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Lucía Lewowicz
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Finding out which terms – scientific or otherwise— fail to refer is an extremely complex business since both felicitous reference and failure to refer must be negotiated (Eco, 1997). Causal theories of reference –even so-called hybrid theories (Enç, 1967; Nola, 1980, Kitcher, 1978-93) – posit that in order to refer to something, we need the regulative idea of an ontological reference, which operates even when we refer to impossibilia or inconceivable objects. Evidently, this is not the case of the referent of phlogiston, which is neither inconceivable nor impossible, nor, alas, does it exist. In the antipodes, from a representational-physicalist point of departure (Devitt and Sterelny, 1987), a term fails to refer if it has no actual ontological grounds: phlogiston fails to refer because it has no physical existence. Phlogiston can even be considered to be a fictional entity, and referring to a fictional entity is not the same as a reference in a fiction or a fictional reference Salmon (1998): a fictional entity is an object in the same sense as an abstract object, and therefore we can genuinely refer to it. The question is: who claims that phlogiston does not exist? Nowadays, everyone does, fundamentally and primarily because science has established it as a fact. The process that led to this result is extremely complex, lengthy and multi-dimensional. It involved factors of several kinds: cognitive, social, political, historical, as well as ontological, and this last factor has been neglected. I do not claim that phlogiston (like dinosaurs) once existed and then ceased to exist -- science only allows us a sneak-peek into what exists and what, sometimes mistakenly, is supposed to exist. Paraphrasing Latour (1985), this inquiry is about following the journey of the referents, even when they do not end up being physical-existent or existing objects. I believe with Bach (1999, 2004) that the notion of reference is essentially pragmatic; that the difference between alluding to something and referring to or denoting something must be established; that to achieve this the semantic properties of terms are not sufficient, and finally that references are not semantic but cognitive properties that relate thoughts and objects of any kind. My assumption is that to refer to something one must be capable of having thoughts about it and that the propositions one attempts to communicate in the course of referring to it are singular with respect to it. Being in a position to have a thought about a particular thing requires being connected to that thing, via perception, memory, communication and/ or education. Therefore, only in an exceedingly narrow realist theory of reference does phlogiston fail to refer. Unless a theory of reference of scientific terms is based on the study of the actual linguistic communicative practices among scientists, it will inevitably pose serious epistemological difficulties.

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