Philosophy of Language > Specific Expressions > Descriptions > Attributive and Referential Uses of Descriptions
Edited by Eliot Michaelson (King's College London)
|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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