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Summary It is clear enough that definite descriptions like "the F" are often used to talk about specific objects in the world.   It is far less clear, however, what the significance of this claim should be for semantic theory.  Some have posited that definite descriptions have a semantically-significant "referential use".  Indeed, some have gone so far as to propose that there are semantically-significant referential uses of indefinite descriptions as well.  When used referentially, the idea goes, descriptions serve to make the truth-conditions of the utterance of which they are a part object-dependent.  In contrast, others have claimed that definite and indefinite descriptions each represent unified semantic categories, categories which serve to isolate objects only indirectly, via descriptions of them (those who allow for semantically-significant referential uses call uses in line with this analysis "attributive uses").  According to this unified analysis, descriptions can still be used in context to talk about specific objects, but this is a matter not just of their meaning, but also of the shared background assumptions of the speaker and listener.  In other words, the effective use of these expressions to talk about specific objects is a matter of pragmatics, not semantics.  The question of whether to allow for a semantically-significant referential use of definite and indefinite descriptions thus turns out to hinge on a set of deeper questions regarding the nature of semantics and pragmatics, and, in particular, what constitutes the border between these.
Key works Russell 1905 proposed to treat sentences containing definite descriptions (e.g. "The F is F") as semantically equivalent to "There is one and only one F, and it is G."  In other words, and in contrast to his earlier Russell 1903, Russell proposed to treat definite descriptions, semantically, as a univocal class of non-referring terms.  As against this analysis, both Strawson 1950 and Donnellan 1966 argue that definite descriptions are only sometimes used attributively—that is, in line with Russell's analysis.  Often, definite descriptions are used to refer, and such referential uses differ in their truth-conditions from what the attributive analysis would predict.  In particular, such uses are object-dependent.  Kripke 1977 offers a defense of the univocal, attributive analysis, arguing that while definite descriptions may be used to refer, this is a pragmatically significant observation rather than a semantic one.  Subsequently, Neale 1990 has furthered these arguments, whereas Reimer 1998 and Devitt 1997 have offered additional arguments in favor of the semantic significance of referential uses of definite descriptions.  Finally, Chastain 1975 suggests extending the notion of semantically-singificant referential uses to indefinite descriptions as well.
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39 found
  1. added 2018-09-06
    Saying a Bundle: Meaning, Intention, and Underdetermination.Mark Bowker - forthcoming - Synthese.
    People often speak loosely, uttering sentences that are plainly false on their most strict interpretation. In understanding such speakers, we face a problem of under- determination: there is often no unique interpretation that captures what they meant. Focusing on the case of incomplete definite descriptions, this paper suggests that speakers often mean bundles of propositions. When a speaker means a bundle, their audience can know what they mean by deriving any one of its members. Rather than posing a problem for (...)
  2. added 2018-08-05
    The Real Problem with Uniqueness.Andrei Moldovan - 2017 - SATS 18 (2):125-139.
    Arguments against the Russellian theory of definite descriptions based on cases that involve failures of uniqueness are a recurrent theme in the relevant literature. In this paper, I discuss a number of such arguments, from Strawson (1950), Ramachandran (1993) and Szabo (2005). I argue that the Russellian has resources to account for these data by deploying a variety of mechanisms of quantifier domain restrictions. Finally, I present a case that is more problematic for the Russellian. While the previous cases all (...)
  3. added 2018-08-05
    An Assessment of the Argument From Convention.Andrei Moldovan - 2016 - Discusiones Filosóficas 17 (28):15 - 34.
    This paper focuses on what is known in the literature on the semantics and pragmatics of definite descriptions as “the argument from convention”. This argument purports to show that referential uses of definite descriptions are a semantic phenomenon. A key premise of the argument is that none of the pragmatic alternatives (any one of a variety of Gricean accounts of referential uses) is successful. I argue that no good reason is offered to support this claim. I conclude that the argument (...)
  4. added 2018-02-16
    Definite Descriptions Are Ambiguous.Felipe S. Amaral - 2008 - Analysis 68 (4):288-297.
  5. added 2017-09-17
    Donnellan's Misdescriptions and Loose Talk.Carlo Penco - 2017 - In Kepa Korta Maria De Ponte (ed.), Reference and Representation in Language and Thought. Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press. pp. 104-125.
    Keith Donnellan wrote his paper on definite descriptions in 1966 at Cornell University, an environment where nearly everybody was discussing Wittgenstein’s ideas of meaning as use. However, his idea of different uses of definite descriptions became one of the fundamental tenets against descriptivism, which was considered one of the main legacies of the Frege–Russell– Wittgenstein view; and I wonder whether a more Wittgensteinian interpretation of Donnellan’s work is possible.
  6. added 2017-08-23
    Descripciones definidas y su uso referencial: una propuesta contextualizada.Justina Diaz Legaspe - 2011 - Cuadernos de Filosofía 56:135-138.
    Las descripciones definidas pueden ser interpretadas de acuerdo con las dos lecturas propuestas por Donnellan. El presente trabajo presenta una interpretación contextualista de la lectura referencial de estas expresiones.
  7. added 2017-07-27
    Definite Descriptions, Misdescriptions and Semantic Content: Different Ways to Solve a Tricky Puzzle.Justina Diaz Legaspe - 2009 - Análisis Filosófico 29 (2):159-166.
    Michael Devitt claims that the predicative material that constitutes complex referential expressions makes a semantic contribution to the proposition expressed. He thus deviates from direct referentialism, according to which every referential expression -either simple or complex- contributes just with an object to the proposition expressed, leaving the predicative material out of the semantic content. However, when dealing with misdescriptions, Devitt has suggested a pragmatic way out: the audience can understand what the speaker is referring to even if the object does (...)
  8. added 2017-01-22
    Referential and Attributive.John R. Searle - 1979 - The Monist 62 (2):190-208.
  9. added 2017-01-22
    Referential/Attributive.Michael Beebe - 1977 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 (1):91 - 101.
  10. added 2016-12-08
    Referential/Attributive: A Scope Interpretation.Richard L. Mendelsohn - 2010 - Philosophical Studies 147 (2):167-191.
    There is a core to the referential/attributive distinction that reveals a propositional ambiguity that is scope-related and rooted in syntax.
  11. added 2016-09-01
    The Real Distinction Between Descriptions and Indexicals.Manuel García-Carpintero - 2005 - Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 24 (3):49-74.
    Some contemporary semantic views defend an asymmetry thesis concerning defi-nite descriptions and indexicals. Semantically, indexicals are devices of singular refer-ence; they contribute objects to the contents of the speech acts made with utterances including them. Definite descriptions, on the other hand, are generalized quantifiers, behaving roughly the way Russell envisaged in “On Denoting”. The asymmetry thesis depends on the existence of a sufficiently clear-cut distinction between semantics and pragmatics, because indexicals and descriptions are often used in ways that apparently contradict (...)
  12. added 2016-06-04
    Understanding the Intentions Behind the Referential/Attributive Distinction.Megan Henricks Stotts - 2017 - Erkenntnis 82 (2):351-362.
    In his recently published John Locke Lectures, Saul Kripke attempts to capture Keith Donnellan’s referential/attributive distinction for definite descriptions using a distinction between general and specific intentions. I argue that although Kripke’s own way of capturing the referential/attributive distinction is inadequate, we can use general and specific intentions to successfully capture the distinction if we also distinguish between primary and secondary intentions. An attributive use is characterized by the fact that the general intention is either the primary or only designative (...)
  13. added 2016-05-11
    Contextualism and Anti-Contextualism in the Philosophy of Language.François Recanati - 1994 - In Savas L. Tsohatzidis (ed.), Foundations of Speech Act Theory: Philosophical and Linguistic Perspectives. Routledge. pp. 156-166.
  14. added 2016-02-18
    Deixis and Anaphora.François Recanati - 2002 - In Zoltán Gendler Szabó (ed.), Semantics Versus Pragmatics. Oxford University Press. pp. 286--316.
    A defence of the 'pragmatic' theory of anaphora (which stresses the analogy between anaphora and deixis) against an argument put forward by Gareth Evans.
  15. added 2016-02-18
    Descriptions and Situations.François Recanati - 2002 - In Marga Reimer & Anne Bezuidenhout (eds.), Descriptions and Beyond. Clarendon Press. pp. 15-40.
  16. added 2015-09-25
    Quantifiers and Referential Use.Mario Gomez-Torrente - 2015 - In Alessandro Torza (ed.), Quantifiers, Quantifiers, and Quantifiers: Themes in Logic, Metaphysics, and Language. Springer. pp. 97-124.
    Referential uses of quantified determiner phrases other than descriptions have not been extensively considered. In this paper they are considered in some detail, and related to referential uses of descriptions. The first aim is to develop the observation that, contrary to the currently received view that it is only for descriptions that referential uses are frequent and standard, arising in run-of-the-mill contextual scenarios, this is in fact the case for all usual kinds of quantifier phrases. A second aim is to (...)
  17. added 2014-07-15
    Constructivity and the Referential/Attributive Distinction.D. E. Over - 1985 - Linguistics and Philosophy 8 (4):415 - 429.
  18. added 2014-03-31
    Pragmatics, Semantic Undetermination and the Referential/Attributive Distinction.A. Bezuidenhout - 1997 - Mind 106 (423):375-409.
    It has long ben recognised that there are referential uses of definite descriptions. It is not as widely recognised that there are atttributives uses of idexicals and other such paradigmatically singular terms. I offer an account of the referential/attributive distinction which is intended to give a unified treatment of both sorts of cases. I argue that the best way to account for the referential/attributive distinction is to treat is as semantically underdetermined which sort of propositions is expressed in a context. (...)
  19. added 2014-03-15
    Referentially Used Descriptions: A Reply to Devitt.Kent Bach - 2007 - European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 3 (2):33-48.
  20. added 2014-03-14
    Wettstein on Definite Descriptions.William K. Blackburn - 1988 - 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.
  21. added 2014-03-14
    Referential Uses and Speaker Meaning.Rod Bertolet - 1981 - Philosophical Quarterly 31 (124):253-259.
  22. added 2014-03-14
    The Semantic Significance of Donnellan's Distinction.Rod Bertolet - 1980 - Philosophical Studies 37 (3):281 - 288.
  23. added 2014-03-14
    Uses of Definite Descriptions and Russell's Theory.Alan Brinton - 1977 - Philosophical Studies 31 (4):261 - 267.
  24. added 2014-03-09
    Definite Descriptions: A Reader.Gary Ostertag - 1998 - 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 (...)
  25. added 2014-02-17
    “Attributive” Uses of Definite Descriptions Are Always Attributive.Krešimir Agbaba - 2009 - Kriterion - Journal of Philosophy 22 (1):1-6.
    The scope of this short paper is to show that the examples Ilhan Inan uses to undermine Donnellan's distinction fall short on account of wrong interpretation those examples were provided with in his paper. Whilst Ilhan Inan showed how complex de- nite descriptions may cause doubts as to which category they should be put in, these referring terms only play a secondary role. I argue that all of his three key examples are, in fact, sheer attributive uses of denite descriptions (...)
  26. added 2014-02-17
    Descriptions.Stephen Neale - 1990 - 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 (...)
  27. added 2014-02-17
    Reference and Context.Charles Chastain - 1975 - Dissertation, Princeton University
  28. added 2013-12-06
    Roundabout Semantic Significance of the 'Attributive/Referential' Distinction.Wojciech Rostworowski - forthcoming - 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 (...)
  29. added 2012-01-28
    Donnellan's Distinction/Kripke's Test.Marga Reimer - 1998 - Analysis 58 (2):89–100.
  30. added 2011-02-01
    Specificity and Referentiality.Barbara Abbott - manuscript
  31. added 2011-02-01
    Referential/Attributive.Kent Bach - 1981 - Synthese 49 (2):219 - 244.
  32. added 2010-06-22
    Studies in the Philosophy of Language.Peter A. French, Theodore Edward Uehling & Howard K. Wettstein (eds.) - 1977 - University of Minnesota, Morris.
  33. added 2009-10-03
    Ambiguous Articles: An Essay On The Theory Of Descriptions.Francesco Pupa - 2008 - 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 (...)
  34. added 2009-10-02
    Referential Usage and Gödelian Completions.Francesco Pupa - 2007 - The Reasoner 1 (6):5-6.
  35. added 2009-06-16
    Wettstein's Incompleteness, Salmon's Intuitions.Michael Nelson - 1999 - Noûs 33 (4):573-589.
  36. added 2009-05-28
    Review of Anne Bezuidenhout (Ed.), Marga Reimer (Ed.), Descriptions and Beyond[REVIEW]Gary Ostertag - 2005 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2005 (8).
  37. added 2009-05-17
    Referential/Attributive: A Contextualist Proposal.Francois Recanati - 1989 - Philosophical Studies 56 (3):217 - 249.
  38. added 2009-05-13
    Speaker's Reference and Semantic Reference.Saul A. Kripke - 1977 - In Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling Jr & Howard K. Wettstein (eds.), Studies in the Philosophy of Language. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 255-296.
    am going to discuss some issues inspired by a well-known paper ofKeith Donnellan, "Reference and Definite Descriptions,”2 but the interest—to me—of the contrast mentioned in my title goes beyond Donnellan's paper: I think it is of considerable constructive as well as critical importance to the philosophy oflanguage. These applications, however, and even everything I might want to say relative to Donnellan’s paper, cannot be discussed in full here because of problems of length. Moreover, although I have a considerable interest in (...)
  39. added 2009-05-13
    Reference and Definite Descriptions.Keith S. Donnellan - 1966 - Philosophical Review 75 (3):281-304.
    Definite descriptions, I shall argue, have two possible functions. 1] They are used to refer to what a speaker wishes to talk about, but they are also used quite differently. Moreover, a definite description occurring in one and the same sentence may, on different occasions of its use, function in either way. The failure to deal with this duality of function obscures the genuine referring use of definite descriptions. The best known theories of definite descriptions, those of Russell and Strawson, (...)