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. Actualized and protected descriptivism: an answer to Celia Teixeira / Descritivismo atualizado e protegido: uma resposta à Célia Teixeira.Rodrigo Cid - 2010 - Revista Aproximação 2:9-ss.
    It was argued by Célia Teixeira (2003) that the actualized descriptivist theory of names have the problem of generating undesired epistemic necessities. In this paper I want to argue for a descriptivis theory that does not suffer from such problem. For this I will explain Teixeira's objections and later present my own conception of an actualized descriptivist theory of names; it is, protected against the problem of undesired necessities.
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  2. Complex Demonstratives, Hidden Arguments, and Presupposition.Ethan Nowak - 2019 - Synthese:1-36.
    Standard semantic theories predict that non-deictic readings for complex demonstratives should be much more widely available than they in fact are. If such readings are the result of a lexical ambiguity, as Kaplan (1977) and others suggest, we should expect them to be available wherever a definite description can be used. The same prediction follows from ‘hidden argument’ theories like the ones described by King (2001) and Elbourne (2005). Wolter (2006), however, has shown that complex demonstratives admit non-deictic interpretations only (...)
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  3. Gönderim Üzerine.Bertrand Russell - 2015 - Felsefe Tartismalari (49):55-72.
  4. Split-Scope Definites: Relative Superlatives and Haddock Descriptions.Dylan Bumford - 2017 - Linguistics and Philosophy 40 (6):549-593.
    This paper argues for a particular semantic decomposition of morphological definiteness. I propose that the meaning of ‘the’ comprises two distinct compositional operations. The first builds a set of witnesses that satisfy the restricting noun phrase. The second tests this set for uniqueness. The motivation for decomposing the denotation of the definite determiner in this way comes from split-scope intervention effects. The two components—the selection of witnesses on the one hand and the counting of witnesses on the other—may take effect (...)
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  5. Carnapian Arithmetic with Descriptions.Jan Heylen - 2009 - In Erik Weber, Thierry Libert, Geert Vanpaemel & P. Marage (eds.), Logic, Philosophy and History of Science in Belgium. Proceedings of the Young Researchers Days 2008. Brussel: Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten. pp. 28-34.
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  6. 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 se-mantics for definite descriptions occurring in questions and imperatives. Depending on how that theory is applied, it either assigns nonsense to per-fectly meaningful questions and assertions or it assigns meanings that di-verge 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 state-ments; for the semantics of (...)
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  7. Marga Reimer and Anne Bezuidenhout , Descriptions and Beyond.John-Michael Kuczynski - 2006 - Pragmatics and Cognition 14 (1):196-204.
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  8. An Error in Searle’s Criticism of Russell’s Theory of Descriptions.Joy H. Roberts - 1976 - Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 7 (1):15-19.
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  9. Bradley’s Theory of Descriptions.Anthony Manser - 2002 - Bradley Studies 8 (2):114-129.
    A draft copy of this article, dated 13th February 1988, was given by Tony Manser in 1989 to Stewart Candlish, who has edited it for publication in Bradley Studies in the hope that the finished result will not only be of value to students of Bradley and Russell but also stand as a worthy memorial to a valued colleague and friend. Editing has been confined to a minimum, such as correcting errors in punctuation, quotation, referencing and typography; no attempt has (...)
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  10. Set Theory and Definite Descriptions: Four Solutions in Search of a Common Problem.Karel Lambert - 2000 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 60 (1):1-11.
    This paper offers an explanation of the maj or traditions in the logical treatment of definite descriptions as reactions to paradoxical naive definite descriptiontheory. The explanation closely parallels that of various set theories as reactions to paradoxical naive set theory. Indeed, naive set theory is derivable from naive definite description theory given an appropriate definition of set abstracts in terms of definite descriptions.
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  11. Miller, Kripke, Bach and the Meaning of Proper Names.Robin Attfield - 1983 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 21 (2):153-158.
    Examples are presented which raise problems for theories of proper names which deny their equivalence either with descriptions (miller, Kripke) or with non-Trivial descriptions (bach). These examples of names equivalent to the same descriptions for all the possible worlds in which their bearers exist require the theories to be abandoned or at least modified as to their scope.
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  12. Definite Descriptions and Choice Functions.Klaus von Heusinger - 1997 - In Seiki Akama (ed.), ¸ Iteakama1997. Springer Verlag. pp. 61-91.
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  13. Conditionals as Definite Descriptions.Schlenker Philippe - unknown
    Lewis 1973 observed that his logic for counterfactuals could be applied to definite descriptions. His generalization was that the latter display the same non-monotonic patterns as the former, contrary to what Russellian or Strawsonian accounts would predict. We take Lewis's suggestion literally and suggest that ‘if' should be analyzed as the word ‘the' applied to a description of possible worlds. We do not follow Lewis's own implementation, however, for it entails that definite descriptions do not refer. Rather, we use von (...)
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  14. Existence in the Theory of Definite Descriptions.Frederick Kroon - 2009 - Journal of Philosophy 106 (7):365-389.
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  15. Epsilon-Invariant Substitutions and Indefinite Descriptions.Z. Molnar - 2013 - Logic Journal of the IGPL 21 (5):812-829.
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  16. VII—Descriptions and Reasons.Julius Kovesi - 1979 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 80 (1):101-114.
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  17. VII—On the Theory of Descriptions.Ted Honderich - 1968 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 69 (1):87-100.
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  18. Descriptions of New Forms of the Genus Acontias Lin.John Hewitt - 1938 - Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 26 (1):39-48.
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  19. Classic Descriptions of Diseases. Ralph H. Major.Henry R. Viets - 1933 - Isis 19 (3):518-520.
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  20. Further Steps Towards a Theory of Descriptions as Predicates.Delia Graff Fara - 2016 - Analytic Philosophy 57 (2):91-109.
    Descriptions are predicates. Here, I'll take this to mean either of two basically equivalent things: that they have extensions as their semantic values, sets of entities, in the broadest sense; or that they have type-〈e,t〉 functions as their semantic values, functions from entities, in the broadest sense, to truth values. An entity in the broadest sense is anything that can be the subject of a first-order predication. Examples are individuals, pluralities, masses, and kinds. Here I'm including entities in this broadest (...)
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  21. Reference to and Via Properties: The View From Dutch.Louise McNally & Henriëtte Swart - 2015 - Linguistics and Philosophy 38 (4):315-362.
    Many languages offer a surprisingly complex range of options for referring to entities using expressions whose main descriptive content is contributed by an adjective, such as Dutch de blinde ‘the blind,’ het besprokene, ‘the discussed,’ or het ongewone van het niet roken ‘the strange about not smoking.’ In this paper, we present a case study of the syntax and compositional semantics of three such constructions in Dutch, one of which we argue has not previously been identified in the literature. The (...)
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  22. Incomplete Descriptions and Indistinguishable Participants.Paul Elbourne - 2016 - Natural Language Semantics 24 (1):1-43.
    The implicit content associated with incomplete definite descriptions is contributed in the form of definite descriptions of situations. A definite description of this kind is contributed by a small structure in the syntax, which is interpreted, in general terms, as ‘the situation that bears R to s’.
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  23. The Slingshot Argument and Sentential Identity.Yaroslav Shramko & Heinrich Wansing - 2009 - Studia Logica 91 (3):429-455.
    The famous “slingshot argument” developed by Church, Gödel, Quine and Davidson is often considered to be a formally strict proof of the Fregean conception that all true sentences, as well as all false ones, have one and the same denotation, namely their corresponding truth value: the true or the false . In this paper we examine the analysis of the slingshot argument by means of a non-Fregean logic undertaken recently by A.Wóitowicz and put to the test her claim that the (...)
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  24. Definite Descriptions Are Ambiguous.Felipe S. Amaral - 2008 - Analysis 68 (4):288-297.
  25. A Semantic Proof of the Eliminability of Descriptions.Elliott Mendelson - 1960 - Zeitschrift fur mathematische Logik und Grundlagen der Mathematik 6 (7-14):199-200.
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  26. Russell Vs. Meinong: The Legacy of "on Denoting".Nicholas Griffin & Dale Jacquette (eds.) - 2008 - Routledge.
    A century after ‘On Denoting’ was published, the debate it initiated continues to rage. On the one hand, there is a mass of new historical scholarship, about both Russell and Meinong, which has not circulated very far beyond specialist scholars. On the other hand, there are continuing problems and controversies concerning contemporary Russellian and Meinongian theories, many of them involving issues that simply did not occur to the original protagonists. This work provides an overview of the latest historical scholarship on (...)
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  27. Interaction and Resistance: The Recognition of Intentions in New Human-Computer Interaction.Vincent C. Müller - 2011 - In Anna Esposito, Antonietta M. Esposito, Raffaele Martone, Vincent C. Müller & Gaetano Scarpetta (eds.), Towards autonomous, adaptive, and context-aware multimodal interfaces: Theoretical and practical issues. Springer. pp. 1-7.
    Just as AI has moved away from classical AI, human-computer interaction (HCI) must move away from what I call ‘good old fashioned HCI’ to ‘new HCI’ – it must become a part of cognitive systems research where HCI is one case of the interaction of intelligent agents (we now know that interaction is essential for intelligent agents anyway). For such interaction, we cannot just ‘analyze the data’, but we must assume intentions in the other, and I suggest these are largely (...)
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  28. Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction.William G. Lycan - 1999 - Routledge.
    _Philosophy of Language_ introduces the student to the main issues and theories in twentieth-century philosophy of language. Topics are structured in three parts in the book. Part I, Reference and Referring Expressions, includes topics such as Russell's Theory of Desciptions, Donnellan's distinction, problems of anaphora, the description theory of proper names, Searle's cluster theory, and the causal-historical theory. Part II, Theories of Meaning, surveys the competing theories of linguistic meaning and compares their various advantages and liabilities. Part III, Pragmatics and (...)
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  29. Definiteness and Determinacy.Elizabeth Coppock & David Beaver - 2015 - Linguistics and Philosophy 38 (5):377-435.
    This paper distinguishes between definiteness and determinacy. Definiteness is seen as a morphological category which, in English, marks a uniqueness presupposition, while determinacy consists in denoting an individual. Definite descriptions are argued to be fundamentally predicative, presupposing uniqueness but not existence, and to acquire existential import through general type-shifting operations that apply not only to definites, but also indefinites and possessives. Through these shifts, argumental definite descriptions may become either determinate or indeterminate. The latter option is observed in examples like (...)
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  30. Same but Different.Daniel Hardt & Line Mikkelsen - 2015 - Linguistics and Philosophy 38 (4):289-314.
    In this paper, we argue that same is fundamentally different from different, in that same imposes a discourse condition on eventualities, while different compares individuals. This difference has not been noted in previous literature. Furthermore, in the literature on same, there has been a persistent puzzle about the contribution of the definite article with which same must co-occur. We show that this puzzle is resolved once the contribution of same is adjusted to apply to eventualities: then the definite article can (...)
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  31. Why Indefinites Can Escape Scope Islands.Edgar Onea - 2015 - Linguistics and Philosophy 38 (3):237-267.
    One of the big questions about indefinites is why they can escape scope islands. In the recent approach of Brasoveanu and Farkas :1–55, 2011) scopal relations with syntactically dominating quantifiers are hard wired into the semantic definition of the existential quantifier, which immediately explains why the semantic scope of indefinites may exceed their syntactic scope. In this paper, I argue for the revival of an alternative approach which places the explanatory burden on the idea that indefinites are essentially referential expressions, (...)
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  32. 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.
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  33. Definite and Indefinite According to Muslim Philosophers.Dr Gh Dinani - unknown - Kheradnameh Sadra Quarterly 5.
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  34. 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 (...)
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  35. Names and Descriptions in Epistemic Contexts.B. Freed - 1973 - International Logic Review 8:239.
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  36. Descripciones definidas, composicionalidad y forma lógica.J. Acero - 2005 - Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 24 (3).
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  37. Do descriptions have meaning.W. Stephen Croddy - 1979 - Logique Et Analyse 22 (85):23.
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  38. Gary Ostertag, Ed., Definite Descriptions: A Reader. [REVIEW]Emma Borg - 1999 - Philosophy in Review 19:272-274.
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  39. Definite Descriptions in a Modal Language.John Douglas Sinks - 1974 - Dissertation, Duke University
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  40. Myself and Others.V. Chappell - 1963 - Analysis 23 (Suppl-1):50-57.
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  41. "Definiteness and Indefiniteness: A Study in Reference and Grammaticality Prediction" by John A. Hawkins. [REVIEW]Martin Harris - 1979 - Linguistics and Philosophy 3:419.
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  42. Definiteness and Indefiniteness: A Study in Reference and Grammaticality Prediction.John A. Hawkins - 1980 - Linguistics and Philosophy 3 (3):419-427.
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  43. Descriptions in Theories of Kind W.Mieczyslaw Omyla & Roman Suszko - 1972 - Bulletin of the Section of Logic 1 (3):8-13.
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  44. 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 (...)
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  45. Meta-Linguistic Descriptivism and the Opacity of Quotation.Michael Oliva Córdoba - 2014 - Acta Analytica 29 (4):413-426.
    The paper unfolds a non-modal problem for (moderate) meta-linguistic descriptivism, the thesis that the meaning of a proper name (e.g. ‘Aristotle’) is given by a meta-linguistic description of a certain type (e.g. ‘the bearer of “Aristotle”’). According to this theory, if ⌜α⌝ is a proper name, it is a sufficient condition for the name’s being significant that the description ⌜the bearer of ⌜α⌝⌝ is significant. However, a quotational expression may be significant even when the expression quoted is not. Therefore, proper (...)
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  46. 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 (...)
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  47. Indefinites in Comparatives.Maria Aloni & Floris Roelofsen - 2014 - Natural Language Semantics 22 (2):145-167.
    The goal of this paper is to explain the meaning and distribution of indefinites in comparatives, focusing on English some and any and German irgend-indefinites. We consider three competing theories of comparatives in combination with an alternative semantics of some and any, and a novel account of stressed irgend-indefinites. One of the resulting accounts, based on Heim’s analysis of comparatives, predicts all the relevant differences in quantificational force, and explains why free choice indefinites are licensed in comparatives.
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  48. Using Descriptions Referentially.W. Stephen Croddy - 1984 - Philosophical Inquiry 6 (2):111-118.
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  49. Anaphoric Definite Descriptions.Alice ter Meulen - 2004 - In Marga Reimer & Anne Bezuidenhout (eds.), Descriptions and Beyond. Clarendon Press.
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  50. A Definite No-No.Roy A. Sorensen - 2004 - In J. C. Beall (ed.), Liars and Heaps: New Essays on Paradox. Clarendon Press.
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