On referring and not referring

Even though it’s based on a bad argument, there’s something to Strawson’s dictum. He might have likened ‘referring expression’ to phrases like ‘eating utensil’ and ‘dining room’: just as utensils don’t eat and dining rooms don’t dine, so, he might have argued, expressions don’t refer. Actually, that wasn’t his argument, though it does make you wonder. Rather, Strawson exploited the fact that almost any referring expression, whether an indexical, demonstrative, proper name, or definite description, can be used to refer to different things in different contexts. This fact, he argued, is enough to show that what refers are speakers, not expressions. Here he didn’t take seriously the perfectly coherent view that an expression’s reference can vary with context. So, he concluded, what varies from context to context is not what a given expression refers to but what a speaker uses it to refer to. Strawson went on to suggest that there are several dimensions of difference between various sorts of referring expressions: degree of dependence on context, degree of “descriptive meaning,” and being governed by a general convention vs. an expressionspecific one. But despite these differences, he insisted that regardless of kind, referring expressions don’t themselves refer — speakers use them to refer.
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