentator by the APA program committee after a couple of other philosophers declined the job.) "My task today is an unusual and not very pleasant one," Soames began, going on to rebuke Smith for his "shameful" insinuation that Kripke was guilty of intellectual theft. He heaped scorn on Smith's claim that Kripke learned the main doctrines of the New Theory of Reference from Marcus, misunderstood them initially, and, upon finally sorting them out in his mind, mistook them for his own--and that the rest of the philosophical profession was somehow duped in the bargain. "If there is any scandal here," Soames concluded, "it is that such a carelessly and incompetently made accusation should have been given such credence."
But that was not the end of it. Under APA rules the colloquium speaker is allowed a reply after the commentator is finished. So Smith got up to deliver his rejoinder--which, at 27 pages (not including footnotes), was nearly as long as his original paper and Soames's response combined. "I do not believe it is relevant or helpful to adopt the sort of language that Soames uses in his reply," he told the audience. "Philosophical disagreements are not solved by the disputants labeling each other's work with a variety of negative and emotive epithets; they are solved by presenting sound arguments, and I shall confine myself to presenting arguments...." A smattering of applause greeted this remark.
Some way into Smith's apparently endless review of textual and philosophical minutiae, the colloquium chair, Mark Richard of Tufts, tried to cut him off. Several members of the audience objected, clamoring that he be allowed to speak on. Richard acquiesced but, in contravention of protocol, then permitted Soames a second rejoinder. ("I began to get the feeling he was acting under Soames's direction," Smith later recalled.) "If Marcus had these ideas before Kripke, how come no one said anything about it for more than twenty years?" Soames asked the audience rhetorically. "Maybe that's a question women philosophers should be asking the profession," piped up one person of gender present, causing a hush to fall briefly over the gathering.
Today, over a year later, l'affaire Kripke is still alive. The colloquium papers--Smith's original, Soames's response, and Smith's counter-response--have recently been published in the philosophy journal Synthese. And the two adversaries are currently busy refining their briefs in another pair of papers of even greater length--Smith's latest draft is almost 70 pages. Meanwhile, such philosophical eminences as Elizabeth Anscombe, Donald Davidson, and Thomas Nagel have signed a letter to the APA asserting that "a session at a national APA meeting is not the proper forum in which to level ethical accusations against a member of our profession, even if the charges were plausibly defended." The letter, which was published in the association's quarterly proceedings, goes on to demand that the APA issue a public apology to Kripke.
The philosophical profession, it seems, has divided into several camps--defined not only by convictions about intellectual originality and propriety but also by a variety of strong feelings about Kripke the man. He is, after all, the sort of remote and brooding figure who inspires more awe than affection. His personal eccentricities have made him a subject of intense rumor-mongering. And even those who profess unstinting admiration for his intellectual achievements often complain that he has set himself up as the "policeman" of analytic philosophy, arrogantly punishing other philosophers for being derivative and stupid. And now, ironically, it is Officer Kripke himself who has come under a cloud.
Ruth Marcus declined to discuss the affair--though, to show that Smith was not "a voice in the wilderness," she did send me a dozen or so journal articles published by philosophers over the years crediting her with being an originator of the New Theory of Reference. By contrast, Kripke himself is quite open in ventilating his sense of hurt and exasperation. "Number one," he says, "what Smith is saying is not true, and, number two, even if it were true, the matter should have been handled more responsibly."
There is something exasperating about the matter. It is easy to tell when someone has borrowed the prose of another; one can simply look at the passages in question and see if they match, word by word. Ideas are rather trickier to identify. When a new one is discovered and put in clear, explicit form, intimations of it have a way of coming out of the woodwork of earlier texts. Was it there all along, or are we just, as it were, retrojecting? Did Oliver Heaviside really hit upon e=mc2 before Einstein? Did Fermat adumbrate the fundamental theorem of calculus in advance of Newton? Can all of Freud's insights be found in Hamlet?
THE daunting complexity of the ideas at stake in the Kripke/Marcus case does not make their genealogy any easier to determine. Although they mostly pertain to the philosophy of language, their deeper source is in modal logic, the formal study of the different modes of truth--necessity and possibility--that a statement can possess. First studied by Aristotle, fashionable among the medieval schoolmen but largely neglected by their modern successors, modal logic enjoyed something of a renaissance earlier in this century, owing to the work of philosophers like C.I. Lewis and Rudolf Carnap.
In the 1940s, Ruth Barcan Marcus--then the unmarried graduate student Ruth C. Barcan--added new formal features to the apparatus of modal logic, greatly enlarging its philosophical implications. And, a decade later, the teenage prodigy Saul Kripke supplied it with something it had hitherto lacked: an interpretation, a semantics. Drawing on Leibniz's conceit that the actual world is only one in a vast collection of possible worlds--worlds where snow is green, worlds where McGovern beat Nixon--Kripke characterized a proposition as necessarily true if it holds in every possible world, and possibly true if it holds in some possible world. He then proved that modal logic was a formally "complete" system, an impressively deep result that he published in The Journal of Symbolic Logic, in 1959, at the tender age of 18.
Not long thereafter, in February 1962, Kripke attended a now-legendary session at the Harvard faculty club. The occasion was Ruth Marcus's delivery of a paper entitled "Modalities and Intensional Languages." The milieu was not a particularly clement one for the speaker, as Harvard's philosophers tended to take a dim view of the whole notion of necessity and possibility. ("Like the one whose namesake I am," Ruth Marcus later recalled, "I stood in alien corn.") This was especially true of the commentator for the paper, W.V. Quine, who, as Marcus characterized it, seemed to believe that modern modal logic was "conceived in sin"--the sin of confusing the use of a word with its mention.
Although Marcus devoted the bulk of her talk to defending modal logic against Quine's animadversions, she also used the occasion to dilate upon some ideas in the philosophy of language that she had begun to develop while working on her Ph.D. thesis in the mid-Forties, ideas concerning the relationship between a proper name and the object to which it refers. Since the beginning of the century, the received theory of proper names, conventionally attributed to Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, was that every such name had associated with it a cluster of descriptions; these constituted its meaning or sense. The referent of the name was the unique object that satisfied the descriptions. According to the Frege-Russell theory, the referent of the name "Aristotle" would be the unique thing satisfying such associated descriptions as "teacher of Alexander the Great," "author of the Metaphysics," and so on.
If proper names are indeed descriptions in disguise, then they ought to behave like descriptions in all logical contexts--including the context of modal logic. But, as Marcus observed, they simply don't. The statement "Aristotle is Aristotle," for example, is necessarily true, whereas "Aristotle is the author of the Metaphysics" is merely contingent, since it is possible to imagine circumstances in which the historical Aristotle became, say, a swineherd instead of a philosopher. Such intuitions suggested to Marcus that proper names are not attached to their objects through the intervention of descriptive senses. Rather, they refer directly to their bearers, like meaningless tags. To use the older idiom of John Stuart Mill, proper names have denotation but no connotation.
The foregoing is, perforce, little more than a caricature of Marcus's actual argument, which was almost rebarbative in its complexity and abstraction. It is little wonder that in the discussion that followed on that day in Cambridge, she, Quine, and the precocious undergraduate Kripke often appeared to be talking at cross-purposes. In retrospect, however, one thing is clear: Marcus's use of modal reasoning to undermine the traditional theory of the meaning of names was a step toward the New Theory of Reference--a theory that emerged full-blown from Kripke's Princeton lectures a decade later. But was Marcus's work more than that?
THIS is the question that Quentin Smith began to brood on in the winter of 1990, when he received a letter from Marcus--with whom he was not personally acquainted--informing him that an allusion he had made in a published paper to the "Kripke-Donnellan theory of proper names" was not strictly accurate given that she too had had a role in launching the theory. (Keith Donnellan of UCLA is another philosopher involved in the elaboration of the New Theory of Reference.) Smith is a boyish-looking, soft-spoken, and seemingly diffident man. He began his career as a phenomenologist, but later apostatized and became an analytical philosopher. Judging from his list of publications, he is extraordinarily prolific and versatile--his recent book Language and Time (Oxford) was pronounced a "masterpiece" by one reviewer, and his forthcoming works include The Question of Ethical and Religious Meanings (Yale) and the demurely entitled Explaining the Universe (Oxford). Yet until his appearance in Boston he was a little-known figure in his profession.
At the time he got the letter from Marcus, Smith was just starting work on a book-length history of analytical philosophy. He went back and read her "Modalities and Intensional Languages." He took a look at some of her earlier papers. From 1990 to 1994 he struggled to work out the intellectual relations between Marcus's work and Kripke's. (After her Cambridge showdown with Quine et al., Marcus had gone on to expand her contributions to philosophical logic and to do highly influential work on the theory of belief and the nature of moral dilemmas.) Smith began to correspond regularly with Marcus but, he says, received no detailed commentary from her. Finally, he reached his conclusion: Nearly all of the key ideas of the New Theory of Reference--the very ideas with which Kripke had "stood philosophy on its ear"--were in fact due to Marcus.
That was the sensational claim that Smith unpacked before the APA conference a year ago, in a paper that, owing to what he called its "unusual nature," he was surprised the program committee accepted. After detailing six major ideas that, he maintained, had wrongly been credited to Kripke and others, he went on to suggest two reasons for the "wide misunderstanding" of the historical origins of the New Theory of Reference. The first was innocuous enough: Despite Marcus's reputation as a pioneering figure in logic and the philosophy of language, the philosophical community had simply not paid enough attention to her early work. The second, though, was a bit unsettling. Kripke himself had failed to attribute the relevant ideas to her--and not out of malice, either, but out of obtuseness. Although he had been present at Marcus's seminal talk, the young Kripke did not really understand her ideas at the time--so, at least, Smith inferred from some of his remarks during the transcribed discussion. In the 1980 preface to Naming and Necessity, Kripke notes that most of the views presented therein "were formulated in about 1963-64." To Smith this suggested that Kripke only came to grasp Marcus's arguments a year or two after she made them--and that his newfound insight made it seem to him that the ideas were novel and his own. "I suspect that such instances occur fairly frequently in the history of thought and art," Smith concluded with artful blandness.
In defending Kripke against Smith's "scandalous" and "grotesquely inaccurate" brief, Scott Soames began by declaring his respect and affection for Ruth Marcus (he had been her colleague at Yale when he taught there in the late Seventies, and more recently contributed to a Festschrift for her). His criticisms, he said, were aimed solely at Smith. While conceding that Marcus did deserve credit for anticipating some of the tenets of the New Theory of Reference, he insisted that this "in no way diminishes the seminal role of Saul Kripke." Moreover, he continued, some of the ideas that Smith attributed to Marcus--that proper names are not equivalent to descriptions, for instance--had already been formulated by other logicians, notably Frederick Fitch. This was a claim that Soames probably came to regret, for it allowed Smith to point out that Fitch was actually Marcus's adviser when she was writing her dissertation in 1943-45, and in a paper Soames did not refer to, Fitch mentioned his indebtedness to his doctoral student for her insights.
Such palpable hits, though, are rare. For the most part, the ongoing dispute between Quentin Smith and Scott Soames over who is the real mother-father of the New Theory of Reference involves rather delicate philosophizing. Take the notion of rigidity. A "rigid designator" is a term that refers to the same individual in every possible world. ("Benjamin Franklin," for example, is a rigid designator, whereas "the inventor of bifocals" is not.) The phrase "rigid designator" was coined by Kripke--no one questions that. Smith, however, insists that Marcus was the one who discovered the concept (priority with words is easy, with concepts hard). Impossible! rejoins Soames: Rigid designation presupposes the more general notion of the referent of a term in a possible world, and Marcus did not have a sufficiently rich semantic framework to support such a notion. Two-fold error! Smith ripostes. Not only was Marcus in possession of a semantic framework as rich as Kripke's, but such a framework is not even needed to define the concept of rigid designation. All it really takes is the basic elements of modal logic and the subjunctive mood--which, Smith adds with a flourish, are precisely the means Kripke himself used to introduce rigid designation in Naming and Necessity.
That is about the simplest volley one can find between these two opponents (and Soames no doubt feels he still has another shot to take). Most of the issues of attribution turn on technical arguments of such subtlety that they make, say, the scholarly dispute over the corrected text of Ulysses that took place a decade ago look like junior-high forensics. Assemble a random jury of professional philosophers and they probably wouldn't know what to think after listening to Smith and Soames argue their cases. And yet the allegation itself is so pointed, and so grave. If Smith is right, Kripke is diminished twice over. Not only is his reputation based on an achievement that actually belongs to another philosopher--a woman neglected by the largely male profession, no less--but he failed to realize this because he did not understand the theory at first. For a genius, the only accusation worse than intellectual theft is dimness.
HAPPILY, it is possible to get some purchase on this debate without working through all the fine points of the Smith-Soames exchange. Life is, after all, short. The simplest way to begin is by asking: Just what is the New Theory of Reference? As a philosophical movement, it can be viewed as a reaction against several earlier currents in twentieth-century analytical philosophy. By reviving the rich metaphysical notion of "possible worlds"--and taking seriously our intuitions about them--it cocks a snook at the logical positivists, who insisted that discourse is only meaningful when it can be tested against our experience of the actual world. By freely drawing on the exotic devices of modal logic, it rejects the more down-to-earth methods of the ordinary-language philosophers, who took their inspiration from the late work of Wittgenstein.
YET where the New Theory of Reference really cuts against the traditional philosophic grain is in its anti-mentalism, its refusal to make semantics depend on the contents of the minds of language-users. Meanings are not located inside the head, the theory says; they are out there in the world--the world described by science. This anti-mentalism is apparent in the claim that proper names refer to their objects directly, without the mediation of mental ideas or descriptions. But adherents of the theory don't stop there. They also argue that many common nouns--words like "gold," "tiger," and "heat"--work in the same way. Such "natural kind" terms have no definitions in the usual sense, the theory holds. What determines whether a given bit of stuff is gold, for example, is not that it is heavy, yellow, malleable, and metallic; these are merely its phenomenal properties, which might be different in another possible world. What makes it gold, rather, is its atomic structure--which, being the same in every possible world, constitutes its essence. Of course, it is a fairly recent scientific discovery that gold has the atomic number 79; before that, people talked about gold without having any concept in their head that distinguished it from the other elements (and most people still do).
If it is not meanings in the heads of language-users that connect terms like "Aristotle" and "gold" to their referents, what does do the trick? Causal chains, says the New Theory of Reference. The term is first applied to its object in an initial baptism--say, by an act of pointing--and is then causally passed on to others through various kinds of communicative acts: conversation, reading, and so on. Thus my present use of "Aristotle" is the latest link in a causal chain stretching backward in time (and eastward in space) to the Stagirite himself.
So the New Theory of Reference encompasses a slew of interrelated ideas. In an early collection of articles about the New Theory, entitled Naming, Necessity, and Natural Kinds (Cornell, 1977), the editor Stephen Schwartz provides a dependable taxonomy. The "three main features" of the New Theory, he writes--each of which "directly challenges major tenets of traditional thinking about meaning and reference"--are the following: "Proper names are rigid [they refer to the same individuals in all possible worlds]; natural kind terms are like proper names in the way they refer; and reference depends on causal chains."
HOW many of these three main features are due to Kripke? Smith himself allows that the second and the third, as presented by Kripke in his 1970 Princeton talks, are "genuinely new." The ideas whose provenance is being contested all fall under the first feature, the rigidity of proper names. So Soames seems to be right in asserting that, while Ruth Marcus may have anticipated some of these ideas, this does not detract from Kripke's "seminal role" in the creation of the New Theory of Reference. Even philosophers who have had serious intellectual disagreements with Kripke tend to concur on this point. "Probably not one of these ideas is Kripke's alone, and he has never pretended otherwise," says the Rutgers philosopher Colin McGinn. "But Kripke was the first to put them in an attractive form so that non-logicians could see their significance, and to draw out implications others didn't notice."
Yet it is hard to deny that Quentin Smith has displayed considerable brilliance, not to mention nerve, in prosecuting his case that the prime mover behind the New Theory of Reference was Ruth Marcus, not Saul Kripke. Indeed, it sometimes seems that Smith is too clever by half, giving Marcus credit not only for the ideas she clearly had, in more or less inchoate form, but also for all the logical consequences he has been ingenious enough to tease out of them. Smith defends his effort as a legitimate inquiry into the history of contemporary philosophy, a dispassionate presentation of philosophical arguments aimed at clearing up the genealogy of an important theory. If this inquiry has created a heated controversy, there's a simple explanation: It's just that it concerns living, active philosophers.
Smith's critics disagree. They argue that it was wrong for him to air his charges in a public forum. After all, even if he didn't directly accuse Kripke of plagiarism, he did raise delicate questions of professional ethics and intimate questions about the inner workings of Kripke's mind. "It's hard for me to remember just what my state of mind was thirty years ago," Kripke himself responds when I bring up Smith's claim.
"Sure, Ruth said in her 1962 talk that proper names were not synonymous with descriptions," he says. "A subset of the ideas I later developed were present there in a sketchy way, but there was a real paucity of argumentation on natural language. Almost everything she was saying was already familiar to me at the time. I knew about Mill's theory of names and Russell's theory of logically proper names, and I hope that, having worked on the semantics of modal logic, I could have seen the consequences of such a position for modal logic myself. I certainly don't recall thinking, 'Wow, this is an interesting point of view, maybe I should elaborate on it,' and I doubt that any unconscious version of that thought took place."
Though Kripke chose not to respond to Smith in public, he did briefly consider taking legal action against the APA. And this past spring, he resigned from the organization. "I remember my wife [Princeton philosopher Margaret Gilbert] screaming when she happened to see the abstract of Smith's paper in the 1994 APA proceedings," says Kripke. "It really was worded in a libelous way. The program committee had to deal with hundreds of papers and didn't devote enough time or expertise to determining whether Smith's charges had any merit. A lawsuit has crossed my mind, but I'm reluctant to take that course because I'd have to sue the APA. And can you imagine a judge and jury trying to decide these technical matters in the philosophy of language?
"I don't think I've ever acted in bad faith," Kripke concludes. "I just try to contribute to the profession what I can. And if it keeps leading to all this backbiting, in the future I might not bother."
KRIPKE'S self-defense is, in the eyes of many of his peers, a persuasive one. But it also leads them to ponder his controversial presence in the field. Is Saul Kripke an incomparable genius? A boy wonder who never fullymade good? Kripke's career weighs heavily on his colleagues. And it's easy to see why.
Going back and rereading the few things Kripke has published--Naming and Necessity; his 1982 book Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Princeton)--one cannot help being struck by the amount of sheer pleasure they afford. For humor, lucidity, quirky inventiveness, exploratory open-mindedness, and brilliant originality, he is singularly readable among analytical philosophers. And there is his disarming candor. At one point in Naming and Necessity, he offhandedly remarks: "Actually sentences like 'Socrates is called "Socrates"' are very interesting and one can spend, strange as it may seem, hours talking about their analysis. I actually did, once, do that. I won't do that, however, on this occasion. (See how high the seas of language can rise. And at the lowest points, too.)"
But Kripke is no stranger to controversy. His criticisms of colleagues can be fierce. And he himself received something of a mauling for his Wittgenstein book, when the initial excitement over its appearance gave way to a backlash. Works by P.M.S. Hacker and Gordon Baker (Skepticism, Rules and Language, Blackwell, 1984) and by Colin McGinn (Wittgenstein on Meaning, Oxford, 1984) eventually convinced many philosophers that Kripke's interpretation was wrong. "For the first time," McGinn observes, "fallibility intruded into his life."
What's more, critics have charged Kripke with haughtily ignoring the progress that other philosophers have made on problems he's worked on. Jaakko Hintikka, a distinguished philosopher at Boston University and the editor of Synthese, says that he decided to print Smith's and Soames's papers because "they point to a pattern in Kripke's career--a pattern that has repeated itself over and over again. Another such case occurred in 1982, when Kripke published his interpretation of Wittgenstein's 'private language argument' without any acknowledgement of the very similar work that Robert Fogelin had already published on the subject six years earlier."
Hintikka is referring to Kripke's "skeptical solution" to a paradox about rule-following raised by Wittgenstein. Fogelin, a philosopher who taught at Yale before moving to Dartmouth, had published his own interpretation of the Wittgenstein paradox in his Wittgenstein (Routledge, 1976). In the second edition of this book Fogelin included a footnote that went on for six pages, pointing out the close parallelism between his treatment and Kripke's, arguing that nonetheless his own was more complete.
"I've no doubt that Kripke has acted in good faith," Hintikka continues. "He's not appropriating anyone else's ideas, at least consciously. He's not guilty of anything more serious than colossal naïveté and professional immaturity. The real blame in all this lies with the philosophical community--which, owing to its uncritical, romantic view of this prodigy, is far too quick to give him credit for new ideas while neglecting the contributions of others. Kripke probably got his results independently, but why should he get all the credit?"
OTHER philosophers agree that the "cult of genius" that has grown up around Saul Kripke may have done neither Kripke nor the profession much good. "Given the rather arid work most philosophers today do, they feel the profession needs a genius in the nineteenth-century romantic mold," comments Robert Solomon, a philosopher at the University of Texas, whose books include About Love (Simon & Schuster, 1988). "Wittgenstein was the last genius-figure we've had in our midst. He became the darling of Cambridge University, and all the students used to imitate his odd way of talking and his neurotic gestures. Now that he is gone we need another one, and Kripke, with his own legendary eccentricities--some pleasant, some not--has been thrust into the role. He's so pampered and coddled and adored by those around him, you wonder whether he can tell the difference between right and wrong. He's like an idiot-savant who needs to be protected."
Solomon also raises the question of gender. "Where are all the women philosophers?" he asks. "How many cases have there been in the last two millennia where a bright male became celebrated for developing ideas tfirst discovered by a bright female?" (When I mention this point to Kripke, he replies with vexed amusement, his raspy voice leaping into the falsetto range: "I don't think that Robert Fogelin has ever claimed to be a woman.") Several reviewers of Marcus's volume of collected papers Modalities (Oxford, 1993), have joined Smith in complaining that her early work in philosophical logic has been unjustly scanted, and have hailed haer as the originator of the direct-referece idea. Perhaps, though, it is natural that most philosophers should regard a theory built around the notion of a "rigid designator" as a male thing.
By now a quarter of a century has past since Saul Kripke galvanized the Anglo-American philosophical world with the New Theory of Reference -- elements of which had been anticipated by Ruth Marcus a quarter of a century earlier still. The question that Smith raised is a significant one in the history of ideas. But does the New Theory of Reference remain a vital area of inquiry today? "Very much so," Scott Soames tells me. "The theses presented in Naming and Necessity have become enormously influential. They're still being extended into new areas of the philosophy of mind, like characterizing the role of belief and desire in the explanation of behavior." Others disagree. "In the late Seventies and Eighties the journals were full of articles about the philosophic alspects of modal logic and the implications for truth and reference," says Barry Loewer, a philosopher of mind at Rutgers. "Now you hardly ever see them." Robert Soloman takes a jaunciced view of the enterprise. "When people start fighting over who first got the ideas, the movement must be dead," he says. "The whole business about possible worlds and rigid designators and natural kinds is almost embarrassing in retrospect. It occupies a square millimeter in the square centimeter that constitutes a narrow conception of the philosophy of language, a tiny patch in the hectare that is philosophy." ("What does he know?" honks Kripke in response. "He's a phenomenologist.") Certainly, the philosophical outlook implicit in the New Theory of Refernce could not be more unfashionable in the wider intellectual world at the moment. Imagine: Regarding the external world as real, full of objects that have essences -- essences that are disclosed not by poets or phenomenologists but by scientists!
IN THE past decade, not much has been heard from Kripke. AS rumor, speculation, and controversy swirl around him within the philosophical world, he seems to be little known without. When I mention him to lit-crit people, political scientists, and academics/intellectuals of other non-philosophical stripes, the usual response is something like: "Kripke? Yeah, I've heard of him. He's that guy who was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine ages ago." People who can discuss the philosophy of Richard Rorty in excruciating detail are unable to identify a single idea even vaguely associated with Kripke. The name carries little in the way of description with it; it has no "Fregean sense" for them. Will Kripke outlast his time? Will his name survive? The whole problem puts me in mind of a passage from Naming and Necessity: "Consider Richard Feynman, to whom many of us are able to refer. He is a leading contemporary physicist. Everyone here (I'm sure!) can state the contents of one of Feynman's theories so as to differentiate him from Gell-Mann. However, the man in the street, not possessing these abilities, may still use the name 'Feynman.' When asked he will say: well he's a physicist or something. He may not think that this picks out anyone uniquely. I still think he uses the name 'Feynman' as a name for Feynman."
Similarly, if the New Theory of Reference is true, the academic in the street can still use the name "Kripke" to refer to Kripke -- even if all he can tell you is that "he's a philosopher or something." And if the New Theory of Reference is false? If names are equivalent to descriptions? In that case, when we talk about "Kripke," we are talking about "the inventor of the New Theory of Reference." And so we can be absolutely certain that Quentin Smith is mistaken, for it becomes a necessary truth that it's Kripke who originated the theory. Only in some possible world, "Kripke" might be Marcus.
Jim Holt is a book columnist for The Wall Street Journal. His article "Their Days Are Numbered" appeared in the September/October 1994 Issue of Lingua Franca.