What's in a Name?

Nothing seems simpler than a name, right? We all have one. We know many of them. We embarrassingly forget some of them. They are exceedingly useful in talking about the world and seem to be rather uncomplicated. It turns out that they are really not, though. Philosophers, especially in the Anglophone world, have written a great deal about names in the 20th century. One view of the semantics of names goes back to the famous British philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who proposed that the semantic value—a fancy way to say ‘meaning’—of proper names is just the referent of the name. So, the meaning of my name, ‘Casey Woodling’ is, well, me. There is really nothing else to the meaning of my name. This seems on the face of it to be a rather plausible view. What else might be a candidate for the meaning of ‘Casey Woodling’? When people use this name, they are trying to refer to me and get the listener to think about me, so it seems fairly plausible that this is all there is to the semantic value of names. Of course, there are very well-known problems for Millianism. The famous German philosopher Gottlob Frege raised some difficult ones through his famous puzzles. Consider the following sentences.

a.     Robert Zimmerman is Robert Zimmerman
b.     Bob Dylan is Robert Zimmerman.

‘Bob Dylan’ and ‘Robert Zimmerman’ are two names for the same person in case you didn't know that about Bob Dylan! If Millianism were true, then the meaning of each sentence would be the same, as the names have the same referent, but this hardly seems to be the case. There are also problems when we try to substitute these co-referring names in what philosophers call attitudinal contexts, contents about attitudes or mental states of people.

c.      Casey believes that Robert Zimmerman is Robert Zimmerman.
d.     Casey believes that Bob Dylan is Robert Zimmerman.

It seems that (c) could be true while (d) is false. Perhaps I just don't know that Bob Dylan's birth name is 'Robert Zimmerman'. The terms do not seem to be substitutable in different attitudinal contexts suggesting that there is really more to their meaning than just their referent or denotation. These observations lead to Frege’s famous theory of sense, a notion of meaning that is clearly distinct from reference. In addition to these famous puzzles of Frege, there is also the worry about empty names, names that do not refer to anything but still seem to have meaning or cognitive significane, names such as: ‘Santa Claus’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, and so on.

 View from the University of Antsiranana

View from the University of Antsiranana

It seems to me that there is another problem for Millianism as well: some languages have naming practices wherein names have clear connotations in addition to denotations. Malagasy provides an excellent example of this. Take the first king to unite the Merina kingdom of Madagascar. His name was ‘Andrianampoinimerina’. (It's quite a mouthful for non-native speakers. You can see this for yourself by trying to say it!) This was actually not his birth name but a name he took after taking control of the various mini-kingdoms near what is now Antananarivo. His birth name, by the way, was ‘Ramboasalama’. Now each name has a connotation. ‘Andrian’ means king. ‘Nampionimerina’ means roughly the king who is in the heart of the Merina (the people). So, the term expresses the following connotation: the king who is in the heart of the Merina. His birth name means healthy dog and also is prefixed by ‘Ra’, which gives respect, so the connotation is something like: respected healthy dog. When I talk to Malagasy people about my children, Grady and Marcella, they often ask me what their names mean. They do this because Malagasy names almost always have a connotation in addition to the person they denote. I often find myself saying that their names have no meaning today, but they had one in the past. Based on etymology, ‘Grady’ means noble and ‘Marcella’ means war-like, but people no longer associate these meanings with the names in general. The fact that English names rarely ever have a recognized connotation has the effect of making Millianism seem more plausible, and it is perhaps no surprise that an Englishman first developed it. When applied to Malagasy names, it seems to be a non-starter given that many Malagasy names are rich in connotations that outstrip their mere denotation or reference. A good friend’s name is ‘Hobiniaina’ which means acclaim of life. This is a way for the parents to say that their child is to be one of the key features of their legacy. There is a clear meaning to names in Madagascar and parents put thought into their choice, as they do in the English-speaking world of course. However, names are often chosen in the English-speaking world based on personal associations that the names have in the minds of the namers and not based on their conventional connotations. Perhaps a child is named after someone, or in some instances, a place, but rarely do the parents in the English-speaking world have a meaning in mind in the sense that Malagasy parents do. So, it seems to me that Millianism has one more problem than we previously thought.

Measuring the truth of Western views against linguistic or cultural facts in Madagascar is not new. Elinor Ochs (1976) argued that Paul Grice’s famous maxims of conversation were simply not true in the Vakinankaratra region of Madagascar. I have been telling my own students that they should keep this method in mind as they formulate their own research; they should ask themselves whether the Western views under discussion cover all the facts of the Malagasy context. In the case of Millianism, they seem not to. So, what is in a name, after all? It seems to depend very much on the naming practices of one’s language community, and there seems to be more in names in Madagascar than in the English-speaking world.

Mbolatsara (Still good)

Time seems to be flying by lately. We went to Antsiranana in the north of the island so that I could do some teaching, mentoring, and teacher training. It was a great trip. We got to see the city and the majestic views of the many bays of Antsiranana, and get out of the hustle and bustle of the capital for a bit. The university there is very different from the university in the capital. It is a bit smaller and it has a more open and relaxed feel to it. There is often a strong and pleasant wind coming from the bay that seems to bring a feeling of calm with it. It’s very chill, as they say. It must be said, though, that the town is very hot and gets an incredible amount of sun! The greeting there in Antsiranana is ‘Mbolatsara’ which literally means still good. The most common greeting in Antanananrivo is 'Manahoana' (or 'Manao ahoana' in it’s long form). In the Betsileo region, they mostly say 'Salama' to greet people, and I remain faithful to that one in many instances, but I have to say that I started to take a pretty serious liking to ‘mbolatsara’.

 English Teachers at the University of Antsiranana

English Teachers at the University of Antsiranana

We have been back in Antananarivo now since the middle of May and things have been going at a quick pace since then. I am nearly finished with my Philosophy of Language course for students studying Linguistics in the Anglophone Studies Department.

 Philosophy of Language Students at the University of Antananarivo

Philosophy of Language Students at the University of Antananarivo

In the course, we discussed different well-known theories of meaning in the Western tradition, Austin’s famous theory of speech acts, and the two claims that form the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism). I got to run my ideas about the connection between Malagasy language and thought by them. We have had some great meetings, and I am sad that the course is ending, but I believe I will have some more time with the students as a colleague and I are testing out an idea that would show that linguistic determinism is true in a very specific case. Linguistic determinism is the idea that the language one speaks limits or constrains the way that one sees the world. So, if we can get the results from our experiment in time, then I would like to share it with these students. I am doing a rather compressed version of the course (meeting 5 hours a week), so that I can start a course on Academic English for Non-Majors that I taught in February and promised that I would re-teach. In addition to these things, I’ve got two American Studies courses up and running (American Studies I and II), as well as a weekly English Club and a weekly Philosophy Club. And there’s plenty of other non-teaching things in the mix, too, keeping me busy! But things are going well. Mbolatsara, as they say up north. It's busy but good. At times in the past, I have often felt that things were very busy with teaching and work, only to miss that feeling later when things died down. Perhaps the energy of it all can spur you on. All I know now is that I’m a bit like the guy in this photo and I’ve gotta keep moving for the near future!

 Gotta keep moving!

Gotta keep moving!

Mandehandeha (To go around)

 Otherworldly Baobabs

Otherworldly Baobabs

We have been traveling lately. We took a trip with Emily’s mother to Morondava for about a week in late April when she was visiting. Morondava is a laid-back beach town on Madagascar’s west coast. Emily and I went there once in 2008, during our Peace Corps service, but we had not been back since the recent trip. Morondava is famous for the Avenue of Baobabs, but the town itself, and the area called Nosy Kely (the little island), are also very charming. It’s certainly one of my favorite towns in Madagascar. Everyone there seems perpetually chilled out, and it is easy to get around town (motorized rickshaw or by foot). Sadly, the same cannot be said for Antananarivo at present. One of the best things about the trip was that we got the chance to see our good friend Rado’s family and to see the house that he grew up in. Rado came to the states when Emily and I were still in the Peace Corps in 2008. After Peace Corps we moved to Nashville, and met Rado there, who is from Morondava, along with 25 or so other students from Madagascar. We were happy to stay connected to Madagascar by meeting and befriending them. In addition to being an incredibly smart guy, Rado is also an incredibly good guy who has a ton of friends. His mother described him as tia namana, which is to say that he likes people or likes to have friends. The dialect of Malagasy spoken in Morondava (Sakalava-Menabe) is different than the dialect spoken in Tana (Merina or Teny Malagasy Ofisialy as it is called), but it is easy to communicate with people in Malagasy there. It was a great trip, and I feel truly blessed to have seen the majestic Avenue of Baobabs with family on multiple occasions. When you are there, it really seems as if you are on another planet. (In 2008 we went with our Emily’s intrepid sister and brother-in-law who trekked across Madagascar like seasoned pros.)

 Rado's Mom and Uncle

Rado's Mom and Uncle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Downtown Antsiranana

Downtown Antsiranana

 

We are now in Antsiranana (formerly named ‘Diego Suarez’ and now also commonly known as simply ‘Diego’) because I am doing some work with students and teachers at the University of Antsiranana. It is the northern-most large city in Madagascar and has Madagascar’s second busiest port, after Toamasina on the east coast.

The university sits on the beautiful bay here and seems to have a perpetual breeze and laid-back vibe, complete with goats and zebu grazing on campus. I am currently working with Master’s level students on improving their academic English, as well as meeting with seniors and juniors to help them with their English. I am also doing some teacher development and in general trying to help as much as I can. The dialect of Malagasy here—teny Antakarana—is much more different than the dialect spoken in the capital of Antananarivo, much more different in fact than the dialect of Malagasy spoken in Morondava. There is a good mix of French used in the dialect here—a surprising amount in fact to me at least. Malagasy people in Antananarivo use a fair amount of French, but here there is even more French mixed in with the local way of speaking. In all, the trip has been good and we are managing to see the city as much as we can. Things are fairly stable here in Diego and the university appears fairly lively. Antsiranana is a nice place to visit and work, and I am lucky to be able to do both here. Emily and I did not make it here during our Peace Corps service.

 University of Antsiranana

University of Antsiranana

One thing that continually strikes me as unique about Madagascar is the sheer natural beauty of the place. I find it hard to describe all of it, partly because it is so diverse here (you can see deserts, rainforests, mountains, and beaches) and partly because some of the scenes must be taken in with all of your senses and cannot be captured properly by words or by still images. You may have to work to get to some of these majestic spots, but such work is repaid in full by the natural beauty experienced and by the continual glimpses of the many different forms of life that fill out the grand tapestry that is fomba ‘gasy (Malagasy culture). 

 View of the bay in Antsiranana

View of the bay in Antsiranana

Simeon Rajaona on the Authentic Malagasy Mind

 Simeon Rajaona Room at The University of Antananarivo

Simeon Rajaona Room at The University of Antananarivo

Simeon Rajaona is perhaps the most famous Malagasy intellectual. He was Dean of the Faculty of Letters at the University of Antananarivo from 1971-1974, and he wrote a great deal about Malagasy literature and also the Malagasy language itself. Two pieces of his have grabbed my attention as of late. They were written early in his career when he was still in his 30s and concern the relationship between the Western worldview and authentic Malagasy worldview.

  • “Essai d’analyse de la structure de la pensée malgache, examen de quelques notions” (1959)
  • “Aspects de la psychologie malgache vus à travers certains traits des ‘Kabary’ et quelques faits de langue” (1963)

Even a quick reading makes you realize immediately that you are dealing with a man with a keen and penetrating intellect, a thinker capable of not only sophisticated and daring analysis but also one with great pride in his cultural heritage. Though I don’t agree with everything in the two papers, I think that Rajaona makes some fascinating points about the authentic Malagasy mind. My colleagues, Zoly Rakotoniera and Graziella Masindrazana, and I are working on a response to the paper. While we don’t agree with everything, it is out of great respect for Rajaona and his ideas that we set to work on the topic.

Here is the rundown of his main claims.

1)    Westerners have tended to read Western notions into the Malagasy worldview thereby displacing authentic Malagasy notion—the notion of truth being a prime example here.
2)    Malagasy do not reason in the same way as Westerners.
3)    Malagasy enjoy a direct connection with the external world. Their mental connection with the world is not mediated by categories as is the case with Westerners.
4)    Malagasy ethics is distinct from Western ethics.

The argument for claim (1) is perhaps the most sophisticated in both papers. He does what you might call a deep semantic analysis of the word marina (which is typically translated into English as meaning true). His analysis delves into the etymology of marina and its cognates. The upshot is that the Malagasy notion of truth is not the same as the Western notion. The Western notion is one that involves something, some representation, being true just in case it corresponds to something in the world. Unlike the Western concept and its focus on correspondence, the idea of balance or harmony permeates the Malagasy concept of truth. The basic idea is that truth is not accuracy or correspondence but a balance between disparate elements. In the end, we do not agree that the very notion of truth in the Western and Malagasy worldviews is distinct. There is a distinction between cultural attitudes toward the truth, though. So, Rajaona was on to something. Malagasy, in many circumstances, believe that reaching a harmonious agreement in matters is more important that getting all the facts right. They also arguably believe that truth is more elusive than do Westerners. At any rate, our response attempts to mirror the subtlety of Rajaona’s own argument, so I can’t go into all the details here, but we do note there is a difference in the worldviews with regard to cultural attitudes about truth but not the very concept of truth itself, which we argue is not specifically Western or specifically Malagasy but universal.

 

 Simeon Rajaona Photo in the Faculty of Letters Building

Simeon Rajaona Photo in the Faculty of Letters Building

This is, in fact, the main strategy of the paper: to find points of agreement and try to state what we think is true in Rajaona’s claims while rejecting the more extreme elements of his view. Point (3) is an example. He thinks that Malagasy think more with images than Westerners do, and are therefore in more direct contact with the external world than the Westerners since the latter’s connection is mediated by a conceptual layer of categorization. This is a striking claim, and it would obviously be incredibly interesting if it were true. However, no real argument is given for it—which is certainly not true of all the claims, but it is true of this one. As claim (2), the alleged differences in reasoning, we find a difference in content but not in form. Malagasy people often use proverbs, which are populated with local flora and fauna of Madagascar, in argumentation. Here is one.

           

Ny valala tsy indroa mandry am-bavahady. (The cricket doesn’t sleep twice at the gate.)

The meaning here is that one should take advantage of unique opportunities--strike while the iron is hot, as we say in English. Using a proverb in argument has great power here. And proverbs are very imagistic, hence Rajaona’s claim that Malagasy people reason in a more concrete way that Westerners. We have many things to say about this, but here let me be brief. Using proverbs in reasoning is doing something that Western philosophers have done for a long time: using analogies in argumentation. These involve comparing two objects and drawing a conclusion about one based on a basis of shared similarity. So, the form of the reasoning is not new or unique, though the content surely is. The area of the paper that, I think, is in need of the most extensive further exploration is the claim about a distinct Malagasy form of ethics, (4). What is the ethical code one finds in the proverbial wisdom passed down from the ancestors? Rajaona, like Rahajarizafy (1970) after him, argues that Malagasy thinking about ethics is essentially an approach that tries to avoid extremes and find a middle ground. This needs to be worked out in more detail, but the gist of it certainly seems true based on proverbs, the writings of Malagasy philosophers and what Malagasy themselves report about a distinctive Malagasy way of thinking about ethics. Of course, there are other approaches to ethics in the history of thought that share this insight, but much work could be done to systematize the ethical advice and outlook in the proverbs. 

In the end, Rajaona’s project is a good one, and one that I am endlessly fascinated by these days. While we don’t agree with everything that Rajaona says, we certainly feel his concern for scholars falsely reading Western notions into the Malagasy mind. As a philosopher I have a tendency to look for what is shared, for what is arguable universal in seemingly disparate ways of looking at the world. So, I work on checking this as I research. Rajaona, I think, has perhaps the opposite tendency: to see Malagasy habits of mind as being singular and unique when there are either universal elements or parallels in the grand history of human thought. But in the end there are surely some concepts that are distinctly Malagasy. There is an ethical system in the proverbs that deserves to be labeled Malagasy if anything does.

One gets the sense that his great fear was that colonization would not just harm the proper or natural development of the country, but that it would erase the very essence of being Malagasy, the authentic Malagasy way of seeing the world and the way of treating others and moving about life that is passed down from the ancestors and is part of the shared heritage that has united and should continue to unite Malagasy people. Perhaps one of the greatest fears for a people is losing the memory or knowledge of their cultural values. If cities burn, they can be rebuilt from blueprints or from memory. Completely supplanting the Malagasy mind with the Western mind burns not just the city but it burns the blueprints themselves. That is a scary thought for anyone who has been touched by the spirit of the Malagasy people, for anyone who has experienced various fomba ‘gasy (Malagasy way of doing things), or for anyone who has grown up in the culture and has internalized the values. If there is one thing with which I am in complete agreement with Rajaona, it is that such a loss would be horrific and ought to be fought against with all one’s will and power.