He is, arguably, the world’s greatest living philosopher. But, unless you have a particular interest in philosophy, the chances are you’ve never heard of him.
Saul Aaron Kripke, now 77, was the eldest of three children, born to Dorothy and Myer, and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. Myer was a rabbi, at the Beth El Synagogue. Dorothy wrote educational books for children.
That their son was a bit unusual was clear from the beginning. By the age of seven Saul was self-taught in Hebrew: his parents thought this was some kind of hoax until they tested him. When he was an undergraduate at Harvard, he taught a seminar at MIT. He made his first scholarly breakthrough in logic aged 17.
Kripke has published very little in his lifetime, but everything he has published is of fundamental importance. In 1980, the brilliant Naming and Necessity was published (it had appeared as a paper some years earlier). One of the puzzles the book addresses is how, when I use a proper name, like Golders Green, or, say, Howard Jacobson, I refer to a thing or person or a place in the world.
Take “Howard Jacobson”. When I deploy a sentence involving Howard Jacobson (e.g.”Howard Jacobson grew up in Manchester”), how does this name pick out the thing, the particular human being to whom I intend to refer? An old view had it that a proper name, like “Howard Jacobson” was a sort of disguised description… eg by “Howard Jacobson” I refer to the author of The Mighty Walzer and Kalooki Nights. But this can’t be right. For one thing, it is conceivable that Howard Jacobson didn’t actually write those books — perhaps we have all been conned by an elaborate ruse and the real author is, say, Miriam Margolyes. Even in such a world, however, when I talk about Howard Jacobson I would obviously not be referring to Miriam Margolyes.
Kripke offers an alternative account — he calls it an “historical chain picture”. At some stage, back in 1942, a baby emerged from Mrs Jacobson, and she and her husband decided to name it Howard. Then, after this original act of naming, the name becomes what Kripke calls a rigid designator. When I refer to “Howard Jacobson” I refer to the same person in any possible world in which this person exists. It is possible that “Howard Jacobson” did not actually write Kalooki Nights. It is possible that the person named by his parents “Howard Jacobson” decided to move to Israel and cultivate pomegranates. It is not possible that Howard Jacobson ever met Theodor Herzl (who died before Howard Jacobson was born).
Naming and Necessity covers much more than just proper names. Hailed as one of the most significant philosophical works of the twentieth century, the book reflects Kripke’s life-long obsession with “modal logic”— what could have been, what must be, what is contingent, what is necessary. Could water be discovered on Mars which was not H2O? (No, because water is a rigid designator: water is necessarily H2O).
One reason you have probably never heard of Kripke is that he gives very few interviews. He is not a public philosopher in the mould of, say, Michael Sandel (a previous subject of this column). Although he is revered within the realm of philosophy— “genius”is an adjective routinely used to describe him — he is unusual in at least one respect. Philosophy is a very secular place, and Kripke is an observant Jew.
A centre in his name has now been established at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Its function is to preserve, publish and promote his work.
Of course, it is not inconceivable that all the works on modal logic that we attribute to Saul Kripke were actually written by Howard Jacobson.
David Edmonds is a research fellow at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics