Descriptions

Edited by Eliot Michaelson (King's College London, King's College London)
About this topic
Summary Descriptions are standardly divided into two types: definite descriptions (`the F') and indefinite descriptions (`a G').  Interest in these expressions dates back at least to Russell and Frege, who were interested both in what they mean and what role they play in thought and cognition.  Subsequent debates on descriptions have centered on their truth-conditions and what they presuppose, whether they can properly be said to refer, whether other expressions (e.g. names) can be treated on the model of descriptions, how to extend accounts of definite descriptions to plurals and mass terms, and whether there really is a difference in what definite and indefinite descriptions mean, as opposed to what they otherwise communicate.
Key works Contemporary debates on descriptions begin with Frege 1892 and Russell 1905Strawson 1950 offers a classic response to Russell and stands as the other main precursor to the popular `Frege-Strawson' analysis of definite descriptions, on which definiteness is merely presupposed.  Donnellan 1966 argues that definite descriptions are ambiguous between referring and non-referring uses, and Kripke 1977 responds with a defense of univocal Russellianism.  In the course of extensive discussion of anaphora, Heim 1982 considers the possibility that there may be no semantic difference between definite and indefinite descriptions.  Finally, Sharvy 1980 explores how to extend semantic accounts of descriptions to deal with plurals and mass terms.
Introductions Ludlow 2008
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  1. A Simple Theory of Rigidity.Tristan Grøtvedt Haze - forthcoming - Philosophical Studies:1-13.
    The notion of rigidity looms large in philosophy of language, but is beset by difficulties. This paper proposes a simple theory of rigidity, according to which an expression has a world-relative semantic property rigidly when it has that property at, or with respect to, all worlds. Just as names, and certain descriptions like 'The square root of 4', rigidly designate their referents, so too are necessary truths rigidly true, and so too does 'cat' rigidly have only animals in its extension. (...)
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  2. Social Interaction and the Development of Definite Descriptions.Werner Deutsch & Thomas Pechmann - 1982 - Cognition 11 (2):159-184.
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  3. On Falsifying Descriptions.Tracy S. Kendler - 1978 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1 (2):190-191.
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  4. Universality and Singularity and the Question of Definite Descriptions.A. Frigerio - 2000 - Rivista di Filosofia Neo-Scolastica 92 (1):108-142.
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  5. Towards a Re-Evaluation of On Denoting.H. P. Boukema - 2005 - Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 24 (3):133-149.
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  6. La Théorie Constructive de la Référence Types E Et Descriptions Définies.Michel Bourdeau - 2005 - Logique Et Analyse 48 (192):169-188.
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  7. On Epitheths Qua Attributive Anaphors.Eros Corazza - 2004 - Journal of Linguistics 41:1-32.
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  8. The Double Life of 'The Mayor of Oakland'.Michael Rieppel - 2013 - Linguistics and Philosophy 36 (5):417-446.
    The Fregean analysis of definite descriptions as referring expressions predicts that copular sentences with definite descriptions in postcopular position are invariably interpreted as identity statements. But as numerous diagnostics show, such sentences are frequently capable of receiving a predicational reading. A uniform Fregean analysis therefore won’t do. Things aren’t that simple, however. I show that descriptions which exhibit the structure [the + N + of + Proper Name] fall into two semantically distinct classes, and that the members of one of (...)
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  9. Names and Descriptions.P. T. Geach - 1979 - Philosophical Books 20 (3):140-142.
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  10. The Scope of Indefinites: An Experimental Investigation. [REVIEW]Tania Ionin - 2010 - Natural Language Semantics 18 (3):295-350.
    This paper reports on an experimental investigation of the scope of English a indefinites and a certain indefinites. Three experiments test whether native English speakers allow indefinites to scope out of syntactic islands, and to take intermediate as well as widest scope. The experimental findings indicate that a indefinites and a certain indefinites have different ranges of interpretations available to them. Experiment 1 shows that a certain indefinites, unlike a indefinites, cannot be interpreted in the scope of an intensional operator, (...)
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  11. The Semantics of Plural Indefinite Noun Phrases in Spanish and Portuguese.Luisa Martí - 2008 - Natural Language Semantics 16 (1):1-37.
    In this paper I provide a decompositional analysis of three kinds of plural indefinites in two related languages, European Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. The three indefinites studied are bare plurals, the unos (Spanish)/uns (Portuguese) type, and the algunos (Spanish)/alguns (Portuguese) type. The paper concentrates on four properties: semantic plurality, positive polarity, partitivity, and event distribution. The logic underlying the analysis is that of compositionality, applied at the subword level: as items become bigger in form (with the addition of morphemes), they (...)
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  12. This is Definitely Specific: Specificity and Definiteness in Article Systems. [REVIEW]Tania Ionin - 2006 - Natural Language Semantics 14 (2):175-234.
    This paper argues for the reality of specificity as noteworthiness, a concept built upon Fodor and Sag’s (1982) view of referentiality. Support for this view of specificity comes from the behavior of indefinite this in spoken English, as well as from specificity markers in Samoan, Hebrew, and Sissala. It is shown that the conditions on the use of this-indefinites cannot be accounted for by previous analyses of specificity. The relationship between definiteness and specificity in article systems crosslinguistically is examined, and (...)
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  13. On The Interpretation of Wide-Scope Indefinites.Lisa Matthewson - 1998 - Natural Language Semantics 7 (1):79-134.
    This paper argues, on the basis of data from St'át'imcets (Lillooet Salish), for a theory of wide-scope indefinites which is similar, though not identical, to that proposed by Kratzer (1998). I show that a subset of S'át'imcets indefinites takes obligatory wide scope with respect to if-clauses, negation, and modals, and is unable to be distributed over by quantificational phrases. These wide-scope effects cannot be accounted for by movement, but require an analysis involving choice functions (Reinhart 1995, 1997). However, Reinhart's particular (...)
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  14. The Ingredients of Definiteness and the Definiteness Effect.Alessandro Zucchi - 1995 - Natural Language Semantics 3 (1):33-78.
    Keenan (1987) observed that trivial determiners built from basic existential determiners (e.g.,either zero or else more than zero) are allowed inthere-insertion contexts, and that trivial determiners built from basic non-existential determiners (e.g.,either all or else not all) are not. This result is unexpected under the analyses ofthere-sentences proposed in Barwise and Cooper (1981), Higginbotham (1987), and Keenan (1987). I argue that the class of NPs barred from the postverbal position ofthere-sentences (strong NPs) is correctly characterized in presuppositional terms, as suggested (...)
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  15. The Validity of First-Person Descriptions as Authenticity and Coherence.Claire Petitmengin - 2009 - Journal of Consciousness Studies 16 (10-12):10-12.
    This article is devoted to the description of the experience associated with listening to a sound. In the first part, we describe the method we used to gather descriptions of auditory experience and to analyse these descriptions. This work of explicitation and analysis has enabled us to identify a threefold generic structure of this experience, depending on whether the attention of the subject is directed towards the event which is at the source of the sound, the sound in itself, considered (...)
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  16. Strawsonian Vs. Russellian Definite Descriptions.Marie Duží - 2009 - Organon F: Medzinárodný Časopis Pre Analytickú Filozofiu 16 (4):587-614.
    In 1905 Bertrand Russell took on the problem of definite descriptions, and his analysis became the standard up until 1950 when Peter Strawson criticised Russell’s solution as inadequate. Since then many opponents as well as proponents of the Russellian solution have been involved in a long-term debate on definite descriptions. In this paper I show that both sides of the contention are partly right and partly wrong, because sentences of the form “The F is a G” are ambiguous. However, the (...)
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  17. Hilbert and Bernays on Definite Descriptions.Norbert Gratzl - 2011 - Studia Philosophiae Christianae 47 (4):19-29.
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  18. Intentional Identity and Descriptions.William Lanier - 2014 - Philosophical Studies 170 (2):289-302.
    What is the semantic contribution of anaphoric links in sentences like, ‘A physicist was late to the party. He brought some bongos’? A natural first thought is that the passage entails a wide-scope existential claim that there is something that both (i) was late to the party and (ii) brought some bongos. Intentional identity sentences are counter-examples to this natural thought applied to anaphora in general. Some have tried to rescue the thought and accommodate the counter-examples by positing mythical objects. (...)
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  19. On Proper Names.Charles E. Jarrett - 1975 - Philosophy Research Archives 1:181-207.
    The main goal of this paper is to show that in Speech Acts, two of John Searle’s arguments fail to establish his thesis that proper names have sense, or descriptive content. It is argued, by considering counterexamples, that Searle’s test for the analyticity of statements is inadequate, that the argument from the "principle of identification" is therefore mistaken, and that, because of lack of attention to the distinction between meaning and sense, the argument from identity statements fails to establish the (...)
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  20. Nomi propri e descrizioni definite: resoconto di un lungo dibattito.Gabriele Bonetti - 1986 - Verifiche: Rivista Trimestrale di Scienze Umane 15 (1):123-146.
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  21. The Attributive Use and Russell's Paradigm.Wojciech Rostworowski - 2013 - Filozofia Nauki 21 (2).
    According to the prevailing view, Russell’s theory of descriptions provides an adequate semantic account of sentences with definite descriptions in the attributive use. The author challenges this assumption. Firstly, he presents two general ‘Straw­sonian’ objections to Russell’s theory, which, as he argues, are valid in the case of attributive assertions. Those are arguments against the so called existential reading and the uniqueness-reading of an attributively used sentence of the form “The F is G”. Finally, the author presents his own objection (...)
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  22. Review: G. Stevens. The Theory of Descriptions: Russell and the Philosophy of Language. [REVIEW]Anssi Korhonen - 2013 - Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy 2 (1).
    This is a review of G. Stevens. The Theory of Descriptions: Russell and the Philosophy of Language.
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  23. “The King of France is Bald” Reconsidered: A Case Against Yablo.Andrej Jandrić - 2014 - Philosophical Studies 169 (2):173-181.
    Stephen Yablo has argued for metaontological antirealism: he believes that the sentences claiming or denying the existence of numbers (or other abstract entities or mereological sums) are inapt for truth valuation, because the reference failure of a numerical singular term (or a singular term for an abstract entity or a mereological sum) would not produce a truth value gap in any sentence containing that term. At the same time, Yablo believes that nothing similar applies to singular terms that aim to (...)
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  24. Descriptions as Variables.Paolo Santorio - 2013 - Philosophical Studies 164 (1):41-59.
    On a popular view dating back to Russell, descriptions, both definite and indefinite alike, work syntactically and semantically like quantifiers. I have an argument against Russell's view. The argument supports a different picture: descriptions can behave syntactically and semantically like variables. This basic idea can be implemented in very different systematic analyses, but, whichever way one goes, there will be a significant departure from Russell. The claim that descriptions are variables is not new: what I offer is a new way (...)
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  25. How to Russell Another Meinongian.Gregory Landini - 1990 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 37 (1):93-122.
    This article compares the theory of Meinongian objects proposed by Edward Zalta with a theory of fiction formulated within an early Russellian framework. The Russellian framework is the second-order intensional logic proposed by Nino B. Cocchiarelly as a reconstruction of the form of Logicism Russell was examining shortly after writing The Principles of Mathematics. A Russellian theory of denoting concepts is developed in this intensional logic and applied as a theory of the "objects' of fiction. The framework retains the Orthodox (...)
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  26. Anaphora and Definite Descriptions.Jan Woleński - 1988 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 32:225-227.
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  27. Braving the Perils of an Uneventful World.Terence Horgan & Michael Tye - 1988 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 31 (1):179-186.
    Philosophers who advocate an ontology without events must show how sentences containing apparent reference to events can be systematically paraphrased, or "regimented," into sentences which avoid ontological commitment to these putative entities. Two alternative proposals are set forth for regimenting statements containing putatively event-denoting definite descriptions. Both proposals eliminate the apparent reference to events, while still preserving the validity of inferences sanctioned by the surface grammar of the regimented sentences.
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  28. Plantinga on the De Dicto/De Re Distinction.Michael Wreen - 1986 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 27 (1):49-55.
    Over the past fifteen years or so the distinction between de diclo and de re modality has been revived and pressed into service in a number of areas of philosophy. In "Plantinga on the De Dicto/De Re Distinction" it is argued that one prominent argument/persuasion advanced for making the distinction in the first place is unsound. The argument for making the distinction attempts to elicit rational acceptance of it by clearly illustrating it with a proposition that is false when modal-fied (...)
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  29. Descriptions as Distinctions. George Spencer Brown's Calculus of Indications as a Basis for Mitterer's Non-Dualistic Descriptions.P. Ene - 2013 - Constructivist Foundations 8 (2):202-208.
    Context: Non-dualistic thinking is an alternative to realism and constructivism. Problem: In the absence of a distinct definition of the term “description,” the question comes up of what exactly can be included in non-dualistic descriptions, and in how far the definition of this term affects the relation between theory and empirical practice. Furthermore, this paper is concerned with the question of whether non-dualism and dualism differ in their implications. Method: I provide a wider semantic framework for the term “description” by (...)
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  30. Rigid Designation and Definite Descriptions.Wojciech Rostworowski - 2011 - Filozofia Nauki 19 (4).
    The aim of this paper is to discuss an idea that referentially used definite descriptions are rigid designators or, at least, „weakly” rigid designators in some sense of this term. In the first part, the views of Nathan Salmon, Howard Wettstein and Michael Devitt are presented. The author observes that none of these positions provides a conclusive argument in the discussion on the issue in question. In the second part, it is argued that referentially used descriptions are in some sense (...)
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  31. Non-Declarative Sentences and the Theory of Definite Descriptions.John Michael Kuczynski - 2004 - Principia: An International Journal of Epistemology 8 (1):119-154.
    This paper shows that Russell’s theory of descriptions gives the wrong semantics for definite descriptions occurring in questions and imperatives. Depending on how that theory is applied, it either assigns nonsense to perfectly meaningful questions and assertions or it assigns meanings that diverge from the actual semantics of such sentences, even after all pragmatic and contextual variables are allowed for. Given that Russell’s theory is wrong for questions and assertions, it must be wrong for assertoric statements; for the semantics of (...)
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  32. Referential/Attributive: The Explanatory Gap of the Contextualist Theory.Massimiliano Vignolo - 2012 - Dialectica 66 (4):621-633.
    I argue that the contextualist account of the referential/attributive interpretation of definite descriptions, presented by Recanati and Bezuidehnout and based on the idea that definite descriptions are semantically underdetermined and in need of completion through optional top-down pragmatic processes, suffers from an explanatory gap. I defend the contextualist view but hold that the determination of the content of definite descriptions is a mandatory, linguistically driven process based on saturation rather than on optional pragmatic processes.
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  33. What Russell Couldn't Describe.Fredrik Haraldsen - 2013 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91 (3):459-473.
    The characteristic property of definite descriptions in natural language is commonly assumed to be their uniqueness requirement, although there is disagreement with respect to how occurrences should be interpreted, for instance with regard to the well-known restriction problem. I offer a novel argument against characterizing definite expressions in terms of uniqueness. If a singular definite description ?the F? implies that its denotation is the unique satisfier of ?F? (relative to a context) then there are real-life states of affairs that can (...)
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  34. Ramsey Sentences: An Observation.Nils-Eric Sahlin & Martin Kaså - 2005 - Metaphysica (3):109-117.
    Ramsey argued that the best way to understand how the theoretical terms of a theory function is to picture them as existentially bound variables. We explore the ontological ramifications of Ramsey's idea by developing a new type of dynamic model-theoretical semantics, based on the concept of an experimental logic.
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  35. Plural Reference and Reference to a Plurality. Linguistic Facts and Semantic Analyses.Friederike Moltmann - 2016 - In Massimiliano Carrara, Alexandra Arapinis & Friederike Moltmann (eds.), Unity and Plurality. Logic, Philosophy, and Semantics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 93-120.
    This paper defends 'plural reference', the view that definite plurals refer to several individuals at once, and it explores how the view can account for a range of phenomena that have been discussed in the linguistic literature.
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  36. Descriptions as Negations.Michael P. Slattery - 1967 - Philosophical Studies (Dublin) 16:193-209.
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  37. Names and Descriptions.Jack Kaminsky - 1978 - International Studies in Philosophy 10:189-190.
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  38. Reference Borrowing and the Role of Descriptions.Dunja Jutronić - 2008 - Croatian Journal of Philosophy 8 (3):349-360.
    In this exchange with Michael Devitt on reference borrowing I continue to challenge the idea that reference borrowing is a purely causal process and suggest instead that reference borrowing involves the borrowers having to associate the correct categorial term and have some true beliefs about the referent in the guise of some associate description. I strengthen my defense by suggesting that other kind terms form the core of our language and this is where we associate true categorial descriptions and where (...)
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  39. On Phrasal Pragmatics and What is Descriptively Referred To.Esther Romero & Belén Soria - 2010 - Croatian Journal of Philosophy 10 (1):63-84.
    In this paper, we discuss contextualism, a philosophical position that some pragmatists have endorsed as a result of the philosophical reflection on pragmatics as a science. In particular, we challenge, from the results on phrasal pragmatics, the contextualist approach on incomplete definite descriptions and referential metonymy according to which optional pragmatic processes of interpretation are required (an optional pragmatic process of recovering unarticulated constituents for incompleteness and an optional pragmatic process of transfer for metonymy). By contrast, we argue from the (...)
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  40. Are Fictional Descriptions Merely Referentiall Vacuous?Tom Settle - 1972 - Kagaku Tetsugaku 5:167-173.
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  41. Kripke’s Metalinguistic Apparatus and the Analysis of Definite Descriptions.Edward Kanterian - 2011 - Philosophical Studies 156 (3):363-387.
    This article reconsiders Kripke’s ( 1977 , in: French, Uehling & Wettstein (eds) Contemporary perspectives in the philosophy of language, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis) pragmatic, univocal account of the attributive-referential distinction in terms of a metalinguistic apparatus consisting of semantic reference and speaker reference. It is argued that Kripke’s strongest methodological argument supporting the pragmatic account, the parallel applicability of the apparatus to both names and definite descriptions, is successful only if descriptions are treated as designators in both attributive (...)
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  42. The Semantics of Definite and Indefinite Noun Phrases.Irene Heim - 1982 - Dissertation, UMass Amherst
  43. A, The, Another: A Game of Same and Different. [REVIEW]Atle Grønn & Kjell Johan Sæbø - 2012 - Journal of Logic, Language and Information 21 (1):75-95.
    Indefinites face competition at two levels: Presupposition and content. The antipresupposition hypothesis predicts that they signal the opposite of familiarity, or uniqueness, namely, novelty, or non-uniqueness. At the level of descriptive content, they are pressured from two sides: definites expressing identity and another phrases expressing difference, and Gricean reasoning predicts that indefinites signal both difference and identity and are infelicitous when definites and another phrases are felicitous. However, occasionally a space opens between the and another, for a to fill. This (...)
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  44. The Theory of Descriptions: Russell and the Philosophy of Language.Graham Stevens - 2011 - Palgrave-Macmillan.
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  45. Notionalization: The Transformation of Descriptions Into Categorizations. [REVIEW]Arnulf Deppermann - 2011 - Human Studies 34 (2):155-181.
    This paper analyses one specific conversational practice of formulation called ‘notionalization’. It consists in the transformation of a description by a prior speaker into a categorization by the next speaker. Sequences of this kind are a “natural laboratory” for studying the differences between descriptions and categorizations regarding their semantic, interactional, and rhetorical properties: Descriptive/narrative versions are often vague and tentative, multi unit turns, which are temporalized and episodic, offering a lot of contingent, situational, and indexical detail. Notionalizations turn them into (...)
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  46. Contextual Dependence and Definite Descriptions.Francois Recanati - 1987 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 87:57-73.
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  47. Review: Review Essays: Demonstratives, Descriptions, and Knowledge: A Critical Study of Three Recent Books. [REVIEW]David B. Martens - 1994 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54 (4):947 - 963.
  48. Réalisme Et Théorie Russellienne des Descriptions.François Lepage - 1983 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 13 (2):209 - 226.
    La théorie des descriptions de Bertrand Russell est sans aucun doute l'une des thèses philosophiques qui, au vingtième siècle, ont donné lieu au plus grand nombre de commentaires, de critiques, voire de querelles. Portée aux nues par certains-Ramsey l'a qualifiée de ‘paradigme de philosophie’-elle sera violemment contestée par d'autres, en particulier par Strawson qui s'avisera, quelque quarantecinq ans plus tard, qu'elle comporte des ‘erreurs fondamentales.’.
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  49. Indeterminate Descriptions.G. W. Fitch - 1984 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 14 (2):257 - 276.
    One of the most important insights that Russell had in presenting his philosophy of language was his view of singular definite descriptions. Russell held that singular phrases of the form ‘the so-and-so’ should not be viewed as names, but rather incomplete symbols which can be said to have meaning only in a context. We should not represent the sentence The inventor of bifocals is bald.as a simple subject-predicate sentence of the form ‘Fa.’ but rather as a complex existential sentence. According (...)
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  50. Certain Problems Connected with the Definitions of Identity and of Definite Descriptions Given in Principia Mathematica.Sören Halldén - 1948 - Analysis 9 (2):29 - 33.
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