Analytic Philosophy

Jerry Fodor

What is the causal theory of meaning?

This theory was first developed by Paul Kripke (1940–), Keith Donnellan (1931–), and Hilary Putnam (1926–) in the 1970s. There used to be a distinction between denotative and connotative, or “intensional” (with an “s,” which is different from intention with a “t”), meaning. Denotative meaning was the thing or types of things in the world to which a word referred. Connotative or intensional meaning was the conditions of application of a word or the definition of the word in other words.

According to the causal theory of meaning, also known as “the causal theory of reference,” there is a causal history that makes proper names the names of the individuals they are (something like a “baptism.”) Natural kind terms, such as water and gold, work in much the same way. To take an example, the term “water” designates the natural H2O; if a substance were called water that was not H2O it would not be water. Putnam famously said of meanings in this regard that they “just ain’t in the head.” Articles by Kripke, Donnellan, and Putnam on this subject appear in Naming, Necessity and Natural Kinds (1977), edited by Stephen P. Schwartz.


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