About this topic
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.
Related categories

58 found
Order:
1 — 50 / 58
  1. A Quantificational Analysis of the Liar Paradox.Matheus Silva - manuscript
    It seems that the most common strategy to solve the liar paradox is to argue that liar sentences are meaningless and, consequently, truth-valueless. The other main option that has grown in recent years is the dialetheist view that treats liar sentences as meaningful, truth-apt and true. In this paper I will offer a new approach that does not belong in either camp. I hope to show that liar sentences can be interpreted as meaningful, truth-apt and false, but without engendering any (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  2. Descriptions and Tests for Polysemy.Andrei Moldovan - forthcoming - Axiomathes:1-21.
    Viebahn (2018) has recently argued that several tests for ambiguity, such as the conjunction-reduction test, are not reliable as tests for polysemy, but only as tests for homonymy. I look at the more fine-grained distinction between regular and irregular polysemy and I argue for a more nuanced conclusion: the tests under discussion provide systematic evidence for homonymy and irregular polysemy but need to be used with more care to test for regular polysemy. I put this conclusion at work in the (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (2 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   2 citations  
  3. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   1 citation  
  4. "I Am SO Humble!": On the Paradoxes of Humility.Brian Robinson - 2021 - In Mark Alfano, Michael Lynch & Alessandra Tanesini (eds.), The Routledge Handbook fo Philosophy of Humility. Routledge. pp. 26-35.
  5. Saying a Bundle: Meaning, Intention, and Underdetermination.Mark Bowker - 2019 - Synthese 196 (10):4229-4252.
    People often speak loosely, uttering sentences that are plainly false on their most strict interpretation. In understanding such speakers, we face a problem of underdetermination: 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 the (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (3 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   5 citations  
  6. Pragmatic Ambiguity and Kripke’s Dialogue Against Donnellan.Carlo Penco - 2019 - Ágora Filosófica 19 (1):103-134.
    DOIhttps://doi.org/10.25247/P1982-999X.2019.v19n1.p103-134• Esta obra está licenciada sob uma licençaCreative Commons Atribuição 4.0 InternacionalISSN 1982-999x|Pragmatic ambiguity and Kripke’s dialogue against DonnellanAmbiguidade Pragmática e o diálogo de Kripke contra DonnellanCarlo Penco (Universidade de Genova, Itália)AbstractIn this paper I discuss Donnellan’s claim of the pragmatic ambiguity of the distinction between referential and attributive uses of definite des-criptions. The literature on the topic is huge and full of alternative analysis. I will restrict myself to a very classical topos: the challenge posed by Kripke to Donnellan’s (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (2 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  7. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (2 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  8. 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.
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   1 citation  
  9. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (2 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  10. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  11. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   2 citations  
  12. Response.John Hawthorne & David Manley - 2014 - Mind and Language 29 (4):499-510.
    We are very grateful to our critics for their kind words and thoughtful engagementwith The Reference Book (hereafter TRB), and also to the editors of Mind & Language for the opportunity to respond. We’ll start our reply by sketching the book’s positive thesis about specific noun phrases and names. In §2 we’ll relate the traditional semantic category we call ‘reference’ to semantic taxonomies given in terms of mechanisms of denotation. In §3, we’ll turn to acquaintance constraints on reference and singular (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (4 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   2 citations  
  13. On the Ambiguity in Definite Descriptions.Thomas J. Hughes - 2014 - In Piotr Stalmaszczyk (ed.), Philosophy of Language and Linguistics: The Legacy of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. De Gruyter. pp. 99-114.
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  14. Definite Descriptions and the Argument From Inference.Wojciech Rostworowski - 2014 - Philosophia 42 (4):1099-1109.
    This article discusses the “Argument from Inference” raised against the view that definite descriptions are semantically referring expressions. According to this argument, the indicated view is inadequate since it evaluates some invalid inferences with definite descriptions as “valid” and vice versa. I argue that the Argument from Inference is basically wrong. Firstly, it is crucially based on the assumption that a proponent of the view that definite descriptions are referring expressions conceives them as directly referring terms, i.e., the terms which (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (3 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  15. Definite Descriptions.Paul Elbourne - 2013 - Oxford University Press.
    Paul Elbourne defends the Fregean view that definite descriptions ('the table', 'the King of France') refer to individuals, and offers a new and radical account of the semantics of pronouns. He draws on a wide range of work, from Frege, Peano, and Russell to the latest findings in linguistics, philosophy of language, and psycholinguistics.
    Remove from this list  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   29 citations  
  16. 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.
    Remove from this list   Direct download (2 more)  
    Translate
     
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  17. 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.
    Remove from this list   Direct download (3 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   1 citation  
  18. “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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  19. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  20. Definite Descriptions Are Ambiguous.Felipe S. Amaral - 2008 - Analysis 68 (4):288-297.
  21. Direct Reference and Definite Descriptions.Genoveva Marti - 2008 - Dialectica 62 (1):43-57.
    According to Donnellan the characteristic mark of a referential use of a definite description is the fact that it can be used to pick out an individual that does not satisfy the attributes in the description. Friends and foes of the referential/attributive distinction have equally dismissed that point as obviously wrong or as a sign that Donnellan's distinction lacks semantic import. I will argue that, on a strict semantic conception of what it is for an expression to be a genuine (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (5 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   10 citations  
  22. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   4 citations  
  23. Referentially Used Descriptions: A Reply to Devitt.Kent Bach - 2007 - European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 3 (2):33-48.
    This paper continues an ongoing debate between Michael Devitt and me on referential uses of definite descriptions. He has argued that definite descriptions have referential meanings, and I have argued that they do not. Having previously rebutted the view that referential uses are akin to particularized conversational implicatures, he now he rebuts the view that they are akin to generalized conversational implicatures. I agree that the GCI is not the best model, but I maintain that in exploiting the quantificational meaning (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (4 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   14 citations  
  24. Referential Usage and Gödelian Completions.Francesco Pupa - 2007 - The Reasoner 1 (6):5-6.
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
    Translate
     
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   2 citations  
  25. “The Referential” and “the Attributive”: Two Distinctions for the Price of One1.İ. N. A. N. İlhan - 2006 - Organon F: Medzinárodný Časopis Pre Analytickú Filozofiu 13 (2):137-160.
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  26. Review of Reimer & Bezuidenhout (2004): Descriptions and Beyond. [REVIEW]John-Michael Kuczynski - 2006 - Pragmatics and Cognition 14 (1):196-204.
    In order to understand a sentence, one must know the relevant semantic rules. Those rules are not learned in a vacuum; they are given to one through one's senses. As a result, knowledge of semantic rules sometimes comes bundled with semantically irrelevant, but cognitively non-innocuous, knowledge of the circumstances in which those rules were learned. Thus, one must work through non-semantic information in order to know what is literally meant by a given sentence-token. A consequence is that one's knowledge of (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (4 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  27. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (3 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  28. Review of Anne Bezuidenhout (Ed.), Marga Reimer (Ed.), Descriptions and Beyond[REVIEW]Gary Ostertag - 2005 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2005 (8).
  29. Why Definite Descriptions Really Are Referring Terms1 John-Michael Kuczynski University of California, Santa Barbara.Really Are Referring Terms - 2005 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 68 (1):45-79.
  30. Anaphoric Definite Descriptions.Alice ter Meulen - 2004 - In Marga Reimer & Anne Bezuidenhout (eds.), Descriptions and Beyond. Clarendon Press.
    Remove from this list  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   1 citation  
  31. Deixis and Anaphora.François Recanati - 2002 - In Zoltan Gendler Szabo (ed.), Semantics Versus Pragmatics. Clarendon 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.
    Remove from this list  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   13 citations  
  32. Descriptions and Situations.Francois Recanati - 2002 - In Marga Reimer & Anne Bezuidenhout (eds.), Descriptions and Beyond. Clarendon Press. pp. 15-40.
  33. Gary Ostertag, Ed., Definite Descriptions: A Reader Reviewed By.Emma Borg - 1999 - Philosophy in Review 19 (4):272-274.
  34. Gary Ostertag, Ed., Definite Descriptions: A Reader. [REVIEW]Emma Borg - 1999 - Philosophy in Review 19:272-274.
  35. Wettstein's Incompleteness, Salmon's Intuitions.Michael Nelson - 1999 - Noûs 33 (4):573-589.
    Remove from this list   Direct download (6 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  36. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   5 citations  
  37. Donnellan's Distinction/Kripke's Test.Marga Reimer - 1998 - Analysis 58 (2):89–100.
  38. 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. (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (8 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   43 citations  
  39. Indexicals and Descriptions.Fernando Garcia-Murga - 1995 - Sorites 2:46-56.
    Reference is a common feature to indexicals, definite descriptions and, at least some uses of indefinite descriptions. A referential expression triggers a search for a referent, which ranges over the linguistic context, physical environment or encyclopedic knowledge. I argue for a unified theory of reference within which indexicals and definite descriptions refer to salient objects while indefinite descriptions refer to non salient objects. The descriptive content attached to each expression provides information making it possible for the addressee to find an (...)
    Remove from this list  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  40. 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.
  41. A Theory of Definite Descriptions.Karel Lambert - 1991 - In Philosophical Applications of Free Logic. Oxford University Press. pp. 17--27.
    Remove from this list  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   6 citations  
  42. 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 (...)
    Remove from this list   Direct download (3 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   189 citations  
  43. Referential/Attributive: A Contextualist Proposal.Francois Recanati - 1989 - Philosophical Studies 56 (3):217 - 249.
    Remove from this list   Direct download (5 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   24 citations  
  44. 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.
    Remove from this list   Direct download (4 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   16 citations  
  45. Constructivity and the Referential/Attributive Distinction.D. E. Over - 1985 - Linguistics and Philosophy 8 (4):415 - 429.
    Remove from this list   Direct download (4 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark   1 citation  
  46. Using Descriptions Referentially.W. Stephen Croddy - 1984 - Philosophical Inquiry 6 (2):111-118.
    Remove from this list   Direct download (4 more)  
     
    Export citation  
     
    Bookmark  
  47. Referential/Attributive.Kent Bach - 1981 - Synthese 49 (2):219 - 244.
  48. Referential Uses and Speaker Meaning.Rod Bertolet - 1981 - Philosophical Quarterly 31 (124):253-259.
  49. The Semantic Significance of Donnellan's Distinction.Rod Bertolet - 1980 - Philosophical Studies 37 (3):281 - 288.
  50. How to Refer with Vague Descriptions.Manfred Pinkal - 1979 - In Rainer Bäuerle, Urs Egli & Arnim von Stechow (eds.), Semantics From Different Points of View. Springer Verlag. pp. 32--50.
1 — 50 / 58