My name is Benjamin Charles Jubas. People call me that occasionally; that is, in full, repeatedly, and with a smarmy accent. The name that gets the least attention is almost certainly “Benjamin.” Charles is perceived to be rather proper—perhaps because of its association with French and British royalty—and I presume that in light of their perception of my character the propriety takes on an agreeable irony. “Jubas,” on the other hand, receives quite a lot of attention. Few have heard a similar name before. (It rhymes with “Judas,” so what I really mean is they haven’t heard a name with the same gooey, deep euphony referring to a person they know and not a character from the mythic past.) When pronounced, “Jubas” sounds as if it contains the word “Jew”: a cause of much consternation to this self-conscious elementary schooler. Jewbastard. Jewbus. Jewbadass. Jewbase. Jewbass. Few people ever called me these things, and none maliciously, but the mere possibility frightened me. But rather than write about my name in particular, I’d like to discuss writing about names, and names in the abstract. More specifically, I want to take up the topic of nominative determinism.
Doing so involves telling a story about myself. The genealogy of nominative determinism begins with my ambivalent attitude toward this series of articles. Whenever the Nassau Weekly name column would come up in casual conversation, I would exclaim that there could be nothing potentially interesting in a piece truly about the writer’s name. After all, I thought, what would have to be true for an article about your name to be interesting? One possibility is to discuss your namesake. My first name is in memory of my father’s mother’s father, Benjamin. My middle name is after Charlie, my mother’s mother’s father. But what am I supposed to say now? I could talk about how things have changed since they were around; speculate as to what they might have thought or said about it. I might take the opportunity to tell you something about their lives. All of these strategies have potential, but they cheat the reader. The reader perched his eyes on the space consecrated to your article on account of its advertised topic: your name. Yet you have written an article about your great-grandfather. If you want to misdirect the reader, then accept that the content of the column is a representation of some significant, negative underlying personality trait. You’re not quite an asshole, but you’re getting there. If, however, you do not want to admit this, you can instead admit that in discussing your namesakes you make the assumption that various elements of your character are due to them. That is, these ancestors had some causal power over not just the fact of your birth (if you are not adopted, this is hard to deny) but over the way you are, your personality. This should be specified further: it is not just that they, taken as a composite but intuitive whole, have influenced you, but that they qua their alleged traits (inferred via specific anecdotes) have some role in determining similar things about you.
This thought is rarely explicit or even consciously deployed in such articles. More commonly, it is phrased as a similarity relation: “my grandmother Φ’ed, and similarly, I Φ,” where Φ simply designates some action or the holding of some belief. Pointing out similarity is on its own uninteresting, and generally not the full story. It leaves us with more questions than answers. How come it is these qualities that are shared? Don’t I share that quality with lots of people, i.e. this is banal? What is really implied here is that your namesake’s Φ-ing plays some causal role in your tendency to Φ. Take an example: “My great grandfather was a cynic and I am too.” Putting aside that I made this up (the first part, at least), it’s hard to see this as anything but literary spittle unless I am tacitly assuming that these two characteristics have something to do with each other.
All of this is, of course, absurd on its face. How could our parents possibly know such a thing without being fortune-tellers? Should we really say of our parents as we say of Israel, that “if they are not prophets then they are the sons of prophets”? One or two sets of parents might get lucky, sure, but it stretches the limits of reason to think that, without fail, the parents of any and all writers of name columns possess a special augural capacity.
I admit a more modest interpretation is possible as well. Perhaps your parents named you after this person in commemoration of their lives, or at least in posthumous honor to some aspect of their character. But then once again, this is an article about deceased family members, not your name.
In large part to make my disdain for this column as clear as possible, I proceeded to invent a concept that I thought would best convey its absurdity. Thus was born “nominative determinism.” One’s name determines one’s future. I did not realize at the time that this term has an entry on Wikipedia. I took myself to be playing the favorite game of the philosopher: term coiner. “Nominal” had already appeared to me a prized philosophical word, delightfully paradoxical in its familiarity and obscurity. It sounds like a word you probably know, but you’re also not totally sure you know it. Excellent. (Causal) Determinism isn’t a great word as much as a significant thesis about the world, one of those big cats philosophers let out of the proverbial bag centuries ago but could never really re-bag. It maintains that all events are necessitated by antecedent states of the world and physical laws, so that, for example, it wasn’t a genuine agential decision of mine to begin that last sentence with a solitary word in parenthesis. It is now a commonplace idea, and since the core argument was put forward more and more cats are emerging from that same bag in the form of physical and neuroscientific evidence, reminding us that we are probably nothing but fleshy automata. I simply spliced the two terms together—because they sounded nice, because I know “determinism” takes modifiers (e.g. causal, hard), because we were talking about names and as I just explained, “nominal” is never indexed too deeply in the recesses of my memory.
What is it to name something? We do not only name people. In a sense, we name all things. We name objects. Adam named the animals. I named “nominative determinism,” endowing a compound term with its meaning thus delimiting (i.e. determining) its usage by combining two already meaningful terms. A name is just the way we refer to a concept (‘table’) and instantiations of that concept (‘that table’). Both respond, as it were, to “table.”
Continuing with this line of thought, nominative determinism should perhaps not sound so ridiculous. Names are designed with the intention of beckoning at something. We generally know what the purpose (telos) of an object is, and we name it accordingly. While the phonemes that make up a word such as “table” may not themselves have meaning, by convention we view the construction “table” as referring to the table concept, for which we can, in principle, give an analysis. As such, when I refer to an object as a “table” I mean that it should be related to as a table. I circumscribe its existence, determine its future.
Humans, though, don’t seem subject to this reasoning. Whereas we design objects, and, by naming them, render them a certain way and dictate how they are used, their future, humans discuss, deliberate, decide, exercise our putative agential capacities. Furthermore, we call people by a second sort of name, dignified by the upper case. The idea that by calling a child “Louis” or “Lucy” or “James”—names which undoubtedly have history and meaning, but do not readily present themselves for conceptual analysis—we are not individuating but deterministically collectivizing seems specious.
Wikipedia alleges that nominative determinism was commonly believed in the ancient world, but leaves us no citation. The ancients believed many things, anyway.
For the duration of one evening, my view changed.
I was sitting in my room with Rafael Abrahams ’13 one night, discussing whether I should write a name article about how my last name has no literal meaning. It would serve as a paradigm case for all names, a symbolic demonstration of the complete and total disconnect between one’s name and one’s deep self. But as I went through my by-then tired rant, I had a stroke of insight, contact with Truth, a conversion experience. I cannot explain why it struck me then, but I realized the relationship between something that had been dogging me and a hidden aspect of my first name.
What occurred to me was that I had recently had a high number of independent experiences with “wolf”s of multiple kinds. Asked my screenname: werewolf300; asked my spirit animal: wolf (on two occasions); encountered in the course of my extra-curricular duties: Wolf (a man’s name); read in philosophy seminar: Wolf (a woman’s surname). This unintentional repetition might have otherwise been perceived as a slight statistical aberration were it not for the concurrent realization that my name had a role in this.
“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,” Genesis 49:26. Jacob’s blessing to his twelfth son. The biblical association between Benjamin and Wolf is one with which I have been familiar from a young age, but it never meant much to me. As far as I knew, my relation to each of the above Wolfs had its own, independent etiology. I vividly remember standing in my friend’s den, discussing candidates for my first AOL screenname. The arrival at werewolf did feel especially smooth and natural, but until my recent revelation, it did not occur to me that it might be related to some inner wolf-like spirit. A ravenous wolf. “In the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder.” My seemingly unconnected experiences could be tied together by a single cause: my name. Maybe, I thought, this is something I should think about more. I close my eyes, reach into my past, consider conceptual space …
Why might one come to accept nominative determinism? Well, perhaps because it becomes intuitively apparent that it is indeed part of the mystical architecture of the universe, among its most fundamental laws, an ontic reality. What else could account for the odd influence of Wolfs on my life other than some metaphysical steering hand?
One need not make such deep-pocketed philosophical commitments to endorse nominative determinism. Naturalistic accounts are available. Upon reflection, it appears that naming actually does have a certain effective power, even with the as yet undetermined. If I publicly describe a wooden creation of ambiguous design as a “table,” it will in all likelihood be treated as such by interlocutors who would otherwise be unsure as to its identity. Similarly, we might say, a name can be the cause of an otherwise undetermined collective response to a person and come to shape that person.
The unmistakable similarities between Jane and her late great-grandmother of the same name might be taken to substantiate nominative determinism. It is, after all, possibly the case that by being named “Jane” after her great-grandmother, Jane was treated as if she were like Jane. Friends and family of Jane the elder might encounter Jane the younger and expound on Jane the elder’s traits, entreating the younger to emulate her great-grandmother. They might tell funny or inspiring stories that come to shape young Jane’s outlook on the world. When encountered in childhood, these experiences are undoubtedly formative.
But this is a highly specialized example. Plenty of people are not named for their family members, and even those who are will likely not be shaped in any way resembling what I’ve just described.
Instead of trying to understand names by looking backward in time, perhaps it makes sense to look instead at their internal meanings and connotations. Let’s turn to an example. Is it conceivable that someone with the last name “Toker” will not smoke marijuana for some consistent if short period of his life? (Urban Dictionary: Toker, n. – “Someone who smokes pot, marijuana, Mary Janes.. yea you know the drill ~ the good stuff!”) Imagine how many people have joked with him about being a stoner. After a certain number of chuckles and head shakes in response to “Toker?! D’you toke, dude?” then if he has not already done so, he will think “I should probably give this a try,” and he will give in. At that point there are two things that can happen. He will either like the weed, in which case he will proceed to use it more frequently, or, he will not like it. But even if he does not like it, I am confident that continued interactions of the aforementioned sort will lead experiment to the point that the appellation “toker” is apt.
This is only one example of nominative determinism at work, but as it turns out, there are no counterexamples. A sufficiently clever mind can contrive of a connection between some aspect of any person’s name and some aspect of that person’s life. (If you can’t do this you need to try harder.) There are no specified parameters corralling its application, no guidelines telling us whether the determinative component of the name is its sound, its spelling, or its meaning, its entirety or some slice thereof. And how much of my life need be determined by my name for my name to be considered determinative? It lacks the rigor that, in theory, we expect theories to have. An exasperated Karl Popper would remonstrate: nominative determinism fails the criterion of falsifiability! Perhaps it could be salvaged. Someone could fill in the theory’s gaps—extract, with the help of some auxiliary premises, some testable predictions, and then test it. I don’t envision this happening. But in its defiance of verifiability, nominative determinism, as it stands, is not unlike many of our most deeply held beliefs: beliefs about human agency, about the divine, about the distant past and the unobservable present. And in this sense, nominative determinism is perhaps less a reductio ad absurdum argument against the potential meaningfulness of any substantive column about one’s name, than it is a call for keener awareness of the dogmas that animate our lives.
Rafael ’13 has grown to using the hashtag #nominativedeterminism on Twitter from time to time. Mainly, I think, to be playful, but also perhaps to highlight our ambivalent attitudes toward coincidence; the continued coexistence of a pavlovian, spiritual instinct to link random events and the occasional spring of knowing skepticism that follows. I click on the hashtag and see that others have used it as well. There is a veritable community of apostles, all preaching the gospel of nominative determinism. I encounter such personalities as James Mackintosh, writer for the Financial Times, introducing his followers to David Dollar, fittingly “the US treasury’s man in China”; Baz McAlister brings to our attention the appropriately named Hong Kong billionaire, Li Ka-shing. Few parents are probably aware of just how lucrative naming their children can be.
I don’t get the sense that any of these people are being too serious. Too many tweets are in English and about Asian businessmen. My vision of a commonwealth of mercantilist nominative determinists, generated in the midst of a pseudo-spiritual dorm room experience, is slowly fading away. People are just messing around. So at the very last, I’m willing to compromise: to recast nominative determinism not as a robust explanatory theory of human behavior meant to be taken seriously, but as a tool for separating the philosophically playful from the stiffly intellectual and the hard-nosedly practical. For that I’m thankful.