Can People Have Names?

Yesterday’s post about names as performance got me to thinking. Somewhere on the periphery of memory I seemed to recall a paper about a medieval debate whether people can have names. And, sure enough, I found it:

As a medievalist I’m fascinated by the details, but as a genealogist it’s enough to know that such a debate could and did occur. Probably no one in casual conversation would believe it.

So, let’s have just a taste. From the overview: “First, how was it theoretically possible to doubt the nameability of individuals? To answer this question, I look at the medieval traditions in the language arts. Specifically, I argue that Boethius’s commentaries on Aristotle’s Perihermeneias provide criteria for what counts as a nomen or “name” in a philosophical sense, but those criteria specifically exclude words that might otherwise be regarded as nomina or “nouns” in a grammatical sense. Granting this distinction, I then ask the second question of the thesis: On what reasonable grounds might a philosopher think that a name of an individual is merely a grammatical “noun” rather than a genuine philosophical “name”? Here the answer seems to be that individuals cannot be named as such because they cannot be understood as such. I investigate two broad motivations in the arguments: (a) human cognitive faculties are not equipped to grasp the individual as such, and (b) individuals are unknowable in themselves because they are composites of matter (which is unknowable) and form (which may be knowable, but which may also be common to many individuals).

In other words, it’s medieval European philosophers learning to digest Aristotle after re-discovering him in the 12th and 13th centuries. (Thank you, Muslims). Same old, same old.

I think those of us with personal names are safe enough. Our heritage doesn’t require us to give them up.

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