Eponymous virtue and vice terms

How is the reference of a virtue predicate like ‘honest’ fixed?  How is the reference of a vice predicate like ‘cowardly’ fixed?  Two candidates from philosophy of language suggest themselves: descriptivism and direct reference.  Very roughly, on the descriptivist view, the meaning of a trait term is given by a set of associated predicates which, when satisfied, indicate that the term applies.  For example, someone is honest if and only if she never lies, never cheats, and never steals: H(s) iff ~[L(s) v C(s) v S(s)].  On the direct reference view, by contrast, the meaning of a trait term is fixed by an inaugural act of directly referring to a property.  Honesty is whatever trait she has.

Linda Zagzebski argues somewhere (I forget where) that virtue and vice terms are better understood on the direct reference model than the definite description model.  I find that claim preposterous as a universal generalization, but I think it might apply to some trait terms: eponymous ones.  Some examples are ‘maverick’, ‘quixotic’, ‘chauvinistic’, ‘sadistic’, ‘draconian’, and ‘quisling’.  You might even think that ‘Christian’ fits the mold.  One interesting thing about such trait terms is that, if their meanings really are fixed by direct reference, then it should be possible to make new ones.  And if it’s possible to create new virtue terms, it might just be possible to create new virtues.

3 thoughts on “Eponymous virtue and vice terms

  1. I’m not familiar with this debate (that must change soon!), but might you be able to say a bit more as to why you think eponymous trait terms might be better understood via the direct reference model?

    • Good question. For one thing, it just seems prima facie plausible that if any traits fit this model, the eponymous ones do. But that’s not really an argument.

      The positive argument is this: when you baptize an eponymous trait, you tend to get it “warts and all,” whereas other virtues tend to abstract away from the details of the any particular person. Take for instance ‘sadistic’. It’d be hard to deny that the Marquis de Sade, of all people, was sadistic. Why? In part because he (inadvertently) lent his name to the trait. But also in part because his particular personality quirks seem to have been incorporated into the trait term. Or take ‘quisling’, which is based on the Norwegian collaborationist Vidkun Quisling. What does this term mean? Well, it includes certain aspects of cowardice, but not most of them. It also includes certain aspects of opportunism, but again not most of them. And it also includes certain aspects of disloyalty, but again not most of them. Specifying what it means to be quisling without referring to quisling would be very hard, if not impossible. This suggests that the best way (perhaps the only way) we get a grasp on what it means to be quisling is by reference to Vidkun Quisling (or what he was understandably taken to represent when the term was coined, though that seems to be a degenerate case of this kind of phenomenon).

      This is in contrast to (arguably) descriptivist trait terms such as ‘curious’ and ‘temperate’. We can at least start to get a grasp on what it means to be curious without reference to some particular curious person (or cat). We can start to get a grasp on what it means to be temperate without reference to some particular temperate person.

  2. Thanks. I’ll have to take a look at the literature and mull over this one. Prime facie, I would be inclined to lean towards a descriptivist view when attempting to understand virtue and vice terms, generally speaking, but your point with respect to eponymous is well taken.

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