Analytic Theology

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The Proper Names of the Beasts

January 9th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: At Genesis 2:19, God grants Adam the prerogative to name the animals, all of which God (only recently) had made. “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field,” emphasis added. The punch-line of the story is, none of these creatures was a “fit helper” for Adam; the ostensible purpose of the exercise was to find him just such a “sustainer” (which is said to be a better translation). “By clear implication, the man rejects the whole of God’s labors in creating [these] living creatures. They may be ‘good,’ but they are not good for him,” Miles, Jack, God – A Biography 31 (1995). Mr. Miles well might have added some commendation to this outcome, because otherwise, we’d all be centaurs, or mermaids, or some other fanciful combination.

Wait a minute, did we miss a step? How can Adam go about naming the animals, without having language, to begin with? “Language” doesn’t show up until Genesis 11:1, the story of the Tower of Babel (more on which later): “Now the whole earth had one language and few words,” emphasis added. Evidently many of these words were deployed in the naming of the animals, of which there must have been thousands.

And there’s another problem: this exercise seems casual in the extreme. We don’t know how long the process took; if Adam adopted any standards or selection criteria; or, the extent of his concern for weighty issues of ontology and philology. Keep in mind, the only person around at this point, is Adam himself; God, of course, is there, too. So who wrote things down? After naming the animals, did Adam create a directory of some sort, so he could keep track of things, or hand out name-tags?

Both of these strike me as being difficult to accomplish, particularly without a written language. The hypothetical proto-language spoken (not necessarily written) by Adam sometimes is referred to as the “Adamic” language. But just what is it? Is it God’s own language, or something Adam made up, on the spot, as it were?

This last alternative hardly is likely. Language is a cultural construct, and its evolution is complex. There is nothing more nonsensical than the view of somebody like Noam Chomsky to the effect the human brain has some kind of “innate structure,” enabling it to frame the world in linguistic terms, see, e.g., Chomsky, N., Language and Mind (1968). Even if so (and it’s not), all Adam would have is a “universal grammar,” to use Chomsky’s term; it still would be necessary actually to structure a language, around it. Most likely, Adam identified each animal by “ostension,” that is, he pointed to it. He then assigned it a string of phonemes, which is what the animal came to be called. There can be no doubt but that the world preceded the word.

In Genesis – A Commentary 82 (1961), Gerhard von Rad analyzes Adam’s activity, as follows:

“Th[is] is what the remarkable passage about the naming of the animals means; we are not dependent for an explanation on the primitive view of the connection between a name and its bearer. Nor is the point here the name as a word, but rather the relation between word and fact, and this is much more complicated. … [N]aming is thus both an act of copying and an act of appropriate ordering, by which man intellectually objectifies the creatures for himself. Thus one may say that something is said here about the origin and nature of language. The emphasis is placed not on the invention of words but on that inner appropriation by recognition and interpretation that takes place in language. Here, interestingly, language is seen not as a means of communication but as an intellectual capacity by means of which man brings conceptual order to his sphere of life. Concretely: when man says “ox” he has not simply discovered the word “ox,” but rather understood this creature as ox and included it in his imagination and his life as a help to his life.”

Emphasis added. Hmmm, von Rad is right, this is starting to get complicated. I think what von Rad actually may be looking for is a theory of reference, or, as he puts it, “the relation between word and fact.” Von Rad takes reference a step further, though. He believes it is “an act of appropriate ordering, by which man intellectually objectifies the creatures for himself;” he might just as well have said, the entire contents of the physical world.

The topic of reference is philosophically interesting. Let’s look carefully at exactly what it was Adam was doing. Genesis makes it seem as though he’s giving each of the animals a proper name. In reference lingua franca, though, “proper name” is a special kind of designation – it is the name of a specific object or thing. What Adam did more likely should be called, creating a “common noun.” The common noun “horse,” for example, only would become a proper name if Adam started naming each individual horse, such as, Horse #1 is “Laurie,” Horse #2 is “Leah,” etc. While it’s possible this is what Adam was doing – Genesis is ambiguous on this score – it doesn’t seem like it. If there were 100,000 horses, for example, he’d then have to come up with 100,000 proper names. Keep in mind we’re not even sure he has any form of language, to begin with; and, if he did, it comprised only a “few words.”

“Adam,” on the other hand, is a proper name, though it’s not quite clear how Adam got it. God fashioned him out of dust from the ground, Genesis 2:7. “Adam” derives from the Hebrew word for earth: ‘ādām = man, dāmā = earth. After forming him, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” The word “Adam,” however, doesn’t even show up until Genesis 3:17. All prior references simply are to “the man,” which (as we know) is a common noun, not a proper name. We therefore don’t know if God gave “the man” the proper name, “Adam;” given our doubts about Chomsky’s Cartesian-esque theories, this seems the most likely alternative. “Eve,” on the other hand, has less of a problem; the Bible is clear, Adam gave her this proper name, himself (Genesis 3:20).

Another concept we can use to help us address these perplexing issues is that of “description.” A description comprises a set of ascriptive predicates, properly attributable to a common noun. Here are some of a horse’s ascriptive predicates, for instance:

(1) It has four legs.
(2) It has a mane and a tail.
(3) It can be domesticated and ridden.
(4) It likes to eat carrots and sugar.

Thinking more generally, for any common noun, we can characterize its ascriptive predicates, as follows:

{AP1, AP2, AP3, … APn}.

This is what helps us, and what probably helped Adam, differentiate horses from, say, unicorns. All he would have to do is compare the AP sets for each. If

{H1, H2, H3, … Hn} ≈ {U1, U2, U3, … Un},

then Adam would be justified in concluding they were one and the same type of animal. He therefore would not identify U by a separate common noun. Rather, he would subsume U as another instance, or instantiation, of H. The reason why we want to use an approximation sign “≈” instead of a strict identity sign “=” is to allow for any number of (relatively uninteresting) instances in which identification may be ambiguous. However, if

Hn = {under no circumstances does this beast have a horn growing out of its head},


Un = {this beast may be conclusively identified by the horn growing out of its head},

then a new common noun is necessary. In this way, both common nouns and descriptions have a “sense” or “meaning.”

We might call the above types of descriptions “vague” or “indefinite” descriptions, because, potentially, they could refer to more than one thing. If a description is unique, on the other hand — that is, it refers only to one and only one thing — it is called a “definite description.” An example is, “The horse Paul Revere rode to warn the colonists the British were coming.”

Positivists, like Tractatus-era Wittgenstein, and Bertrand Russell, did not think proper names had sense, or meaning, as we’ve defined these terms. Rather, they believed a proper name only had a reference – the unique person, or thing, to which it refers.

Let’s look at Russell for a minute. In “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” reprinted in Russell, B. (ed. Marsh, R.), Logic and Knowledge 177 (1956), perhaps influenced by the development of nuclear power, Mr. Russell identified what he called an “atomic fact.” An atomic fact is the simplest fact imaginable; for example, “This is white.” This proposition is “monadic,” because it expresses only one relation. The subject of a monadic proposition is what Mr. Russell called a “particular.” Cleverly alliterating, he contends, “you cannot ever talk about a particular particular except by means of a proper name,” 200. Says Mr. Russell:

“A name, in the narrow logical sense of a word whose meaning is a particular, can only be applied to a particular with which the speaker is acquainted, because you cannot name anything you are not acquainted with. You remember, when Adam named the beasts, they came before him one by one, and he became acquainted with them and named them.”

201, emphasis added. Far be it for me to criticize Mr. Russell, but I’m afraid here he’s confusing proper names with common nouns, as we discussed above. That being so, Russell’s point is, “in order to understand a name for a particular, the only thing necessary is to be acquainted with that particular. When you are acquainted with that particular, you have a full, adequate, and complete understanding of the name, and no further information is required. No further information as to the facts that are true of that particular would enable you to have a fuller understanding of the meaning of the name,” 202.

Proper names, then, “are really abbreviations for descriptions,” which may have many ascriptive predicates. In this respect, they’re like common nouns, though at a different level of discourse; this probably accounts for Mr. Russell’s confusion about what Adam was doing when he was naming the beasts. And, in the case of a proper name, he also should call it a definite description, rather than simply a description, because it uniquely refers.

As regards Adam, Mr. Russell therefore would contend, all there is to know about the name “Adam” is comprehended within the set of ascriptive predicates properly attributable to him — the definite description subsumed by the proper name. Those ascriptive predicates might look something like this:

(1) He was the first person.
(2) He named the animals.
(3) God (probably) named him.
(4) He lived in the Garden of Eden


Although intuitive, Russell’s account raises issues. First, if “Adam” simply refers to a unique individual, then it doesn’t really “stand for” a definite description. In a way, all you’re saying is, “Adam” = “Adam,” which isn’t informative. Second, as Adam himself probably found out during the naming exercise, a name can be pretty arbitrary; there’s no reason why Adam couldn’t have called a horse a “zebra,” for example (again ignoring for a moment, like Russell did, the distinction between common nouns and proper names). And, as applied to Adam, this certainly wouldn’t work, at all, especially considering the significance of his proper name.

Third, although he descries the ontological argument for the existence of God, in a way, Russell is making the same error. He’s assuming “existence is a predicate,” which it’s not. Example: “There are things such as horses,” on Russell’s account, supposes one of horse’s ascriptive predicates is, “it exists.” If we took such a statement (again, pretending “horse” is a proper name instead of a common noun) and ask, “Is it true?,” then the answer would be “yes.” But this is trivial, because we’ve packed the idea of it “existing” into the definition itself, as one of the ascriptive predicates. The same thing happens if we assert, “There are no such things as unicorns,” which would be trivially false. For this reason, it can’t be said any statement about an object’s existence (or non-existence) “refers” to that object. Rather, it expresses an idea, and avers there is an instance, or an instantiation, of the idea in the real world.

Fourth, what about changes to objects? Said Virgil, “Varium et mutabile semper femina,” Aeneid IV:569. And then, of course, there was Prince. In 1993, hoping to get out of his contract with Warner Bros., he changed his name to an unpronounceable, glyph-like symbol, Morris, B., “A Name That Got Away, An Odd Receiving Line,” New York Times (Jul, 17, 1994). Under Russell’s account, each time this happens to something, it needs a new proper name. But clearly we don’t do this; we keep referring to it as one and the same thing (oops, I mean, “particular”). In other words, a particular even may vanish, but somehow, we keep referring to it. But if a proper name were the same thing as the subject of an atomic proposition, which is Russell’s claim, then this wouldn’t be possible. It’s not like the “real” particular somehow keeps floating around in space, making reference to it possible.

There are some answers to this dilemma, but they await the next post, which will deal with an even more surprising proper name. Isn’t this exciting?