Mixed thoughts on reference

Just a mix of things I wrote down in the last few months while preparing my talk for BCAP2015. Nothing in here should be taken as my official claim.

[start here]

”Bring me some food!” – Do i refer to the food I am asking you to bring me when I say that? It does not seem so. Some would say that the logical form of my request is: If x is food, then bring it to me. (one could perhaps distinguish between ”I request that if x is food, you bring it to me” and ”If x is food, I request that you bring it to me”. The first seems to be the request that you perform a conditional action (namely, that under a condition (x is food) you perform an action (bring x to me), while the second looks like a conditional request, such that under the condition that x is food, I require that you bring x to me (see conditional excuses – if I am late, I am sorry).

In any case, the point is that predicates do not refer, since they are functions. The problem is unrelated to the fact that I was making a request. Things will be the same if I said that bread is food.

Indexicals seem to refer (although not always – see ”I should never abandon my children”, which could mean that a parent should never abandon his children; or: ”Today we always celebrate Christmas.”

What about ”You, come here!”? – I am not referring to you, but calling you.

”Right, but how could you call me without referring to me?”


Let me take an extremely simple case. When I say that Bucharest is a city it looks as if I am referring to Bucharest. One could of course wonder how is it possible that I do just that what does the relation of reference consist in.

Do names by themselves refer? Why should be say that? So, one who denies that any positive account of reference could be given, or that there is any reference at all, wants to say, in fact, that we do not have a practice of referring to things from our environment or that such an action is not part of any human practice. (making a list with the people present in a room usually means to write their names down, but it is disputable that those names are used to refer to the people in the room).

Saying that Bucharest is a city could also be understood as specifying what type of name ”Bucharest” is – the name of a city. But then, anything I say about Bucharest could be understood in the same way (”Bucharest” is the name of a crowded city etc.). It could also be understood as saying something about this particular city, however.

Could I be saying something about Bucharest without referring to it? But why think I say something about Bucharest. I say something which could be true or false. The truth or falsity of what I say seems to depend on the success of my reference (or of what my sentence is about). If I want to say something about Bucharest and I use the name ”Budapest” instead (like some people do), I might be saying something false (contrary to my intentions, so to speak).

One could say, however, that reference works only by means of descriptions. Direct reference is not reference. We use names to call people or attention them (”Georgie!”) – in these cases no description is needed. It is the same when a child is baptized – the use of the name is not referential in such a case). Being baptized with the name ”George” is not being the referent of the name ”George”. Several other practices could fix the relation between a name and something (but why assume it is only one relation, if those practices do not have much in common? maybe we have invented the concept of reference to say that they have something in common, when they do not)

”What are you talking about?”, ”What do you refer to?” – these could be useful questions in our everyday life. In their case, however, everything is clear. The meaning of ”refer” in the second question, for instance, is not problematic. The point of both questions could be that I am not familiar with what are you saying or that I do not believe you.

You tell me something about George Green. I could ask you who is George Green or to whom do you refer or ”Who goes by the name of George Green?” or something similar. You could describe him to me or point to him. You could also say ”Oh, he is a colleague of mine, nevermind the details, it is a funny story nevertheless”. Such an answer could also be accepted.


How do we learn to refer to things? – Well, we do not start by learning that. We do not start by learning to make statements, to say ”how things are”. At one point, however, we might learn to play games like this: a picture in an album is pointed at and a word is spoken; sometimes it is the picture of a cup (and the word is ”cup”); other times it is the picture of a person (and the word could be ”John”).


Suppose I give you an object – why should I have to refer to it in order to give it to you? You must understand that what I am doing is giving the object to you and not asking you to hold it for me, but I do not have to describe what I am doing in order to achieve that. The point is that you should recognize the practice in question. The object could be yours (giving it to you in this case has nothing to do with a change of owner; one might say I am only handing the object to you). In any case, what might not be clear is what I am doing with the object. It is obvious that my action involves the object in case. So no reference to it is needed.

In thought one might bring up a memory of a person and say (to herself) a word like “mean”. This could be considered the thought that the person in case is mean. The memory could be one of that particular person doing something on a particular occasion. The thought, then, could be that what that person did on that occasion was mean. Various other combinations of images and words could express such thoughts. How does reference work here? Do I refer to that person by remembering her? Does my memory of her refer to her?

I listen to a sound coming from the other room and say to myself something – a description of what could be happening in that room. No reference to “the other room” is necessary. Or perhaps I dislike the noise coming from the other room and say “This is annoying!”. I express annoyment towards the noise (or its cause). Why should I be understood as referring to that noise?

My point is that we assume that reference (some “mechanism of reference”) is involved in most of our speech acts (“Hello!”, “Bye!”, “Pardon!” and the like being the accepted exceptions), but things are not necessarily so.

When I talk about something I am, in a sense, doing something to the subject of my talk. Bucharest “gets spoken about” when I say something about Bucharest. So the question could be: How do I do it by using certain words and not others? And what does it mean that Bucharest gets spoken about? The word “Bucharest” (or its occurrences, rather) could be used in a variety of ways. It could be written on a map to inform potential viewers about what it was a map of. It could be written on a plaque to announce drivers that they are entering the city of Bucharest. It could be used at an airport to give information about a flight. It could also be written on a fridge magnet or a cup to be bought by tourists (for this case one might argue that the writing is more like an ornament).

Paradigmatic cases could be invoked, however. Such would be the case of “Bucharest is the capital city of Romania”, written in an informative leaflet, or (to avoid the “semantic rule interpretation) of “There will rain tomorrow in Bucharest”, said during a weather program.

Let us think of such cases, then. What do they have in common?

(1) There is a sentence containing a proper name (an uppercase word or expression used “in connection with” a single object.
(2) The sentence is uttered to provide some information.
(3) The proper name figuring in the sentence is relevant to the information provided (see “It is believed, in Bucharest too, that 2 plus 3 equals 5.”)

So, how do we learn to use such sentences? How do we use a proper name to specify with respect to what person, object, city, place etc. should the information be considered?

We are in Bucharest and I inform you that it will rain tomorrow. It is usually thought that the information that it will happen in Bucharest is somehow obtained from the context of my utterance. Nevertheless, there is another route. Perhaps I do not need to obtain an implicit reference to Bucharest from the context of your utterance in order to get the information you provided. After all, if I say I’ll visit you tomorrow and you ask me “to bring X” I do not have to think about when to bring X, where to, to whom, where to get it from, or on whose request. In fact, the point is not that I do not think about all those things, but that I do not have to think about them in order to understand your request. One could reply by cutting off understanding from the “mechanism of reference”. I want to think about it at a latter time.

“It will rain tomorrow.” – A small child does not necessarily get the information that it will rain in our city from that sentence. She might not have the concept of a city. She might not know that other places, different from the area she is living in, do exist. Why not say that we understand “It will rain tomorrow” in this way, even later? “It will rain where we live tomorrow” – do we ever need to specify this? And if not, why should we assume that “where we live” is part of the information the child gets? And if it isn’t, why should we need any reference here?

Back to Bucharest. Suppose we live in two different cities. You live in Berlin and I live in Bucharest. You say “It will rain tomorrow in Bucharest”. Now it makes sense to use “Bucharest”, since in the absence of that indication I would not know were will it rain tomorrow. The problem is that we do not have an established way of extending the practice of talking about future whether conditions when we live in the same place to the case in which we live in different places. (compare “Tomorrow will rain” with “Tomorrow is Sunday” – there is no need to say where will it be Sunday in the second case, although tomorrow might not come at the same time at my place and yours)

Now, we can understand “Bucharest”, in this case, as an indication that you say “it will rain tomorrow as if you were living here with me. No “mechanism of reference” is needed.

What about the weather report, then? There it should be clear that “Bucharest” refers to Bucharest. Suppose we were looking at a table with city names and temperatures instead. Should we say that the names in the table refer to the cities in question? Maybe. But we could as well say that the table has an use. One use could be: you look up the name of the city you live in in the table and find out whether or not it will rain tomorrow (understood without need for reference).

“But of course a case were a name is used to directly refer to its bearer could be imagined.” And how is the relation of direct reference conceived? How is the name connected with its bearer? By a causal chain etc.

“What of that?”

The connection is conveyed along a causal chain. That ensures that it is not lost (without some descriptive mechanism). But how could the connection appear in the first place?

“The bearer is baptized with the name.”

Ok, but in the practice of baptism the name is not used to refer to the bearer when it is introduced. So what justifies its use to refer to the bearer afterwards?

“This is how things work. The use of an artifact does not have to resemble its making.”

Ok, but there is another problem. How do we introduce the name? Perhaps we say “Let us call this child George from now on.” Reference defenders should say that this speech act can be successful only if we manage to use “this child” to refer to the child we want to call “George” from now on (suppose there are more children present, we do not know whose turn to be baptized is a.s.o.).

“The practice of referring to stuff by using words must exist. Also, we must be able to perform it by using indexicals, perhaps. So what?”

Well, my attempt to “elude reference” in the case of “Bucharest” has better chances of success if we talk about indexicals. (Wittgenstein’s critique of ostension might also be useful here)

So, the general strategy to reject the relation of reference could be this:

Reject that there is such a practice.



“We use words in such a way that they stand for objects. Also, words can be used as placeholders. You cannot deny this.”

That is not a practice. Also, that is different from reference.

We can show an object to someone else by grasping it and holding it in front of us or by pointing to it. Reference is modeled after something like this. However, you do not refer to the object you are pointing at by your gesture. You do not use a sign to talk about that object. You use the object to talk about it. Gestures of ostension are not part of language. They need to have a meaning in the same way in which any other non-communicative actions need to have a meaning (they get one by being part of some practice). Such gestures are a special way of handling objects a way to handle them which enables us to talk about them. Ostension makes us able to talk about features of our environment. Indexicals are the linguistic omologue of ostension gestures. They are a linguistic extension of those non-communicative actions (think of physical and verbal abuse; the aim is similar). People could have used a primitive form of ostension before having developed a language – that could have enabled them to perform empirical actions on features from their environment (to observe, study, pay (perceptive) attention to these features) – you need, perhaps, such shared empirical actions (you need to observe something together with another person) in order to have a subject to talk about. However, people should have been able to communicate (or to perform collective actions, at least), in order to have something to talk about – we carry some heavy object together, I grunt due to the effort I am making, you grunt; we do not have a linguistic exchange yet, but if, at a later time, we inspect a heavy object together, now I can grunt to let you know that that object would require a lot of effort to be transported. Perhaps ostension is not always necessary – it is necessary, however, that we notice something together (i.e. each of us notices that the other notices the object).

This is all very crude, of course.

On thing is sure. It cannot be both true that:
(a) Reference is similar to ostension.
(b) Referring words in sentences stand for the objects to which they refer.

If an indexical stands for an object, in order to be able to talk about that object we should somehow show the indexical. Things are the same with proper names. In order to ”point at” a linguistic object we use quotation marks. The use of a name to talk about the bearer of that name is in no way similar to performing some sort of ostension with that name.

Therefore, (b) has to be false. However, one could accept (a) – pointing to a person to say something about her is similar to using her name to say something about her (but not to pointing at that name to say something about the person in case). An explanation for how did we get to replace ostensive gestures with utterance of indexicals is the task of some natural science. However, if this is accepted than it is a mistake to believe that reference consist in a relation between a linguistic entity (a proper name or indexical, for instance) and a real world object. To refer to something is to use that something to talk about it. But then, why talk about reference any longer?

My point could be also expressed in the form of a puzzle:

Reference via descriptions is possible only if indeterminate direct reference is possible.

”The person knocking at the door is uncivilized” – the logical form can be misleading here.
”Something is wrong.” – do I have reference here?
”Something got in my eye.” – Do I refer to something?
”Anything solid has a form.” – Can I have indeterminate direct reference without determinate direct reference?

I could leave the case of indeterminate reference aside for now.
Determinate direct reference is possible only if reference fixing is possible. This, in its turn, is possible only if reference by indexicals (demonstratives) is possible. Reference by demonstratives must resemble ostension. But then, there is no reference (conceived as a relation between a linguistic object and a non-linguistic object).

So I could try to develop this puzzle.


Neptune – the name was given to that planet by using descriptions; a “reference relation can be created without the use of any indexicals or demonstratives; is it the same relation?

Evans’ hybrid theory of proper names (they refer to the dominant causal source of their descriptive content) -> see Donnellan about referential use of descriptions -> a DD refers to the cause of the descriptive content, not to the object satisfying the description; Kripke could give a similar reply to Evans -> user reference vs. semantic reference etc.

However, some causal relation seems to be necessary for reference. By itself, a causal relation does not produce reference – the effect does not refer to its cause even if it is similar to it (a photo).

I could store an object in a transparent jar, with the intention that I would be able to see what the jar contains – the object is also used in place of a tag on the jar. If one is willing to talk about reference here, then the object refers to itself, but no causal effect is involved.

One could still say that identity or some causal relation(s) constitute a necessary condition for reference.

I want to say that there are some contradictions in our concept of reference.

An ostensive gesture does not refer. A demonstrative indexical does not refer. Using a demonstrative indexical or performing an ostensive gesture are actions by which an object can become a subject of conversation. (or the subject of other speech acts – “I give this to you.”)

Introduction of a name is performed “on the name bearer”. The name is latter used to perform other (communicative actions) on its bearer. The relation is that between a nail and a hammer (imagine I had to use a particular hammer for a particular nail), or is similar to that between a lock and a key.

“The last grain of salt left to remain in that bag”, “the last to come to the table” – I can form such expressions. Should we say that they refer?

“not necessarily, but they are referential” in what sense? (…)


“If using a demonstrative is the same as performing an ostensive gesture, how can I do both without seeming to do something redundant?” – I can hold the object in my hand and point at it; it’s the same; this is how ostension works; it draws attention onto some feature from our environment one can use more than a single way of doing this to ensure success; it would be redundant, perhaps, to do this after the aim was achieved.

“Right, but I can refer to someone repeatedly, even after you know (and I know that you know) whom I am referring to (in what I say).” – this is due to the grammatical form of our sentences. There must be a grammatical subject.


One could say: demonstratives are unlike ostension. By ostension (performed not as when one gives an ostensive definition) we only make it so that a feature of our environment becomes salient for our addressee. By the use of a demonstrative we render that salient feature into a subject to be talked about. In the second case we truly refer to that feature.

“If you do not give me your money I will cut you.” – Should we say that the person uttering this uses her knife to threat somebody? Isn’t this different from merely showing somebody a knife and saying “give me your money”?

Perhaps the title of my talk could be Ostension and Demonstrative Reference.





Indicating an object to talk about it (this is…) – IT vs. Indicating an object to draw one’s attention to it (watch this) – IA

IA is usually a preliminary stage for IT in the “ostensive use of demonstratives” (as opposed to their anaphoric (“Humans die. Everyone fears this.”), deferred reference (IA on an object to talk about another object) or other uses (“This time we’ll do something different.”, “While in Budapest, he thought that this was a weird town.” etc.)

Sometimes we rely on the salient character of some shared feature from our environment, so IT does not presuppose IA.

Also, IA can be performed in cases in which we want to do something else with the object (than talk about it) – “Here, take this with you”.

One could also distinguish between:
(a) Indication of an object (or a process, or a property or something else) which has a conceptual content – ostension conceived as Wittgenstein or Quine conceive it;
(b) IA on a (salient) feature of the shared environment (no full-blown conceptual content – compare “this object, event, person, action, spatial direction etc.” to “this threat, obstacle, attraction etc.”

Using A in place of B. We dress a pig in human clothes and burn it in the place of a witch. Does the pig refer to the witch. Not really, since we do not say that we have burned the witches’ name. It is as if we punished the witch.

If I act as a substitute for somebody else, the relation between me and that person is not the relation of reference. Compare: “(1)” used instead of a sentence – If (1), then… with “(1)” used to refer to that sentence – If (1) is true, then…


Can an object be a part of a sentence? – Perhaps this is a mistaken question. A better one could be: Can we mix IA directly with talk about the indicated object?

I give you a book and say “Happy birthday! Here is my gift to you.” – I am telling you that the book is a gift, but did I refer to the book? In order to say so one might claim that “here”, as uttered by myself in that situation, was synonymous with “this”. But the claim cloud be easily refuted. A different claim could be that by “my gift to you” I was referring to the book, so what I was telling you, in fact, was that “my gift to you”, namely the book, was at the place it was (“here”). This seems wrong as well. A third claim would be that my speech act was not informative, so I was not telling you that the book was a gift, but giving it to you as a gift (you did infer the information that the book was a gift, nevertheless).

Perhaps we need a more simple example.

What if I put off a fire and say “Dangerous!”. One could still reply that I did not communicate the information that that fire was dangerous.



The problem, then, is this:

We seem to have the ability to refer to particular features of our environment. This has to be an ability we have gained at some point in our evolutionary history. In order to be able to describe the acquisition of such an ability we must be conceptually equipped to bridge the gap between:
(a) animal behavior having the function to make others react to a feature of the environment (perhaps to cooperate on catching a prey or escaping a predator),
(b) human action – namely, the action of indicating a type of thing (physical object, event, person, action, moment of time, place, direction – ”that way” etc.) to someone else (IA above).

Why is it necessary to bridge the gap between (a) and (b)? Couldn’t we refer to something without (b)? I notice that you look at the sky and say “It is quite blue today.” – “It” in my sentence refers to the sky, but no indication of the sky was needed on my part.

This is true, but the problem was different. I can refer to something without indicating it to you, of course. We could use demonstratives without IA, but we also have proper names and descriptions. It is not that something like (b) is necessary for every reference (interesting case: I tell you something about the man sitting behind me in a restaurant, while I also tell you not to pay any attention to him: “Don’t look, but the man sitting behind me is very distinguished.”). My claim was only that we needed (b) in order to have the practice/ability of referring to stuff – using Brandom’s concepts one would perhaps say that (b)/IA is PPnec for “referring”.

Now, with respect to ostension, we could distinguish between IA-ostension and IT-ostension. However, pure IA-ostension is an idealization. I’m not indicating a thing to you just to do that. Perhaps I try to indicate to you that the door is closed, while my hands are full, so that you would open it for me. I could be grabbing an object and hold it towards you to point it to you such that you take hold of it. Indicating an object to you such that we talk about it is just one case among many others.

So, what does “this” mean? (I will put aside Kaplan’s talk about character and content for now).
– the object you pay attention to;
– the most salient feature from our common environment (perhaps one which is close to us) and to which you would pay attention if heard me talking about ‘this’;
– the object I am indicating to you (even if I did not indicate it to you in order to talk about it initially)
– the object you are indicating to me (even if…)
– the thing (physical object, person, event etc.) we were just talking about
– the sentence one of us just uttered
– some other feature of the context of our conversation (place, time – see the case of a letter, “this moment” could mean the moment I write the sentence or the moment you read it etc.)
– the sort of an object or some salient property of the object (as it is the case when I give you an ostensive definition);

It seems, however, that I want to say that there is also a basic/primitive/initial “this”, the paradigmatic use of which could be illustrated by:

“This. Very good / bad / dangerous / tasty / other simple qualification.”

This could be called, perhaps, “a paratactic analysis of the ostensive demonstratives”, but I should not care about such tags. The point would be that “This.” is quite remote from what we usually call “reference”. It is the act by which one can indicate something to talk about it. (IT above)

I need arguments, of course, to say that this is the “primitive form” of the ostensive demonstrative “this”. The subject-predicate structure of our sentences might also have something to do with this. I am not sure.



Some material written here was lost. I was trying to develop my thoughts on reference along these lines:

– There are several ways in which what we say is related to what we do. Reference is, perhaps, one of them.
– One can draw attention to a feature from one’s environment in two different ways: the way in which an animal makes another pay attention to something / the way in which a person indicates an something to another – in the second case some conceptual apparatus is definitely involved (see Quine about ostension); the concepts in which one could describe the switch from the first to the second way could be indicated – this might be a difficult task;
– one possible outcome of this could be: one cannot indicate a feature from one’s environment (in the second way) without already having some general concepts (food, danger etc.) – if this is so, then basic reference assumes general concepts; direct reference is a myth;
– our capacity to recognize patterns in our environment is needed for any sort of indication (“this”);

“this food…”
“this is food”

Also compare:
“this stimulus”
“this water”
“this river”
“this gesture”
“this kind of gesture”
“this gesture of her”
“this movement of the hand” (by which one could perform different gestures)”

Grasping an object and extending your hand with the object towards somebody could be a movement by which one could perform different gestures: showing the object to the other person, giving it to the other person, showing to the other person which object you want her to bring to you, teaching the other person to recognize that sort of object, teaching the other person a word etc. The other actions performed “in that series” make it apparent what kind of gesture was performed; misunderstandings can be cleared by performing actions opposed to those performed by the other person etc.

Concepts (general terms) are open – their application is not specified for all the possible cases. The rule following considerations depend on this observation. Also, a new occurrence of the word could always be conceived as a new application of that concept (even if the case is familiar).

I hold something in my hand, extend it towards you and say something. In some cases, what I say is “about that object”. These cases are taken as paradigmatic for reference. Even if they are, what is characteristic for “saying something about an object”? What if I say “Here.”? – I might be saying that the object is here, but I might offer it to you, in which case what I say is like “take it”. Am I saying something about that object? Am I saying that it can be taken by you? Is this a description of that object?

Suppose I do the same thing, say nothing, but throw the object to the ground at the end and step over it. Perhaps I express my dislike of that object. What I do does not seem to amount to saying something about that object.



“A referential term is like a handle.” – Is this a good analogy? “This” could help me handle this in conversation. Reference (direct reference, at least) comes together with some ontological commitment. What if I say “This is how I am.”, meaning, perhaps, that my recent actions display my character? Am I committed to the existence of actions? Not really. I could rephrase by saying “What I meant was that you can get a better understanding of my character if you notice my recent behavior and interpret it as a series of actions.” – This, however, starts an entire discussion: “So you say that actions are interpreted behavior? And what trait of somebody’s behavior counts for such an interpretation? Etc.” – So I want to say that no clarification was needed from the very beginning.


“To refer” is not a practice, but it could be seen as something common to several practices. However, I want to say that one could use “this” together with some parts of the actional-personalist vocabulary while performing practices which are not similar to those considered paradigmatic for referring.


The child who learns to count does not refer to numbers. Also, she might learn to count before she learns to pretend. One does not have to pretend to refer to something in order to use words which have all the characteristics of referential terms without ontological commitment. Moreover, one does not have to pretend at all. I am not in a similar position, however, when I confess to you that “this is how I am”.

Concepts are involved in ostension in a different way from that in which they are involved in what Russell calls denotation by definite descriptions. Compare “the dog” (in a context in which the rest of the identifying description can be produced by the interlocutor) with “this dog” (I am indicating to you this as a dog, that is, as an animal; I am not indicating to you the dog’s behavior or anything else).

Several conceptual abilities could be assumed in the second case as well: “This is what I am talking about”, “This is what I wanted to show you” – I trust you to understand that I do not show you the dog, but it’s peculiar behavior, as a kind of behavior. In the first case, however, I attribute to you the abilities required for identifying the dog I am talking about.


Here is an idea. Ostension (IT) is related with other gestures – handing an object to someone, giving an object to someone, throwing the object (a ball, for instance) to someone, warning someone on some danger a.s.o. All these have, perhaps in common the indication of an object (IA). However, these are related to other gestures by which one is acting on an object for someone else: holding the door for someone, washing your car etc. Some actions require that the addressee pays attention to the object acted upon, while other do not require this. The difference between them accepts degrees (since attention could have degrees, paying attention requires time – you could have to pay attention to that object all the time, or only at some points; also, you could have to pay attention to what I am doing and not especially to the object I am acting upon; also, the object acted upon could be your body (or a part of your body – think about cutting a child’s nails.

Since we are familiar with “proper ostension”, other acts related to it can be taken as a basis to talk immediately about the object involved in them – I give you ice-cream and say “Sweet, right?”. I do not think that someone would want to say that all these cases include some sort of referring to the object.

If we want, however, we could take some cases of ostension as paradigmatic. Holding an object in your hand, extending your hand towards someone, pointing to the object in your hand and saying “This is broken” would perhaps be such a case. Suppose the object is a toy and it’s broken. Some concept of “object” is of course at play here (since we do not say about shadows or gusts of wind that they are broken, nor do we say it of the objects’ properties – color, form etc.). The story is not complete, though. What is the whole situation? Why do I inform you that the toy is broken? It could be replied: the rest of the story could only tell us what does the speaker implicate by what she says; what she says is that the toy in her hand is broken. Still, I could be teaching you what a broken toy looks like. In this case, I am not referring to the particular toy I am holding in my hand, but to an entire set of similar toys. “This” would mean “something like this”. It would be general and not a singular term. So the “context” could be important for the semantic (and for the logical form) of my uttered sentence.

Now, suppose that I simply want to inform you that one of your toys is broken. Perhaps I do this so that you would understand why you are not allowed to play with it. Or perhaps I want an explanation – how did it came about that the toy is broken?

What does it mean that the toy it broken? I suppose it means that it does not have all the functional properties it had in the beginning. We could device some uses for it, but we could also try to recover its initial functional properties. Or we could abandon it, change its status from a functional artifact to “trash” – to be discarded or recycled (receive the status of raw material again). I might be informing you that the toy is broken in order to take a decision – “What should we do with it?”.

Other situations are also possible. What I am saying, in the most simple case (perhaps) is that that particular does not function as it should. This could be obvious on looking at the toy or not. Suppose it isn’t (so I am only showing you the toy I want to talk about and not a proof that it’s broken; were the defect visible, one could say that by holding the toy in my hand a perform one ostension – on the toy, and by pointing at it I perform a second ostension – on its defect; in any case, it might be an interesting feature of ostension that redundant ostension does not feel awkward).

Now we have the ostension of a particular object and also demonstrative reference (“this”) to the same object. How are they related?

Let us take:
(i) This. Broken.
(ii) This is broken.

What is the difference between (i) and (ii)? The copula (“is”) could be missing as well (think about Russian language): “This – broken”.

I point at something and say “Food”. I could be:
(a) Tagging the object I am pointing at as food.
(b) Predicating of the object pointed at that it is food.

So (i) could be understood, perhaps, as (a) or (b). The important thing to note is that the structure of predication, conceived as a relation between a linguistic object (the predicate) and some extra-linguistic object (see Frege about “satisfaction”, for instance) makes it possible to say that “This” in (i) is completely similar to ostension, even if (i) is understood in the manner of (b). But if this is so, then “This” in (ii) could also be completely similar to ostension.

Why then, I feel the need to talk about (i)? I suppose I see (i) in the manner of (a). Tagging seems more primitive, so to speak, than predication.

Also, I am tempted to imagine that a sound with this role of “this” (to point at a feature from one’s environment to be tagged as danger or food or something else) did appear when the feature in case presented itself only as auditory stimulus. This is a speculation, of course.

One could indicate by moving one’s body towards the source of the stimulus one is receiving. If the stimulus is a sound and its source (or the direction it came from) cannot be identified, the fact that the sound in case is the most salient feature from our environment could suffice to “talk about it” by using this. Otherwise, we must have practices like: encouraging someone to listen carefully to her environment, describing some sound etc.

However, if (i) is understood in the manner of (a), uttering “this” is the same with performing an ostension. The utterance of “this” is in itself a speech act (an indicative, let’s say), with the sole function of indicating something to someone (IA). It would be weird to say that “this” refers to the object in case. Ostensive gestures are gestures of indicating an object, but they do not refer to an object.

And now we can move to “This is John”. Perhaps what someone who utters this when naming a child John does is to indicate the child and introduce the name as some tag, to be used only for that child. First tags are general – food, danger, ill, broken. Their existence depend on our ability to see patterns, similarities, to form habits with respect to our environment a.s.o. First “names” could perhaps have been some combination of such tags: “Dangerous Boy”, “Great Dog” etc. It is only latter that “non-descriptive” names were introduced. At some point they came to be used simply as tags for particular objects (perhaps other practices had a role – marking a place or an object with a sign, calling a particular person when others where present, keeping track of the members of a community, etc.). Their role was to identify the object (when similar objects were around). They started to be used to point at that particular object in its absence. This is a speculation, of course.

Why don’t we have names for inanimate objects? Perhaps because they cannot come when we call. In order for a word to be considered the name of an animal, the animal must be taught to react at its name. It is not enough to use the name “to refer” to it.


I am not especially interested into the natural history of our communication practices, of course. My speculations have this role – to show that my proposal to conceptualize what happens when we refer to something by using “this” could be useful for such a natural history.


I hold the door for you and say “Watch your head” (perhaps you are a tall person). Did I refer to the upper part of the door’s frame? No, I did not.


There is no need to justify the claim that we really manage to talk about features from our environment. We manage to interact with each other and with our environment by talking (producing sounds or inscriptions etc.). This is certain (I use Wittgenstein’s concept of certainty here). In a sense, things are the same with our ability to refer to features from our environment. We manage to refer to such features (objects, events etc.). The problem is “What do we actually do when we refer to those features?”. We have thought that we use general terms to refer to classes of objects in the same way in which we use singular terms to refer to individuals for a lot of time. Modern logic says that we were wrong. This means that our concept of “reference” was not well understood. So we want to understand it better (or to replace it by a better concept). This is the problem.

Our capacity to use descriptions referentially might be crucial. Tagging could also be an important ability. The possession of some minimal concepts seems also important. Treating demonstrative reference as ostension could also help. The bottom line, however, is this. We thought (i.e. we spoke) of some words (or linguistic expression as “having a reference”. We have conceived reference as a relation or as a function, having words in its domain and objects in its co-domain. It is, however, a far stretch to say that the ostensive act has the indicated object as its reference.

To me, this looks as if one would say that holding the door is an act which could be considered separately from the door, which has the relation of “being acted upon (in the manner of holding)” with that act. It could be asked, then: “What does this relation consist in?”. But this is madness.

There is no relation between my act of holding the door for someone and the door I am holding. There is no relation between me and that particular act. The act is not a relation between me and that particular door.

Indicating objects is something we do. When I hold the broken to for you to see it and say “This is broken” I am using it to do something else – to get an explanation from you, to make a decision with respect to the toy etc. Referring, as a matter of fact, is not using a word “to refer” to an object, but using the object to do something else (to talk about it, let’s say). Apparent reference to fictional objects is not so different from cases like the one in which I pretend to throw an invisible ball in the air, or the one in which I pretend to push an invisible button. I pretend to use an object to talk about it, although, no object exists. It could be said that we have to pretend that a person is present in order to talk about her when she is not. I don’t know what to say about this, but I am convinced that conceiving “referring” as an act by which we use objects (or features from our environment) to talk about them (in order to do some other things) is better than conceiving “reference” as some sort of mysterious relation between words (occurrences) and objects.

Several boys wait to enter a room. They enter the room one by one. We do not see them. When the first boy enters the room, we say “The boy in the room is John”. The boy is taught to come to us when we call a name (any name). We call for him by saying John. He comes to us. This could be a practice which would allow us to introduce names by using definite descriptions (see Kripke’s example with Neptune and Vulcan). The practice must ensure that we could identify the name bearer. If we do not see the boys and have no other means of identifying the boy which we called John in the end, the practice is useless. A rule forbidding young boys to be seen by adults before receiving a name could justify this practice. Otherwise, it would be more simple to use the boys themselves to introduce their names. With the practice in place, we could as well say “This boy is John”. The description is not necessary if we have some means of identifying the name bearer (suppose we were looking at photographs and saying “this is John, this is George etc.”).

“So ostension and “this” are means of identification?”

In a sense. Identification is not important, though. I want to use the broken toy to make a decision about it. What if I cannot hold it in my hands, point to it, etc.? What if we are not at home? Suppose I can bring it in front of your eyes by magic. How do I do it? How do I know which toy to perform magic upon? Perhaps it is enough to remember it and direct my spell towards your room. If there are no other toys like the one I am remembering, I might succeed. If there are many doors present, I hold those doors towards which you are walking. What if I cannot see you? Then I cannot hold the door for you. These are forced cases, but they show one thing. Namely, that the problem, for me, could only be whether I can act on the object in case or not. Sometimes it is obvious that I cannot. Other times it is not obvious that I can, but I try. From my point of view, using an object does not have a separate step – “identifying the object which I intend to use”. The question is whether I can use it or not, not whether I can identify it or not.



I want to focus on a very simple case. Showing my glass to you and saying that it is empty does not usually mean that I ask you to fill this particular glass. So I need a case such that it would be uncontroversial that I show a particular object to an addressee in order to say something of that particular object. The object should be a macroscopic recognizable physical object. Suppose I call for a repair-person of sorts. On her/his arrival at my house I indicate the malfunctioning object to him/her and say: “This is broken”. We could discuss about the problem etc., but it would be clear, from the beginning, what object we are talking about. It should also be clear that I am not asking the repair-person to act on any object similar to the one indicated, but on “this particular one”. Skepticism about our ability to refer to individuals aside, it seems that I could have done 2 things:

(1) Point at the object and tag it as broken.
(2) Say “This is broken” while providing (or making sure there are) enough indications such that my addressee could pick up the reference of “this” in my sentence.

In short, my claims would be:
(a) That in doing (1) I am _using_ the object in question in a specific way.
(b) That in order to be able to do (2) one must be able to do (1).

This should amount to saying that the basis of our ability to perform demonstrative ostensions is our ability to use individual objects (more specifically our ability to tag individual objects).

How does this relate to other things from the literature on reference?

The following problems might be important:

(i) Can we directly refer to individuals? (i. e. without any descriptive content)
(ii) How do properties of the demonstrated object attach to the object’s name? (when the name is introduced via a demonstration of the object) -> a name is a tag of sorts (person [and not place], male [and not female] etc. are other tags; couldn’t one introduce only the name tag? why not?)
(iii) What do “talking about an individual”, “issuing a request with respect to an individual”, “making a promise with respect to an individual” etc. have in common?



I talk about my family (wife and two kids). If I say, for instance, that my family is not very large, I have the impression that I was referring to my family. First order logic rejects this impression, in a sense. I am told I was talking about something indefinite and saying that that something uniquely satisfies the description of being my family and it is not very large. However, that something cannot be an individual. I am not saying that the members of my family are not very large here. I am using the term collectively. So even if general terms do not refer (since they are predicates etc.), when used collectively, the value of the quantified variables they are predicated of cannot be individual objects.

“Larger than” can be used collectively even if it is a relation, to compare entire classes of objects. The set of real numbers is larger than the set of natural numbers.

The logical form of this, re-translated into natural language is: There is something which uniquely satisfies the description of being a set of real numbers and there is something else which uniquely satisfies the description of being a set of natural numbers, and the first is larger than the second.

But is this similar to “My son is taller than your son”? I mean, there is no problem in this second case to assume that the variables stand for objects. In first case, however, the variables seem to have a different sort – they seem to stand for classes of objects (or sets). “My students were filling up the room” – I am not saying of any single one of them that he or she was filling up the room. The whole of them were filling up the room.

Talk about the sort of logical variables is interesting. Davidson proposed to use “variables for events”. Second order logic uses “variables for predicates”. Propositional logic, can be said, does not use variables for sentences – each letter stands for a particular sentence (not as name, but as a shorthand), but metalogic does.

What gives logical variables their sort, then? Is it the kind of stuff the variable stands for – objects, properties, events, sets etc. – or the kind of logical constant the variable is a placeholder for – proper name, predicate, sentence letter etc.?

In the first case, to be could, indeed, be to figure as “the value of a bound variable” (under an existential quantifier). In the second case, however, ontology is not at stake. A name is a name. Being the name of an event (The Great Crash, for instance) is not being a different kind of linguistic object from any other name (Bucharest, Ludwig Wittgenstein etc.). One could try to show that “The Great Crash” is not a real name, but that is a different matter.

How could TGC have been introduced as a name? I suppose it was introduced by the people having witnessed the stock market crash from 1929. One does not simply perceive an event. One has to “witness it”. How can one demonstrate an event (i.e. perform some sort of ostension on it)? I do not know. In any case, should this be relevant when considering what is the logical form of “TGC was devastating”?

Couldn’t “Gavagai” mean “(there is) the universal ‘rabbit in this field at that place at this time'”? Should logic assume that the value of a bound variable is a particular and not a universal?

“Yes, because otherwise there would be no first order logic. Also, how could the universal eat carrots?”

Well, if carrots were particular objects, they could not be eaten by universals. But why should they be? There are no particular objects in a computer simulation (since any object can be copied). A rabbit in a computer simulation is an universal. The carrots are the same. Eating is a relation, not an actual physical interaction between particular objects. As to the disappearance of first order logic, we could still have a hierarchy of predicates. “Eating” (a relation all rabbit-universals have with all carrot-universals, if its true that any rabit would eat any carrot) could be considered a first order 2-place predicate, while “having a higher level of generality” (a relation ‘rabbit’ has with ‘white rabbit’) could be considered a second order 2-place predicate.

“If ‘all names are names’, why would all predicates be predicates? Also, your proposal feels wrong. How would you render the identity of indiscernibles principle, for instance?”

Any two bundles of the same properties are the same object (an universal, of course). Here we need second order logic because being “a bundle of the same properties” is a second order predicate.

“And why ‘being the same object (an universal)’ is not a second order predicate? Why talk about predication at all, in fact, since it seems that objects do not have properties, but are properties (or sets of properties). And how would you conceptualize change?”

I am not sure that conceptualizing change is a task for logic. Pure logic deals only with language.

“A word can change and yet remain the same.”

Logical form does not change. Logic is not about objects, events, sets or properties. In a sense, it is neither about words. Logic is not about something. It is an empty structure. It becomes about something only if you fill the empty structure with something. That something could be words and sentences, actions, algorithms, or even facts (if you believe that the world has a logical structure). Then logic becomes about something.

“Are you really claiming this or you’re just role-playing?”

Well, I am not sure. In any case, I do not see could one resist the naturalization of logic without claiming something like this (Quine, in Methods of Logic, seems to agree to the naturalization of logic, while still talking like a logician). If logic is about something, then that something could always be the subject of an empirical research.

“But how could one say something about the relation of logical implication without saying a thing about what is logic about?”

I do not know. My attempt was to see how could the relation of logical implication be conceived when the relata were not sentences, but actions (speech acts and non-communicative acts as well). In doing so I was in a sense relying on a prior concept of logical implication, which had only to do with “thoughts”, sentences and facts (no atomic facts can logically imply each other – this show that you can, in a sense talk about logical implication with respect to facts; when I was trying to think about “conditional actions” – actions in conditional form – I was also thinking about facts in conditional form – facts including some causal connection “hardened” into logical necessity). I was also trying to abstract my new concept of logical implication from “the logical structure of actions”. Perhaps a completely pure concept of logical implication could be somehow forged.

“But even so, that wouldn’t be a completely pure concept. It would be obtained only on the assumption that logic could be about sentences, facts and perhaps actions, but not about anything (feelings, sensations, rivers, subatomic particles a.s.o.).”

The context of discovery does not matter and the assumption you are talking about is part of that context.

In any case, there seems to be a general problem with the assumption that logic is about particulars. I had it when thinking about the logical structure of actions as well, asking myself whether I am talking about particular actions or action-kinds. It’s the same with sentence / word types and tokens. Particulars, in short, seem to be unable to enter into logical relations. One could say that a move in a game was “logical”, and the add: “not that particular move, but all moves of that kind – all moves performed in type-identical games in the same way at the same point”.

In any case, I would like to focus on these questions:

(a) What is the most abstract concept of logical inference?
(b) What is the most abstract concept of logical structure?
(c) How are the two concepts related?

On a first sight, (c) is an easy one: having a logical structure is a necessary condition for figuring in logical inferences. Then the answer to (b) would be: a logical structure is that in virtue of which something can be logically inferred from something else. But what about inferring something from itself (x; therefore x)?



See Putnam, Meaning and Reference, about saying “This is water” – ‘this’ must be a rigid designator. Why? Because he claims that it is impossible for something else than H2O to have been water. Now we turn back to proper names. When the name is introduced (not by means of some definite description) perhaps this is said: “This is Saul Kripke”. Now, what about ‘this’ in such a case? Suppose it was not a rigid designator. Now, if I say “It is possible that this was not SK”, by this I refer to a different individual in a possible world (Kripke’s omologue, so to speak) which is not SK (our Kripke, since the name is still a rigid designator). But if it is possible that ‘This is Kripke.’ was a false statement, it is possible for the sentence to be false (we ignore speech act theory here) at the initial introduction of the name. But then the sentence is contingent in a different sense from that in which a child could have been given a different name. ‘This child is called Saul Kripke’ is contingent, but ‘This is Saul Kripke’ should not be.

One more time. How could the name be a rigid designator if it wasn’t introduced by the means of a rigid designator? Well, a name can be introduced by a definite description (see Kripke’s own example with Neptune – but there is something strange here; suppose we time travel – we are at the moment when the name Neptune was introduced for the planet beyond Uranus etc., but Neptune was not observed yet. Now we can say the they could have discovered a different celestial body by saying ‘It is possible that Neptune was not Neptune.’ The first Neptune is a Russellian name, the second is the proper name of our present day idiolect. But now would could say the same thing with the rigid designator in the first position and the Russellian name in the second position. Couldn’t we say that our present proper name fails the test for being a rigid designator, since it is not contradictory to say that Neptune could have been not Neptune (or something similar)? You might be tempted to say that this is because we do not use the same name (since we use “the Russellian Neptune”), but perhaps now we could forget about Russellian names. Suppose the actual world is a possible world in which Neptune is never discovered (because it does not exist – the perturbation in the orbit of Uranus are explained by something different etc.). Now we have the name and the description by which it was introduced, but no name bearer. It is still possible for Neptune to have been existent. When we say this, I suppose that we refer to a possible world in which Neptune does exist. Now suppose that we say that (the existent) Neptune could have had rings. ‘Neptune could have had rings.’ said in such a context is definitely different from ‘Neptune could have had rings’ said by us in the usual context. We say that “our Neptune” has rings in a possible world, while they (the non-Neptunians) say that an existent Neptune has rings. But there should not be any difference between how the name functions in our world and in their world.

One more time. When I introduce a name (through some sort of baptism) I do not want to name any possible object which I could have been pointing at “Saul Kripke”. I want to name “this child” – this-now-in-front-of-me-etc. – “Saul Kripke”. The name could have been different, but the child could not have been different. (see the “naming of the wrong cat/twin/etc.” counterexamples, which could be rejected by saying that ‘this’ is used as a rigid designator during the practice of baptism – i.e. name introduction).

This could be further developed, of course, but I want to claim that ‘This’ is a rigid designator in the practice of name introduction. Also, ‘this’, when used to introduce a proper name, is used to demonstratively refer to a particular object, and not to illustrate some kind of stuff/object/event etc. (as opposed to ‘this’ in “This is water”, which means ‘this (sort of) liquid’. – Here one does want to say that whatever is identical with this liquid is water. In the case of a name one wants to say, simply, that this(RD) particular object is X.)

So, if this is accepted, demonstrative reference by which a proper name is introduced is important. It might even be that the proper name’s “ability” to refer directly to a particular object (and to function as a rigid designator) depends on the “ability” of the demonstrative indexical to function like this – to refer directly and rigidly to a particular object.

Now, one could, of course, wonder:
(i) How can we justify the claim that a demonstrative like ‘this’ functions like this when a name is introduced?
(ii) What does it mean for a demonstrative to function like this?

We need to notice that one could introduce the name through a closely related practice, without the use of a demonstrative – just use demonstrative ostension (not indication of a sample, but indication of a particular) and say the name.

Here the problem is that by demonstrative ostension we do not seem to refer to the object in case (that is, we do not seem to use it as a name for itself or something similar – the idea of reference as a mathematical function taking a sign as value and producing an object as its result is weird here (see, by contrast, the case when I really use an object as a sign for itself – transparent jar, no tag, but other similar jars have tags etc.).

Then we conclude that demonstrative ostension is just a way of using the indicated object – i.e. using it to talk about it. What prevents us from accepting this – we assume that when talking about objects we have to utter sentences which have the subject-predicate structure. So the object should figure itself as part of the uttered sentence (see Russell and why it was wrong to think so). Here we can think of ‘tagging’ as a different way of talking about something – the object is part of some activity, indeed, but not of our talk. I tag something as food for you – point to the object and say food, for instance. What I am telling you is the tag. I am not “communicating” the object to you. I am using the object (in a similar way, so to speak, to the way I am using something when I am giving an object to you) to communicate one of its tags to you.

Now, if this is “the root of reference”, we could see:

(a) that such demonstrative ostensions are not so far from other ways of using objects (the fact that in some cases we communicate and in others we do not is not so important);
(b) that the relation between language and reality is varied and includes lots of cases in which we are not interested in saying something true (etc.)
(c) that “reference” is ill conceived when we thing of it as a mathematical function from ‘designators’ to objects;
(d) that a special version of fictionalism could be adopted to conceptualize our talk about non-existents – talking about a non-existent is similar to pretending to do something with an invisible object (like juggling with invisible balls, sweeping the floor with an invisible broomstick etc.

(also, we need a “root of reference”, since without it we could not justify the idea that our world is composed of particulars – Russellian semantics is compatible with an ontology according to which only universals do exist.)


So, this is the project of my talk at this point. It still has a lot of gaps, but they could be filled (it does not seem impossible to fill them). I would like the general direction of the presentation not to appear too convoluted, but…


So what is “to use an object to talk about it”? What is characteristic for such an use? How is it possible?

Making the object perceptively stand out for another person – in the case of ostension this is necessary, but not sufficient. Now suppose I make the object stand out and then I display how it is used. If the use is familiar to my audience, could we not say that it was as if I was tagging the object with that use? In displaying the use I was not demonstrating _that particular use_, of course. That was just a sample of _that kind of use_. So we have: ostension of a particular, followed by ostension of a sample for a kind of use, type of object etc. No predication, but what makes the second ostension a tagging of the particular object demonstrated first?

I use the object in the second ostension, but that is not necessary. I could point to a fruit up in a tree and then pretend to eat a fruit in order to tag that (or similar) fruit(s) as food. The context could help me (are we out looking for something to eat?).

Pointing gestures are never isolated. They are part of a story.

I could show you my dog by calling it. The dog will come, it’s going to stand out on the background of the environment we are in at present, you will see it etc. At first you might not understand what is going on, especially if you have never seen a domestic dog before. If you panic I can calm you down. If everything goes well, you will get it in the end. Perhaps I am showing off and expect to be praised by you for my achievement (a tame dog). I am also imparting useful information – dogs can be tamed. This is not the end of the story. How you react afterwards is also important in fixing what I communicated to you.

“What if I point at an animal to you when we are out hunting? If it’s the kind we hunt, I might just draw your attention to it, without communicating anything. If it’s a dangerous animal which could attack us, I am warning you (i.e. I am communicating a warning to you, tagging that animal as ‘danger’). Some cases could be imagined in which my behavior is completely identical and only the species of the animal differs. But how can the species of the animal make the difference between communicating something and not communicating?”

I don’t think this is a good example. I could be warning you that a danger (attacker) is present in the second case and also warn you that a prey is present in the first one. The species of the animal counts in a different way. Either the animal is known to us, or not. If we know the animal (and know that both of us know it) we do not need to make its tag (prey, attacker etc.) explicit. If one of us doesn’t know it, the other might have to tag it explicitly. If none of us know it, we might have to communicate more in order to tag it in a way or another.

If there is something making you feel uneasy here, it might be the vague boundary between communicative an non-communicative actions. The boundary, however, does not seem to depend directly on physical features of our shared environment.

“Couldn’t a person point to an object without rendering it ‘a subject to be talked about’?”

You should have spoken about making a feature of the environment stand out. By giving an object to you I make it stand out, but I am not necessarily rendering it a subject of conversation (unless we assume an implicit ‘I give this to you’ in what I am doing).

“And why shouldn’t we assume it?”

Something can be implicit in a communication: “Stand up! You too!”.
In my talking to the second person there is an implicit order (“You stand up too!”). However, it is disputable that such implicit things could figure in a case in which it is not clear that we communicate. When I give something to you without saying anything I know that you would describe my action as “he is giving this to me” and I do not prevent you from making me responsible for having performed that action, under that description, but I am not communicating _that_ to you.

In giving the object to you I am doing something else. My purpose is not to make that object stand out for you. That is a predictable consequence of my action, but not the intended action. Now, I could, perhaps point something to you without intending that the object pointed at by me stands out for you. Suppose I am helping you walk in a straight line (for whatever reason) by pointing at some trees which you could use as a rough guide (indicating at an aiming point or a landmark could be similar).

“But couldn’t you intend to show me something without intending to talk about it?”

We do not talk about psychological intentions here. What makes it so that my intention to show the tree to you in my previous example was lacking is not the absence of a psychological state, but the alternate reason provided: “I was trying to guide you to walk straight etc.”. Here I fail to see a reason which would exclude communication. Suppose you say: “I was drawing your attention to that star in order to enjoy its view”. I could reply that you were encouraging me to enjoy the view of that star, by pointing to it. This could be regarded as a form of communication. If your gesture is performed in order to make an object stand out for me, the reason must be related to that object and your action could always be regarded as communicating something about the object.

“Are you sure about this? What if I state as my reason that I tried to determine you enjoy the view of that star? What if I say that the reason was ‘to manipulate you into doing something with respect to that object’. That cannot be communication.”

Indeed, but then you would not point the star _to me_. Your gesture shouldn’t be called an ostension anymore. You could of course move your finger towards an animal while expressing great fear with the aim of determining me to defend you from it. In the same vain, you could raise you hand towards that star in admiration, hoping that I would admire it too (by some sort of contagion, perhaps). These, however, are not ostensive gestures. In a sense, your actions do not have myself as their addressee anymore.

“So if by ostension we understand an action having another person as its addressee, it is sufficient to perform it to render the demonstrated object into a subject of communication?”

It seems so.

“But now you seem to say something more radical. Ostension does not render an object into a subject for possible communication. By ostension the demonstrated object gets used in an actual communication.”

Right. Which means that more evolved “means of reference” only need to replace ostension (or pretended ostension). There is no need for anything else.

“This is quite radical.”

I know.



A acts on o for D – this makes it possible for A or D to talk about o.


D is the addressee of A’s action means, perhaps, that A intends that D recognizes what A is trying to do (yes, I borrow this from Grice).

A is offering o to D IFF A is makes it so that D can receive o while intending that D recognizes this (in short). This means that A intends that D recognizes what A is doing with o, therefore that D recognizes (or pays attention to) o, since this is a necessary condition for recognizing what A is doing with o.

giving o to D, holding o for D, moving o towards D (contrast with throwing a rock at D to make her go away in the same way in which you would throw it to an animal)

Allowing D to use o is already a communicative act (you are visibly thirsty, there is a glass of water on my table, you look at it and then at me, I make an encouraging gesture with my eyes or nod my head etc.)

Talking about o – why not think instead of communicating with respect to o?

You cannot reach to an object, I move it within you reach or give it to you. There is no need for you to recognize what I am doing to grab the object. Of course, you do not need my nod to grab the glass of water, but if you are to take it with my permission, you have to recognize what I am doing by nodding.

We operate a machine together. You have to recognize what I am doing in order to do your part. Perhaps you could recognize my actions even if I did not intend you to recognize them (but then, again, it is not the psychological stuff that interests us here).

Can we use a seesaw together without any sort of communication? Perhaps we can, if we both know how to use it. What if one of us doesn’t know? Suppose we do not speak the same language. I am showing you how it is used, by taking my place on it and moving up and down. Now, if you do not recognize that I am showing you how the seesaw is used and believe that I am just fooling around with it, cold we use it together?

Suppose that you recognize what I am doing (in spite of never having seen such an action before) and take your place on the seesaw due to your recognition of what I was doing (and perhaps due to my point with inviting gestures to where you could sit etc.). Did we not, in a sense communicate successfully? Was it not our communication about the seesaw, in a sense? And if it was, it clearly wasn’t about saying something true or false about the seesaw. No ostension of the seesaw was involved in it.

“So is ostension always about saying something true?”

I could point to something in order to forbid you to touch it. (Am I forbidding you to touch the object or its surface? – this seems a useless question)

Or in order to ask you to bring it to me. Of course I am not asking you to bring me it’s form, color or surface.

I could tag the object for you with a general term or a name. In such situations I would perhaps be teaching you something, not communicating my opinion about the object to you.

So by ostension we do not necessarily use the object as a subject of conversation, as something to emit opinions about, but as something to perform a speech act on (or about). Of course, ostension is not the only way in which we could do that, but it seems to be the explicit way to do that.

What about demonstrative reference, then? Could we say that ‘this’ refers to the demonstrated object?

I “offer” something to you and say “hold this for a minute” (or “hold it”, or “take it” etc.).

Or: we hear a thunder and I say “this – storm”. It is difficult to point to the thunder, so I point to it by my word “this”. And then tag it – not as storm but as a “sign for storm”.


Focus on “this”. Why? Because it’s demonstrative use seems a strong case against reference deniers. Also because it seems to be essential for understanding reference (see direct reference, causal theory of proper names etc.).

Demonstrative use vs. other uses: “This is who I am.” (predicate), “Romania is … This country …” (anaphora), “He said this: [quote]” (maybe a textual demonstrative in antecedent form), “This is what he always eats.” (see “He who dares, wins”) etc.

(i) Uttering “this” to perform a speech act with respect to (to say something about) a particular object (why a particular object? it could be a sound, a moment in time etc., but those cases are more difficult; also, we use objects more frequently).

(ii) Ostension – performed “to refer” to the demonstrated object (other uses: ostensive definition – see the ambiguous case of showing something and saying “food” etc.)

– What are the differences between doing (i) and doing (ii)?
– How can we fail in doing (i) and in doing (ii)?
– What is the relation between (i) and (ii)?
– What do we do when we do (i) and (ii)? – What is it to refer to an object by doing (i) or (ii)?

Other important topics:
– deferred ostension;
– critique of ostension (Wittgenstein, Quine)
– reference of “this” vs. demonstratum (of the accompanying demonstrative gesture)
– “this” referring without any pointing gesture
– speaker reference vs. semantic reference


Bringing something (o) to the attention of another person (the addressee): this can be done in various ways – pointing at o in a visible manner (for A), (forcibly) turning A’s head towards o, throwing o at A, grasping o and showing it to A (zero level ostension), telling A to pay attention to o etc.:

We can talk about a familiar object without paying any attention to it: “This (tree) is the reason why I take walks in this park.” – the tree is familiar to us, you know that it was planted here by my father, whom I adore etc. In addition, we pay now attention to the park we are in, so to speak. Or: “I am tired of this city.” (we can continue to talk about the city we are in without paying any attention to it). Or: “He told me this: …” (I am pretty sure you refer to the next sentence you are about to say, so I can decide to pay no attention to it). Or: I am blind, but from what you say I can infer that you are referring to the only blackboard in the room, to which I pay no (perceptive) attention, since I simply cannot do so.


Someone is complaining about the pain of loosing her job. I stab my hand and say “No, this is real pain.”. I do not demonstrate my pain, but (perhaps) only the gesture of stabbing my hand. So perhaps this is also a case of deferred ostension (or deferred reference).

One can use this in an attempt to talk about a sensation or some other mental content.

see Kaplan about intended demonstratum (in Dthat) being distinct from the actual demonstratum.

See also Nunberg about the difference between a demonstratum and a referent.

I perform ostension on an object (only with the intention to bring it to you attention) in order to talk about something related to that object (causally or in some other way).


Quine, W. V. O. (1950). Identity, Ostension, and Hypostasis. The Journal of Philosophy 47(22): 621-633.

“Pointing is of itself ambiguous as to the temporal spread of the indicated object. Moreover, even given that the indicated object is to be a process with considerable temporal spread, and hence a summation of momentary objects, still pointing does not tell us _which_ summation of momentary objects is intended, beyond the fact that the momentary object at hand is in the desired summation. Pointing to a, if construed as referring to a time-extended process and not merely to the momentary object a, could be interpreted either as referring to the River Cayster of which a and b are stages, or as referring to the water of which a and c are stages, or as referring to any one of an unlimited number of further less natural summations to which a also belongs.” (622)

“Such ambiguity is commonly resolved by accompanying the pointing with such words as “this river,” thus appealing to a prior concept of a river as one distinctive type of time-consuming process, one distinctive form of summation of momentary objects. […] “This river” means “the riverish summation of momentary objects which contains this momentary object.”
But here we have moved beyond pure ostension and have assumed conceptualization.” (623)


“Whoever is responsible for this should be punished” [said as I point to a broken vase] – I do not want to say that whoever is responsible for the broken vase should be punished, but that whoever broke the vase should be punished (it could be argued that I say that whoever is responsible [for the effect that the vase got broken / for the breaking of the vase] should be punished – but I am not pointing at the breaking of the vase, which is an event).

[Pointing to an open cupboard where I keep a large red coffee cup which you know about] “This has disappeared.”

demonstration by pointing – extending your index (or waving your hand towards) the demonstrated object vs. demonstration by (proper) ostension – taking hold of the demonstrated object and showing it to the addressee of your ostension

gesture vs. action

“Is it important that I pay attention to the demonstrated object?” – I could secure a reference without paying attention to the referent (by various means). Also, I could demonstrate an object without paying attention to it (I say “These are all my belongings” to a thief and show him everything I have in my pockets without paying any attention to the demonstrated objects)

“Is it important that the addressee pays attention to the demonstrated object?” – Well, if the addressee does not pay attention to what I show her, couldn’t we still say that I did show her the demonstratum? Especially if I did it in such a way that the addressee could have watched, touched, grasped or got involved herself empirically with the object in any other way?

[Speaking to a blind person] “I will put this within your left hand’s reach. It’s a surprise gift, I hope you will like it.”

deferred demonstration: “This is missing.” (figure it out)
deferred ostension: “This is what he did.” (figure it out)

[stop here]