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Summary According to Russell's theory of descriptions, indefinite descriptions (e.g. "an F") contribute only a bare existence claim to the truth-conditions of the sentences in which they appear, whereas definite descriptions (e.g. "the F") contribute both existence and uniqueness claims.  More precisely, Russell suggests that "An F is G" be analyzed as: there is at least one F which is also G.  In contrast, "The F is G" is to be analyzed as: there is a unique F which is also G.  Russell's theory is simple, elegant, and able to account for a variety of challenging phenomena, such as negative existential claims.  Some outstanding concerns include whether the theory can adequately account for the way descriptions are actually used in natural language, as well as how the theory might be extended to account for plural descriptions.
Key works Russell 1905 intoduces Russell's thoery of descriptions.  The theory presented there, and standardly called "Russell's theory", is actually in conflict with an earlier theory of descriptions outlined in Russell 1903Neale 1990 extensively refines and defends the Russellian theory, giving it a more modern treatment.  Strawson 1950 and Donnellan 1966 represent two classic attacks on the theory.  Finally, Sharvy 1980 attempts to generalize on Russell's theory so as to account for plural descriptions as well.
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  1. Barbara Abbott, Definiteness and Identification in English.
    Many characterizations of definiteness in natural language have been given. However a number of them converge on a single idea involving uniqueness of applicability of a property. This paper will attempt to do two things. One is to try to unify some of these current views of definiteness, seeing them as drawing out Gricean conversational implicatures of the uniqueness concept, and the other is to try a more articulated approach to dealing with some recalcitrant counterexamples. I will focus primarily, but (...)
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  2. Barbara Abbott, Issues in the Semantics and Pragmatics of Definite Descriptions in English.
  3. Lennart Ågvist (1959). Notes to a Recent Discussion on Descriptions. Philosophical Studies 10 (2):28 - 30.
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  4. Kent Bach (2007). Referentially Used Descriptions: A Reply to Devitt. European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 3 (2):33-48.
  5. Kent Bach (1981). Referential/Attributive. Synthese 49 (2):219 - 244.
  6. John Bacon (1965). An Alternative Contextual Definition for Descriptions. Philosophical Studies 16 (5):75 - 76.
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  7. Alex Barber (2005). Co-Extensive Theories and Unembedded Definite Descriptions. In Reinaldo Elugardo & Robert J. Stainton (eds.), Ellipsis and Nonsentential Speech. Springer 185–201.
    Russell argued, famously, that definite descriptions are not logical constituents of the sentences in which they appear. In neither of the following should we suppose that the definite description picks anything out: The King of France is bald The Prince of Wales is bald Since France is a republic, nothing could be picked out by the first; and if the semantic structures of each are the same, it cannot be the function of the second to pick anything out either. On (...)
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  8. John A. Barker (1972). Pragmatics and Definite Descriptions. Tulane Studies in Philosophy 21:63-84.
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  9. Gustav Bergmann (1948). Descriptions in Nonextensional Contexts. Philosophy of Science 15 (4):353-355.
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  10. Simon Blackburn (1972). Searle on Descriptions. Mind 81 (323):409-414.
  11. William K. Blackburn (1988). Wettstein on Definite Descriptions. Philosophical Studies 53 (2):263 - 278.
    I critically examine an argument, due to howard wettstein, purporting to show that sentences containing definite descriptions are semantically ambiguous between referential and attributive readings. Wettstein argues that many sentences containing nonidentifying descriptions--descriptions that apply to more than one object--cannot be given a Russellian analysis, and that the descriptions in these sentences should be understood as directly referential terms. But because Wettstein does not justify treating referential uses of nonidentifying descriptions differently than attributive uses of nonidentifying descriptions, his argument fails.
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  12. Susanne Bobzien (2012). How to Give Someone Horns. Paradoxes of Presupposition in Antiquity. Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 15:159-84.
    ABSTRACT: This paper discusses ancient versions of paradoxes today classified as paradoxes of presupposition and how their ancient solutions compare with contemporary ones. Sections 1-4 air ancient evidence for the Fallacy of Complex Question and suggested solutions, introduce the Horn Paradox, consider its authorship and contemporary solutions. Section 5 reconstructs the Stoic solution, suggesting the Stoics produced a Russellian-type solution based on a hidden scope ambiguity of negation. The difference to Russell's explanation of definite descriptions is that in the Horn (...)
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  13. Alan Brinton (1977). Uses of Definite Descriptions and Russell's Theory. Philosophical Studies 31 (4):261 - 267.
  14. May Brodbeck (1957). A Note on Descriptions. Philosophical Studies 8 (6):95 - 96.
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  15. B. Brogaard (2006). The 'Gray's Elegy' Argument, and the Prospects for the Theory of Denoting Concepts. Synthese 152 (1):47 - 79.
    Russell’s new theory of denoting phrases introduced in “On Denoting” in Mind 1905 is now a paradigm of analytic philosophy. The main argument for Russell’s new theory is the so-called ‘Gray’s Elegy’ argument, which purports to show that the theory of denoting concepts (analogous to Frege’s theory of senses) promoted by Russell in the 1903 Principles of Mathematics is incoherent. The ‘Gray’s Elegy’ argument rests on the premise that if a denoting concept occurs in a proposition, then the proposition is (...)
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  16. Berit Brogaard, Russell's Theory of Descriptions Vs. The Predicative Analysis: A Reply to Graff.
    I. Descriptions in Predicative Position The predicative analysis and Russell’s theory part company when it comes to the argument structure assigned to sentences like (1). (1) Washington is the greatest French soldier. On a standard Russellian analysis, (1) has the following (a) logical form and (b) truth conditions.
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  17. Berit Brogaard (2009). Review of Nicholas Griffin, Dale Jacquette (Eds.), Russell Vs. Meinong: The Legacy of "on Denoting". [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2009 (4).
  18. Berit Brogaard (2007). Review of Andrea Bottani, Richard Davies (Eds.), Modes of Existence: Papers in Ontology and Philosophical Logic. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2007 (8).
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  19. Ray Buchanan & Gary Ostertag (2005). Has the Problem of Incompleteness Rested on a Mistake? Mind 114 (456):889-913.
    A common objection to Russell's theory of descriptions concerns incomplete definite descriptions: uses of (for example) ‘the book is overdue’ in contexts where there is clearly more than one book. Many contemporary Russellians hold that such utterances will invariably convey a contextually determined complete proposition, for example, that the book in your briefcase is overdue. But according to the objection this gets things wrong: typically, when a speaker utters such a sentence, no facts about the context or the speaker's communicative (...)
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  20. Mario Bunge (1971). A New Look at Definite Descriptions. Kagaku Tetsugaku 4:131-146.
  21. Ronald J. Butler (1954). The Scaffolding of Russell's Theory of Descriptions. Philosophical Review 63 (3):350-364.
  22. Stewart Candlish (2012). The Theory of Descriptions: Russell and the Philosophy of Language. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (4):820-821.
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  23. Chrystine E. Cassin (1971). Russell's Distinction Between the Primary and Secondary Occurrence of Definite Descriptions. Mind 80 (320):620-622.
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  24. Romane Clark (1956). Presuppositions, Names, and Descriptions. Philosophical Quarterly 6 (23):145-154.
  25. John Collins, Names, Descriptions and Quantifiers.
  26. Charles Crittenden (1970). Ontology and the Theory of Descriptions. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 31 (1):85-96.
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  27. William Demopoulos (1999). On the Theory of Meaning of "on Denoting". Noûs 33 (3):439-458.
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  28. Michael Glanzberg (2009). Descriptions, Negation, and Focus. In Robert Stainton & Christopher Viger (eds.), Compositionality, Context, and Semantic Values: Essays in Honor of Ernie Lepore. Springer
    One of the mainstays of the theory of definite descriptions since Russell (1905) has been their interaction with negation. In particular, Russellians, who advocate the view that definite descriptions are a kind of quantifier, point to these interactions as evidence in favor of the their view. The argument runs roughly as follows.
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  29. Laurence Goldstein (2002). The Indefinability of “One”. Journal of Philosophical Logic 31 (1):29 - 42.
    Logicism is one of the great reductionist projects. Numbers and the relationships in which they stand may seem to possess suspect ontological credentials - to be entia non grata - and, further, to be beyond the reach of knowledge. In seeking to reduce mathematics to a small set of principles that form the logical basis of all reasoning, logicism holds out the prospect of ontological economy and epistemological security. This paper attempts to show that a fundamental logicist project, that of (...)
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  30. Delia Graff Fara (2001). Descriptions as Predicates. Philosophical Studies 102 (1):1-42.
    Although Strawson’s main aim in “On Referring” was to argue that definite descriptions can be used referentially – that is, “to mention or refer to some individual person or single object . . . , in the course of doing what we should normally describe as making a statement about that person [or] object” (1950, p. 320) – he denied that definite descriptions are always used referentially. The description in ‘Napoleon was the greatest French soldier’ is not used referentially, says (...)
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  31. Delia Graff (2006). Descriptions with Adverbs of Quantification. Philosophical Issues 16 16:65–87.
    In “Descriptions as Predicates” (Graff 2001) I argued that definite and indefinite descriptions should be given a uniform semantic treatment as predicates rather than as quantifier phrases. The aim of the current paper is to clarify and elaborate one of the arguments for the descriptions-as-predicates view, one that concerns the interaction of descriptions with adverbs of quantification.
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  32. Delia Graff (2001). Descriptions As Predicates. Philosophical Studies 102 (1):1-42.
    Although Strawson’s main aim in “On Referring” was to argue that definite descriptions can be used referentially – that is, “to mention or refer to some individual person or single object . . . , in the course of doing what we should normally describe as making a statement about that person [or] object” (1950, p. 320) – he denied that definite descriptions are always used referentially. The description in ‘Napoleon was the greatest French soldier’ is not used referentially, says (...)
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  33. Jan Heylen (2016). Russell's Revenge: A Problem for Bivalent Fregean Theories of Descriptions. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 97 (2).
    Fregean theories of descriptions as terms have to deal with improper descriptions. To save bivalence various proposals have been made that involve assigning referents to improper descriptions. While bivalence is indeed saved, there is a price to be paid. Instantiations of the same general scheme, viz. the one and only individual that is F and G is G, are not only allowed but even required to have different truth values.
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  34. David Hunter (2001). Knowledge and Understanding. Mind and Language 16 (5):542–546.
    Some philosophical proposals seem to die hard. In a recent paper, Jason Stanley has worked to resurrect the description theory of reference, at least as it might apply to natural kind terms like ‘elm’ (Stanley, 1999). The theory’s founding idea is that to understand ‘elm’ one must know a uniquely identifying truth about elms. Famously, Hilary Putnam showed that ordinary users of ‘elm’ may understand it while lacking such knowledge, and may even be unable to distinguish elms from beeches (Putnam, (...)
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  35. Dale Jacquette (ed.) (2002). A Companion to Philosophical Logic. Wiley-Blackwell.
  36. Eliot Michaelson (2016). The Lying Test. Mind and Language 31 (4):470-499.
    As an empirical inquiry into the nature of meaning, semantics must rely on data. Unfortunately, the primary data to which philosophers and linguists have traditionally appealed—judgments on the truth and falsity of sentences—have long been known to vary widely between competent speakers in a number of interesting cases. The present article constitutes an experiment in how to obtain some more consistent data for the enterprise of semantics. Specifically, it argues from some widely accepted Gricean premises to the conclusion that judgments (...)
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  37. Brendan Murday (2014). Definite Descriptions and Semantic Pluralism. Philosophical Papers 43 (2):255-284.
    We pose two arguments for the view that sentences containing definite descriptions semantically express multiple propositions: a general proposition as Russell suggested, and a singular proposition featuring the individual who uniquely satisfies the description at the world-time of utterance. One argument mirrors David Kaplan's arguments that indexicals express singular propositions through a context-sensitive character. The second argument mirrors Kent Bach's and Stephen Neale's arguments for pluralist views about terms putatively triggering conventional implicatures, appositive, and nonrestrictive relative clauses. After presenting these (...)
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  38. Stephen Neale (1990). Descriptions. MIT Press.
    When philosophers talk about descriptions, usually they have in mind singular definite descriptions such as ‘the finest Greek poet’ or ‘the positive square root of nine’, phrases formed with the definite article ‘the’. English also contains indefinite descriptions such as ‘a fine Greek poet’ or ‘a square root of nine’, phrases formed with the indefinite article ‘a’ (or ‘an’); and demonstrative descriptions (also known as complex demonstratives) such as ‘this Greek poet’ and ‘that tall woman’, formed with the demonstrative articles (...)
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  39. Graham Oppy (2004). Facing Facts? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 82 (4):621 – 643.
    In his recent book, Stephen Neale provides an extended defence of the claim that Gödel's slingshot has dramatic consequences for fact theorists (and, in particular, for fact theorists who look with favour on referential treatments of definite descriptions). I argue that the book-length treatment provides no strengthening of the case that Neale has made elsewhere for this implausible claim. Moreover, I also argue that various criticisms of Neale's case that I made on a previous occasion have met with no successful (...)
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  40. Gary Ostertag (2013). Quine and Russell. In Gilbert Harman Ernie Lepore (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Quine. Wiley-Blackwell 403-431.
  41. Gary Ostertag (2005). Review of Anne Bezuidenhout (Ed.), Marga Reimer (Ed.), Descriptions and Beyond. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2005 (8).
  42. Gary Ostertag (2002). Descriptions and Logical Form. In Dale Jacquette (ed.), A Companion to Philosophical Logic.
  43. Gary Ostertag (1999). A Scorekeeping Error. Philosophical Studies 96 (2):123-146.
  44. Gary Ostertag (1998). Definite Descriptions: A Reader. MIT Press.
    Bertrand Russell's theory of definite descriptions sparked an ongoing debate concerning the proper logical and linguistic analysis of definite descriptions. While it is now widely acknowledged that, like the indexical expressions 'I', 'here', and 'now', definite descriptions in natural language are context-sensitive, there is significant disagreement as to the ultimate challenge this context-sensitivity poses to Russell's theory.This reader is intended both to introduce students to the philosophy of language via the theory of descriptions, and to provide scholars in analytic philosophy (...)
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  45. Francesco Pupa (2010). On the Russellian Reformation. Philosophical Studies 147 (2):247 - 271.
    Recently, an orthodox Russellian tenet has come under fire from within. In particular, some Russellians now argue that definite descriptions don’t semantically encode uniqueness. Instead, Reformed Russellians, as I call them, hold that definite descriptions are truth-theoretically identical to indefinite ones. On this approach, a definite description’s uniqueness reading becomes a matter of pragmatics, not semantics. These reforms, we’re told, provide both empirical and methodological benefits over and above the prevailing orthodoxy. As I argue, however, the Russellian Reformation contains serious (...)
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  46. Francesco Pupa (2008). Ambiguous Articles: An Essay On The Theory Of Descriptions. Dissertation, The Graduate Center, CUNY
    What, from a semantic perspective, is the difference between singular indefinite and definite descriptions? Just over a century ago, Russell provided what has become the standard philosophical response. Descriptions are quantifier phrases, not referring expressions. As such, they differ with respect to the quantities they denote. Indefinite descriptions denote existential quantities; definite descriptions denote uniquely existential quantities. Now around the 1930s and 1940s, some linguists, working independently of philosophers, developed a radically different response. Descriptions, linguists such as Jespersen held, were (...)
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  47. Murali Ramachandran & Nadja Rosental (2000). The Ambiguity Thesis Vs. Kripke's Defence of Russell: Further Developments. Philosophical Writings 14:49-57.
    Kripke (1977) presents an argument designed to show that the considerations in Donnellan (1966) concerning attributive and referential uses of (definite) descriptions do not, by themselves, refute Russell’s (1905) unitary theory of description sentences (RTD), which takes (utterances of) them to express purely general, quantificational, propositions. Against Kripke, Marga Reimer (1998) argues that the two uses do indeed reflect a semantic ambiguity (an ambiguity at the level of literal truth conditions). She maintains a Russellian (quantificational) analysis of utterances involving attributively (...)
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  48. Marga Reimer (1998). Donnellan's Distinction/Kripke's Test. Analysis 58 (2):89–100.
  49. Wojciech Rostworowski (forthcoming). Roundabout Semantic Significance of the 'Attributive/Referential' Distinction. Kriterion: Journal of Philosophy 27 (1):30-40.
    In this paper, I argue that contrary to the approach widely taken in the literature, it is possible to retain Russell's theory of definite descriptions and grant some semantic significance to the distinction between the attributive and the referential use. The core of the argumentation is based on recognition of the so-called "roundabout" way in which the use of a definite description may be significant to the semantic features of the sentence: it is a case where the use of a (...)
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  50. Daniel Rothschild (2007). Presuppositions and Scope. Journal of Philosophy 104 (2):71-106.
    This paper discusses the apparent scope ambiguities between definite descriptions and modal operators. I argue that we need the theory of presupposition to explain why these ambiguities are not always present, and that once that theory is in hand, Kripke’s modal argument loses much of its force.
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