I graduated with my PhD in Philosophy from the University of Maryland in 2008, and then spent two enjoyable years there as a post-doctoral fellow. My advisor at that time was Dr. Paul Pietroski who is currently a professor at Rutgers University. In the fall of 2010, I took a position as a visiting assistant professor at Saint Mary's University. In 2011, I held the same position at the University of Rochester. Most recently, I have been an assistant professor at SUNY Geneseo in the philosophy department since the fall of 2014. I also teach in the women and gender studies program there.
My central interest is in philosophy of language, specifically, in the semantics of proper names. I have other interests too that include personal identity, free will, Kant's metaphysics, feminist theory, epistemic rationality, meta-ethics, and philosophical logic. My current research plans include a book expanding upon the theory of proper names I developed in 2011 to resolve the problems posed by fictional names. It combines several papers in progress that apply the theory, motivates and defends underlying assumptions I made in 2011, and resolves various issues left open in that work.
Why Worry About 'Sherlock Holmes'?
I've often wondered how I ended up working on the topic of the meaning of something as seemingly simple as a proper name for almost 20 years. Even more specifically, I worry about the fact that speakers assign the value true to sentences containing names from fiction, like this one: (1) 'Sherlock Holmes smokes'.
Why worry about this sentence? Well, this is how I came to worry about it, for what it's worth.
First, note that any philosopher who spends a lot of time on worrying about whether a sentence like (1) is true, you can by and large, safely bet are working within some kind of truth-conditional semantic framework -- that language is fundamentally for expressing what speakers believe or understand about the world, otherwise why bother even worrying about the truth value assignments to sentences at all?
Second, a warning: I talk about sentences as the bearers of truth — in the old-fashioned Fregean way — as if serious context-sensitivity, and the ubiquitous use of non-declaratives just never happened, which may frustrate those of you who have fully absorbed these “contemporary” lessons, assigning only utterances truth values, as well as relying heavily on the vocabulary of speech act theory. However, since I thought mostly about sentences containing just two or three words, these issues were not terribly important. For this reason, I simply find the old-fashioned vocabulary more efficient. Actually, this is somewhat ironic given that my view of names is a context-sensitive account, doubly so, in fact. Still, I will stick to that way of speaking, unless it makes a serious theoretical difference.
Now I certainly never intended be working in a literature in which Meinongianism -- the idea that there are objects that do not exist -- is still considered a live option, but I ended up taking an interest in fictional names -- a species of empty names -- because of the threat that their existence posed to what I saw as obvious truths about names contained in Kripke’s (1980) work Naming and Necessity.
One obvious way in which fictional names as empty names pose a threat to Kripkean theories is this: if we take his theory of names as equivalent to the idea that are simply about an individual referent AKA Millianism, then empty names should be meaningless just as much as the expression 'sojifhdiuhgruh' is meaningless.
This is not, however, what is concerning about fictional names for myself, since I do not accept the Millian interpretation of Kripke’s theory of names. As Kripke himself says, his theory is consistent with names having a “sense,” and I agree. So, empty names might have senses in addition to having referents, and therefore could be meaningful in virtue of having a sense.
What does bother me is this: some discourse containing empty names is not merely meaningful, it also seems to be truth-evaluable, and sometimes even…true. And this fact is not at all consistent with Kripke’s ideas. Whether you accept Millianism about names, or something a bit softer, as I do, on any Kripkean theory of names, their contribution to the truth condition of the sentences that contain them must be their referents, and by definition, empty names lack these. Truth-evaluable discourse containing empty names, then, should be impossible, if Kripke is right. But it does appear to be possible. This is the puzzle I find fascinating.
It's not new. however. The problem of negative existentials illustrates this fact, which has been around for quite some time. But, I am of the opinion that the predicate ‘exists’ is suspect enough to table this worry. Sentences like this one, then, are not the particular focus of my work either: (2) Pegasus does not exist.
In contrast with sentence (2), sentence (1) cannot be dismissed on the above grounds, and therefore I believe that sentence poses a quite different, and much stronger challenge to Kripkean theories of proper names than a sentence like (2).
It seems to me, for instance, that I can rationally know that I am reading a work of fiction, finish reading it, and go on and truthfully assert that Sherlock Holmes smokes, and suffer no guilt, or cognitive dissonance of any kind. And then my students too, in class after class, seem to agree. If I write sentence (1) on the board and then ask: Is this sentence true? None of them struggle to answer. The answer is always, almost instantly: yes. It is only among philosophers that I ever get the answer: false. And, for that reason, it strikes me as an answer coming from individuals already in the grip of a theory.
In contrast, Kripke somehow seemed to “see” what was intuitively true from a natural language user’s pre-theoretical perspective. For that reason, I am convinced that some kind of Kripkean theory of names must be correct, and yet also I am equally convinced that sentence (1) is true. Obviously, this is not because I believe there was some really smart detective Sherlock Holmes running around in the world that smoked, just as my students do not believe it on those grounds either. There is no Sherlock Holmes. He is a mere fictional character.
Worse still, other sentences like (3) 'Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character' seem like they too might be true, which many Kripkeans solve by claiming that the name 'Sherlock Holmes' really does refer. It refers to an abstract entity known as a fictional character. But, I rejected this idea when I asked my mother, who had attended school up until the eighth grade, why she believed that sentence, and she said it was because, well, Sherlock Holmes "just isn’t."
I finally came to the conclusion, then, that what is needed is an analysis of the truth of a sentence like (1) that is anti-realist, and yet supports a Kripkean theory of proper names — a seemingly impossible task — but one I hope I have at least made some progress on in the article “Proper Names and Their Fictional Uses” published in 2011. I am still working on the assumptions and fall out of the ideas presented there currently.