What’s in a Name?

Most names are classifications. I window-watch the heaving mass of green and gold and say “tree,” and this name places the thing in a mental “class” of similarily heaving objects, the class of “trees.” Rock, sling, giant, corpse — all these “names” are fundamentally classifications, names that allow us to understand a thing by referring to its species. But a personal name does not refer to a species. There is nothing about the name “Michael” that groups its named object into a class.

Many names are both classifications and descriptions of their object. Armchair, weeping willow, eyeball — these names effectively describe their object at the moment of naming it. But there is nothing about the name “Michael” that describes to me the particular person named Michael.  Sure, names have meanings — Michael means “Who is like God?” — but these are mystical, and are not employed as descriptions of the particular person who carries the name. I do not know michaelish people.

Neither are personal names any sort of definition. Definition places the object defined in relation to other objects, marking off its edges and pulling it from its background. The tree is “a plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to a considerable height, and usually developing branches at some distance from the ground.” This does not tell us what the object “tree” is, it only relates it to other objects. The tree is related to “plants,” to “wood,” “branches” and the “ground,” each of these ideas in need of their own definitions, and so on, until we arrive upon the suspicion that a dictionary is really just a spider weaving together strands of relation between objects, and it is only childhood ignorance that thought we could open up a dictionary and find what a thing is. Definition does not tell us what something is, definition tells us about something, and here the word “about” should be taken with an understanding of its Old English root, ymbutan, meaning “in the neighborhood of.” Definition describes its object’s neighborhood. But naming is not definition. Naming makes no pretense of tying an object to other objects. “Michael” tells me nothing about his neighborhood.

Personal names are odd. And yet, our experience of other people is not just that they happen to have names, but that they ought to have names. It is somehow imperative to the very nature of a person that he is named, an offense to his dignity if he is not. So I suppose the question is simple: If a personal name neither describes, defines or classifies, what in the human person is indescribable, indefinable and unclassifiable, and yet, absolutely present, demanding the recognition of a name?

Namely, the person himself, that is, the subject he is. The particular you-ness of you.

Human beings are subjects, the I’s who speak, do and know, not merely the me’s spoken to, done to, and known. I am a being with an unrepeatable internal life that “looks out” about the cosmos, a life totally uninhabitable by anyone but myself. Since my subjectivity cannot be known, it is — in itself — indescribable. Since my subjectivity is my own, that is, utterly unique, it cannot be classified into a larger group.  Since my subjectivity transcends the world of objects — the world of things acted upon — by freely acting, it cannot be defined, that is, placed in right relation to the world of objects.

Human naming, then, is a recognition of subjectivity. The word “Michael” does not define, describe, classify or categorize the person named Michael. It signifies the presence of that which can never be fully known. The presence of a name preserves and expresses the mystery of the named person by signifying him beyond the world of objects, of things observed. As such it is a sacramental, for it presents the unpresentable through sign. This is not all it does, but I think it is part.

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