What’s in a Kin Term? Observations on Errol Morris’s What’s in a Name?

Errol Morris has a three-part opinion page in The New York Times on the nature of personal names and photographs. Errol anchors his exploration in the semantics of naming in the recent scandal around a Rockefeller impostor, the former German student in the U.S., Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. Gerhartsreiter, now universally remembered as Clark Rockefeller, adopted the Rockefeller name in the early 1990s to oil his way into the cream-of-the-crop social circles of Boston and New York. Gerhartsreiter’s self-inflicted identity fraud had remained unnoticed, even by Gerhartsreiter’s super-intelligent wife and the sole bread-winner in their upscale Boston household, Sandra L. Boss (a Harvard Business School Graduate and a senior McKinsey executive who happened to be a one-time boss of my former boss at Arnold Worldwide), until after he divorced her, kidnapped their daughter and was hunted down by the police.

Any story of personal names is a detective story. Morris’s narrative manifests the thrill that he experienced while researching and pondering the nature of personal names, human identity and photographic imagery. Borderline mystical phenomena such as coincidences, ironies, paradoxical role reversals and shocking revelations seem to be part and parcel of any empirical study of naming. The above paragraph already contains a string of such coincidences and ironies: Gerhartsreiter’s wife’s family name is Boss and she lived up to the literal meaning of her name by being a) a senior executive at an iconic company that consults major businesses in the U.S. and worldwide, and b) the sole bread-winner in her marriage with Clark Rockefeller. She was also an ex-boss of my own ex-boss. All of this took place in Boston. One of the role reversals of the story is that, by being a stay-home dad and teaching their daughter how to write by the age of 2, Clark Rockefeller acted like a nurturing mother, while Sandra Boss, by being the sole bread-winner, acted like a father. One of the ironies of the story is that Sandra Boss’s self-effacing and street-smart ex-husband exposed what may very well be the Achilles heel of armchair, academic intelligence: its inability to call real things with their proper names. A brilliant-at-work Sandra turned out to be woefully naive in real life.

Or compare the a real modern descendant of the legendary American industrialist, David Rockefeller, namely his grandson Clayton Rockefeller, with the impostor Clark Rockefeller. They share the first three letters of their first names (Clark may be a portmanteau of Christian and Karl, Gerhartsreiter’s real first and middle names), obviously their last name is the same but both of them also love to wear horn-rimmed eyeglasses. The last fact makes the two look uncannily alike. The irony, as Morris notes, comes from the fact that the real Clayton Rockefeller never made it past the page 15 of the Weddings/Celebrations section of Sunday Styles, while the fake Clark Rockefeller commanded the front page of some major East Coast venues such as the Boston Globe. This is precisely where Morris’s fascination with naming comes from: a name is not simply a baggage tag on a person, it carries powerful associations that, under certain circumstances, can propel a completely random person into a national spotlight. But the irony is again right around the corner: Morris praises and adopts Saul Kripke’s model of personal names as “rigid designators,” but his choice of an opening case-study seems to furnish a paradoxical refutation of Kripke’s model: a name is inalienably attached to the thing in all possible counterfactual worlds (i.e. worlds in which the thing is stripped of all its associations) with the exception of those worlds in which the name is assumed to be a rigid designator of the thing. Gerhartsreiter’s fraud became possible precisely because people around him believed that the name Rockefeller is always the name of a real Rockefeller. Within the social circle of his friends and his wife’s family and friends he became a celebrity by claiming to be a Rockefeller. He bolstered his personal myth by publicly ordering Oysters Rockefeller at restaurants and buying properties exclusively from Cushman & Wakefield — the managers of Rockefeller Center. Outside of the primary circle in which Gerhartsreiter’s Rockefeller myth lived he was not known at all – neither as a Gerhartsreiter, nor as a Rockefeller. His natal family in Germany had lost track of him, while those who knew the real Rockefellers did not know Clark. When Gerhartsreiter entered the national spotlight, he became famous not because he was Gerhartsreiter or Rockefeller but because he was a fake Rockefeller or a non-Rockefeller. But in any case it was the name Rockefeller that continued to define Gerhartsreiter in the public eye, as if he was re-baptized as Nonrockefeller by virtue of the fact that the real Rockefellers confirmed that Gerhartsreiter was not related to them. Kripke erred in his belief that names are rigid designators of things – the enigma surrounding names stems from the fact that they are things. Note that names are rarely translated from one language to another – they are usually reproduced in another language as faithfully as phonetics allows. And as sound things they can be manipulated and appropriated. Gerhartsreiter literally stole Rockefeller from the Rockefellers, as if it was a family relic, and proudly wore it around as if it was an expensive piece of clothing. But they are not simply things – they are things conditionally related to essences. And every culture has its own native theory of those essences.

Morris chose the example of Clark Rockefeller without fully exploring the fact that Rockefeller is not just a name but a family name. For his purposes, a family name is just another proper name to be looked at through a Kripkean prism. He noted, in passing, the connection between the Rockefeller genealogy and Gerhartsreiter’s deception:

“When we use the family name “Rockefeller” or the proper name “Clark Rockefeller,” what are we doing? We are calling up a rich set of associations. And we are also claiming provenance: a matriarchal or patriarchal link from the original Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller, to his progeny — his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.; his grandsons, Laurance, Winthrop, Nelson, David, etc. All these Rockefellers are genetically related to the original Rockefeller and presumably heirs to part of his vast fortune. And then the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation Rockefellers. They are all part of the Rockefeller family tree with John D. Rockefeller as the trunk. When we use the name “Rockefeller” we imagine we are picking out some individual related to the 19th-century patriarch…Isn’t there a remote possibility that Gerhartsreiter really is a member of the Rockefeller family? Or that they had common ancestors? By this account, John D. Rockefeller’s roots can be traced back to Germany in the 1600s. Perhaps they had common ancestors.” 

And in the accompanying note 14:

“This kind of claim is complicated by uncertainties about John D. Rockefeller’s two half-sisters, Clorinda and Cornelia. The Rockefeller family line veers surprisingly from the straight and narrow during the life of John D. Rockefeller’s father, William Avery Rockefeller. William, or Big Bill as he became known, was from a young age a drifter, schemer and occasional con man — perhaps a spiritual if not actual progenitor of Clark Rockefeller. He once rode into a small town in upstate New York posing as a deaf-mute selling novelties, hoping to gain sales through sympathy. He also discovered that with this “deaf and dumb” identity he could overhear or extract town gossip he could use to his advantage. Months later, when a woman who’d befriended the supposed mute ran into him chatting at a social gathering, she was so impressed by the man’s “progress” that she said to him, “I see that you can talk better than when I saw you last.” Without missing a beat, Big Bill replied, “Yes, I’m somewhat improved.” Bill was equally unorthodox in his home life. During his travels, he met and married Eliza Davison. Some suggested it was her father’s farm and modest wealth that Bill found most attractive, considering he already had a mistress, Nancy Brown. And not long after bringing Eliza to the tiny farmhouse he’d constructed, he also brought Nancy to live there, in what essentially was a ménage à trois. In two years, in the same house, Bill had four children: Eliza had Lucy, and a few months later Nancy had Clorinda. The next year, Eliza gave birth to John Davison Rockefeller, and in that same year Nancy had another daughter, Cornelia. Eventually, Nancy and her two daughters went to live with her parents one town over. Clorinda died as a child, but Cornelia grew up and married, becoming Cornelia Saxton, and most of her neighbors never knew she was the half-sister of the richest man in America. The Saxton line, which without the name still bore the traces of Rockefeller lineage, continues off in another direction, save for a few exceptions in John D. Rockefeller’s records when they collide again to ask for money; these requests were turned down by John D.’s secretaries, and it remains unclear if he knew he had two illegitimate half-sisters.”

Christian Gerhartsreiter claimed that the name Rockefeller had been given to him by a man named “Harry Copeland,” his godfather from New York.

“My godfather gave it to me. He insisted that is what my name is.”

Christian Gerhartsreiter claimed descent from a member of the Rockefeller clan, George Percy Rockefeller, and his wife Mary Roberts who came from the privileged upper neck of Virginia. Gerhartsreiter’s imaginary parents died in a car accident when he was 18. Harry Copeland, his presumed godfather, died in the 1990s. By the time Gerhartsreiter was put to trial for kidnapping his daughter, his real father Simon Gerhartsreiter, a painter, was dead, too. His mother Irmgard, a homemaker, and brother Alexander recognized him. Gerhartsreiter’s pattern of deception matches the neurotic fantasy of noble origin described by Freud in his rarely quoted work “Der Familienroman der Neurotiker.”

“There are only too many occasions on which a child is slighted, or at least feels he has been slighted, on which he feels he is not receiving the whole of his parents’ love, and most of all, on which he feels regrets at having to share it with brothers and sisters. His sense that his own affection is not being fully reciprocated then finds a vent in the idea…of being a step-child or an adopted child…The later stage in the development of the neurotic’s estrangement from his parents, begun in this manner, might be described as ‘the neurotic’s family romance’… [T]he child’s imagination becomes engaged in the task of getting free from the parents of whom he now has a low opinion and of replacing them by others, who, as a rule, are of higher social standing” (Freud, Sigmund. “Family Romances,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 9. Pp. 236-241. London, 1959, 237-239).

If Christian Gerhartsreiter chose to become Clark Gerhartsreiter, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. He was clearly going after the essence of being a Rockefeller, the richest man in America. People who are passionate about genealogical research are searching for the timeless essence of their real family name(s). Christian Gerhartsreiter abandoned his real family name, just as he left his native Germany, in favor of an American one, with possible deeper German roots, that already had a noble, albeit shallow, genealogy associated with it.

In “The Genius of Kinship” (2007) I touched upon the relationship between names and kin terms. Since then, I’ve been thoroughly fascinated with the opportunities contained in the cross-disciplinary analysis of names and kinship terms (and pronouns, for this matter). The boundary between kin terms, pronouns, names and natural kind terms can easily blur. Consider a few examples:

1. My dad is coming.

2. Yesterday I became a dad.

3. Dad, when are you coming?

4. (Mother to son) Go, talk to dad about it.

The same form dad assumes four different grammatical functions: in [1] dad is a kin term, in [2] dad is a natural kind term, in [3] dad is a vocative form of dad in [1] and as such it is like a pronoun, and in [4] dad is a personal name or a private, family-only nickname.

When Errol Morris tries to define what is special about names he writes,

“It is interesting that the word “of” is used in portrait photography and proper names. We speak of a photographic portrait and a proper name being of someone.”

This of-ness of names is, for him, the indicator of rigid designation. But, as any specialist in kinship studies could tell Morris, kin terms are rarely, if ever used in abstract, so that a father is always the father of someone. (Just like boss is always someone’s boss.) Just as names, according to Kripke, originate in the act of baptism, kin terms originate in the event of birth (or re-birth, as some cultures holding reincarnation beliefs would have it), marriage, death or adoption. A refrigerator magnet in my mother-in-law’s house reads “When a child is born, so is the grandmother.” Of course, there’s a pool of kin terms from which individual kin terms are drawn, just like there’s a pool of personal names from which parents select a name for their child, but they are activated as a result of a life-cycle event.

By virtue of their relational property, kin terms are called “relational nouns.” If they are used in abstract, they switch their grammatical function to become a natural kind term, as in example [2] above. Around the time when the great British philosopher John Stuart Mill quoted by Morris discussed names in “A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive” (1843), the British logician Augustus De Morgan came to realize that kin terms are relational nouns (see “The Genius of Kinship,” p. 23ff). One of the founders of semiotics, the American philosopher Charles Peirce, developed De Morgan’s insight into the well-known classification of signs into icons, indexes and symbols. About a kin term he writes (Peirce, Charles S. “The logic of relatives,” in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 1933, Vol. 3, 459),

“A relative is just that, an icon, or image, without attachments to experience, without ‘a local habitation and a name,’ but with indication of the need of such attachments.”

It’s important to note that Peirce likened a kin term to an icon in the same way as Errol Morris likened a name to a photograph. The difference between a photograph and an icon (in the original sense of the icon) is that a photograph captures the appearance, while a (religious) icon captures the essence. (This may not be a true difference but rather an artifact of the specific term usage by Peirce, though.) Kin terms define one person by referring to another person: X is the father of Y. One person is defined in multiple ways depending on his relationship to other people: X is the son of Y, the father of Z, the uncle of A, etc. Every kin term has at least one other kin term as its direct reciprocal: X is the son of Y, Y is the father of Z. Kin terms are used by everyone in society but it’s only a small group of people that know which specific individuals are addressed by those terms by other individuals. Personal names are usually bestowed on a person by his close relatives (including adoptive parents), often they are recycled names of more distant/deceased relatives, but they can become very widely known outside their bearers’ immediate circle. People may be known all over the world by their names, but the people whom they call “father” and “mother” most of the time remain obscure.

It’s likely that kin terms and names are so closely related semiotically that one cannot tease them apart by invoking rigid designation, similarity, photographic imagery or the act of baptism. They break the terminological conventions and disciplinary silos established in analytical philosophy, logic and linguistics and require a conceptual apparatus of their own.

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