The Problem of Naming

two human figures sit at a table holding glasses of red liquid

“This is a Blarg,” said my partner, placing his glass of wine in the middle of the table.

We were at a friend’s house late in the evening, on a rare vacation without our children. The conversation had taken a turn, as they frequently do in my world, for the philosophical. We had a moment of replaying our undergraduate days.

“What does it mean to name something?” he asked.

We stared at the glass. We were moderately too impaired to do the question justice, having just returned from a family wedding and having thus spent the evening drowning the emotional weight. It was a mellow conversation, no beer-sloshing involved. We came, as we usually do, to no conclusions, having  gone round and round the conversation of what makes a chair a chair so many times over the years, we see no further angles to be explored.

Later, he said, “Could somebody hand me a blarg?” and he was handed a tumbler full of water. He did not object. “So, we agree in principle that it was the glass itself, and not the wineglass or the glass of wine to which you were referring?” “I guess so,” he said, and we went onto other topics.

But the next day, the question reasserted itself in my mind. What does it mean to name something? What does it mean to name something?

Naming Something: creating categories where none existed

Mathematical philosophers are keen on a set of problems that are broadly classified as paradoxes.

These are, in essence, statements about the world which *seem* reasonable on the surface, but which, when examined more closely, result in absurd or impossible conclusions.

Suppose, for example, that there exists a village which has a rule that says, “All men who do not shave themselves are shaved by the barber.” (1) The question that exposes the (extremely famous) paradox is, “Who shaves the barber?” (If he shaves himself, he is not supposed to be shaved by the barber… but he is. etc.) (If you simply must see the detailed proof of the intractability of the contradiction, it’s on youtube… with animation!)

Not to discount the mathematical truth of the paradox, the linguistic example exposes a completely different issue with our thinking… which is to propose that, in becoming a barber, the man acquires a different essential nature. The problem is with the use of the verb “to be”, which functions as an identity operator. In this formulation, “The Barber” is now always a barber, whether he is in the midst of barbering or not. His being is now that of A Barber. In this moment of naming, we divided the world in two, and we created a problem (of maintaining that division) where previously none existed.

New Names, New Rules

Even if you, like me, now wish to dismiss this paradox as arising from a rule too stupid to be considered (more on that later), let us sit with it for just a while longer…

For some reason, this village concerns itself with the regulation of shaving behaviours. Perhaps it is a public health concern, perhaps there is some stricture regarding it as a pleasurable activity.  Maybe a powerful barber cartel runs the political system at the national level. Whatever the underlying cause, men are not permitted to go ’round shaving one another all willy-nilly. It also seems clear that a man cannot become The Barber simply by offering to shave his friend’s face, as there is, apparently, only one in the village. There must be some process by which a man makes the transition from not-Barber to Barber, or by which Barber-ness is conveyed.

Before the rule was written, there were (presumably) just men who shaved or didn’t as they saw fit. Their neighbours may have looked askance at their hairy faces, but they didn’t have the force of law to do anything about it. There may even have been people willing to provide shaves for other people, and they may not even all have been men.

But all that changes with the creation of a formal category (role) called The Barber.

Now the village requires an entirely new set of processes. They require

  • a means of selecting The Barber
  • a way of enforcing shaving requirements
  • regulations regarding frequency of shaving and/or maximum permissible stubbliness
  • some means of preventing illicit and/or black-market barbering

A whole new world of social control is opened up by this requirement.

Look. Let’s be honest. It is a dumb rule. The “paradox” only arises because of the presence of an unnecessary condition in the definition of barber/not barber. If the barber were simply defined as “The person who shaves other people”, without that strange and unnatural exclusive or, there would be no paradox. If we defined barbering as a process, not an identity, he could shave himself quite happily, because barbering would only occur in the moment of relationship with the other. Any number of possible formulations resolve the practical problem… because no conflict exists in fact. The tension arises purely as an artefact of our incorrectly described (and thus prescribed) reality.

But here’s the thing: we try to live our lives according to equally dumb and contradictory rules all the time. This is the nature of the policed identity, which tells you what you can and cannot do based not upon your abilities or your interests, but upon some category to which you have been assigned. Or which has been assigned to you.

For now, before we get deeper into the problem of identity, let us rest here (possibly sipping at our blargs of wine) in the world of the regulated, perplexed, and hairy barber, not because it is realistic, but because it is unlikely to turn the ire of the world upon us.

Unless there really is a secret barber cartel.

1. This is the statement as I first encountered it, and it seems a perfectly natural way of expressing a rule. More recent iterations seem to be mainly of the form, “The barber shaves those, and only those, who do not shave themselves.” Which I can’t imagine any non-mathematician uttering in casual conversation.

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