What's in a name? Does it really matter what name we're given, or give ourselves?
As I was holding dialogues for my newest philosophy book -- a Socratic take on human flourishing (due out next March) -- one of the questions that came up on more than one occasion -- especially when I was holding dialogues with expecting parents -- was, "What should a newborn expect?"
One response right out of the starting gate, after this question is posed to participants at a natural childbirth class, is one of the more novel I've heard -- and makes clear that naming our infants is no game.
"A newborn should expect us to give her an appropriate name," says Sheri. The public relations director at an arts center is 7 months pregnant. "It should be a meaningful and hopeful name. In some way, it should capture who the baby is and can be, in the best sense. A name that doesn't just make the baby comfortable in his or her own skin, but is part of what inspires him or her to be a striver.
"But how do you do that?" she then asks us. "My partner and I each have a list of names we like. But until our child is born, and we know her sex -- we've chosen not to know beforehand -- we can't know what name would most be appropriate. We need to know not just the baby's sex, but a bit about the baby's personality first.
"So we've decided to wait a week or two after our baby's birth to choose a name. Our families think we're being 'eccentric.' But we think it's the best way to make sure that we've conscientiously chosen just the right name."
"I didn't always like the name my parents gave me," Taylor says to all of us now. "Taylor Taylor. You couldn't tell from the name that I'm female. And then of course there was the added drama, and trauma, of having the same first and last name. My father, Taylor Taylor IV, wanted this name to carry on in the family. And since it looked like I was to be their one and only child, that's the name he was bound and determined to give me."
"I know that family history is important in giving a name... but Taylor Taylor?" she goes on. "I believed that preserving a cherished family name, in keeping with tradition, was put ahead of my own interests and well-being. When I was in third grade, I came home in tears after being teased mercilessly, yet again, about my name. My father wasn't exactly sympathetic. But he was so exasperated that he told me I could change my name -- to anything I wanted, within reason.
"That was an offer I thought I couldn't refuse. But then, I began learning from my mother about all the Taylor Taylors before me, and their accomplishments in the world. One trekked to many of the most remote outposts of the globe. Another made a mark in cancer research. All were stand-outs in some way. I began to be won over, and to embrace the name. When I was teased about it from then on out, I began to stand up for being a Taylor Taylor. I became a fierce defender, not just for my own sake, but for all the Taylor Taylors before me. Bullies backed down. I may have been small, but I could pack a punch.
"It turns out it was just the right name for me. I'm sure it has more than a little something to do with my being an over-achiever. I don't want to disappoint my Taylor Taylor forebears, after all."
Now she says, "My husband and I now are debating whether to continue with the tradition and give our newborn a name that has family significance -- maybe one that's a shout-out to Dave's Celtic heritage. It will be a meaningful and 'expectant' name filled with promise and inspiration."
Looking at Taylor, Janan -- who is Hindu and whose name means "heart" -- says to her, "I'm glad your name turned out to be just right for you. But the parents, the namers, have to be careful. A name can be a great burden -- one to live up to, or down to. You can name her after someone in your family who is super accomplished, and if the person given that name falls short of hers or others' expectations, it can have a damaging impact."
She then tells us, "My husband and I will hold a naming ceremony, the Namakarana. It will take place 11 days after our baby is born. Naming a baby is a sacred duty, and the baby should have great expectations of us that we get it right. At the ceremony, presided over by a priest, family members and close friends will join us.
"Her name will be revealed this way: I'll whisper three times her chosen Hindu name in her right ear while her left ear is covered with a betel leaf. I'll then do the same in her left ear. She is given four names in all, and they all have special significance. Two are deity names, one is a constellation name, given on the day of birth and kept secret by the parents. Her popular name, the name she'll go by in everyday life, should be pleasing to the ear, and say something about important and special who she is."
"Most of all, "she says next, "a baby should expect to be given a name that gives her a strong and positive sense of identity. It should make you feel a bond with your family, community, the world. It is a tall order, but then again, naming is a huge responsibility, and our baby should expect us to take this very seriously."
What's in a name? And what do philosophers have to say on the subject?
The influential English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) would not have agreed with dialogue participants that their newborns' name should have any special meaning attached to it. "A proper name," Mill contended A System of Logic, is nothing more than "a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about, but not of telling anything about it."
So if my name is Chris -- or I claim my name is Chris, or at least, I'd like to be called Chris, no matter what my legal name is -- my name serves as a "referent," by Mill's logic, and as such it points to who I am but doesn't reveal anything more about me. Even if my name has some special family significance, Mill would assert that that's a non-utilitarian factor; a proper name serves only designate, and anything else one might claim it does is beside the point.
On the other hand, the German mathematician, logician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) has a philosophy of names that squares more with the participants' views. Frege claimed that a proper name is oh so much more than just a name; it tells a story, describes something about us.
So even though my name might be shared by millions of others, when it is applied to me, it is an important part of my story -- like, as some kids with whom I was philosophizing once put it, I'm "Chris the professional question-asker;" or as my 7th-grade teacher noted, of the three Chris's in my class, I was "the one with illegible handwriting;" or as my Greek Yaya liked to put it (even though I have no earthly idea if it's true) I'm "Chris who has the blood of Socrates coursing through him."
Frege's point is that even if all human parents were named Chris, and they chose in turn to name all their offspring Chris, each proper name of "Chris" would have a singular significance. When someone or something is given a proper name, Frege considers the naming ceremonial in nature.
So if you're named Chris, and I'm named Chris, each type names are named, a unique "dubbing ceremony" has taken place. That name then becomes a part of our story; it doesn't just 'show,' as Mill would have it, but it also 'tells.' The dubbing ceremony is so significant that American philosopher and logician Saul Kripke, building on Frege's work, equates it with an "initial baptism."
But what if you change your name? Then that constitutes a new dubbing ceremony becomes part of your story. Let's say William Shakespeare changes his name to Lyle LoveItOrLeaveIt, because one of the women he was in love with would only fall in love with guys whose proper names were Lyle Loveitorleaveit. Then that new name becomes a new dubbing, imbued with ceremony, a significant new part of his story.
What if someone yells at Lyle, so blindly in love that he doesn't pay attention to the fact that he's crossing a busy horse-and-buggy crossing, "Look where you're going, you idiot!"? Then part of his story, part of the description of his makeup, is that Lyle Loveitorleaveit is the "idiot" who unwittingly risked life and limb crossing a thoroughfare -- but idiot is not a new dumbing ceremony, since it is not used as a proper name.
Even if Shakespeare keeps his first and last names, the proper names resonates differently to different people. For instance, they will have far different meaning to his own parents, who dubbed him William long before he became a famous playwright, than it will to people centuries later who revere his work but may have little clue about his personal life (which in any event remains a subject of some mystery).
When some person, place or thing -- some proper name or names, whether Socrates or Shakespeare, Mount Everest or The Person Formally Known as Prince -- has different meanings to different people, this is referred to as "cluster descriptivism," an awkward coinage set forth by John Searle, a philosopher of mind and language, and Peter Strawson, a leading English philosopher from the 'ordinary language' camp (who apparently loves nothing better than to mangle ordinary language).
You may subscribe to one or more theories of proper names, or none at all. You may be one who has an "I don't name names" philosophy, refusing to implicate anyone, stranger or intimate, in a good or a bad deed.
Or maybe you don't name names because you tend to forget someone's name the moment after he introduces himself. If you're a parent, you may name your child after a fruit, just to be different.
Or you may name her after a fruit because it had some significance in how your child came to be conceived.
Or you may name your child on a whim -- name her Whim, in fact! -- or give extraordinarily conscientious and agonizing thought to what she should be named.
And even so, she may not cotton to it, and decide to change it, legally or otherwise. But the intention (or lack thereof) of the person giving the name -- whether it's your parents or you yourself -- is a central part of the naming ceremony. Unless and until many or most decide that the world of human beings would be better off without proper names, the fact that the overwhelming majority do dub proper names to those they bring into the world speaks to the fact that our names have significance, say something about us, speak to us. There is intentionality.
When my grandparents immigrated through Ellis Island, their names were indiscriminately misspelled or rewritten by bureaucrats anxious to process them as quickly and thoughtlessly as possible. My grandfather Philip Philipou, when in the U.S., spelled his last name Philips, as apparently did one of the first American bureaucrats he encountered. My yaya, Phillips; he died first, so Phillips with 2 l's won out.
But the plot thickens. Some forms he filled out and signed show that he often spelled his name Filip Filipos, and sometimes Filipou. But the bureaucrats in his immigration forms never took much cotton to this spelling. So the variation of the spellings of my paternal family name is a story in itself, a series of dubbing ceremonies. I've often thought of returning to our family's original spelling, and (re)naming myself Christopher Philipou.
When I told my dad this, he looked at me with some disbelief, and it turned out to be the subject of some considerable debate. I still haven't made up my mind over the matter, though became more and more comfortable with the prospect before his death in September 2011, and he came to share to some degree my disconcertedness that our family name since his parents' arrival in the U.S. was "chosen" by a nameless bureaucrat.
Then I ask myself, do I really want to have that last name? Has its history moved on?
Our own oldest daughter, Caliope, was named after the Greek muse of wisdom and poetry. It turns out that she is a natural born poet; she began crafting her own chap books at age five (she taught herself to read and write at age four). And she is indeed a bundle of wisdom.
Did the fact that we named her Caliope have anything to do with how she has unfolded so far? We have told her, on a number of occasions, why we gave her the name we did.
Even so, is the fact that her name's history meshes perfectly with her passion for poetry, not to mention her deep well of inborn wisdom, mere happenstance? Or is there more to it than that, and can just the right name help nurture and tease out her innate gifts?
You make the call.