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Summary According to Russell's theory of descriptions, indefinite descriptions (e.g. "an F") contribute only a bare existence claim to the truth-conditions of the sentences in which they appear, whereas definite descriptions (e.g. "the F") contribute both existence and uniqueness claims.  More precisely, Russell suggests that "An F is G" be analyzed as: there is at least one F which is also G.  In contrast, "The F is G" is to be analyzed as: there is a unique F which is also G.  Russell's theory is simple, elegant, and able to account for a variety of challenging phenomena, such as negative existential claims.  Some outstanding concerns include whether the theory can adequately account for the way descriptions are actually used in natural language, as well as how the theory might be extended to account for plural descriptions.
Key works Russell 1905 intoduces Russell's thoery of descriptions.  The theory presented there, and standardly called "Russell's theory", is actually in conflict with an earlier theory of descriptions outlined in Russell 1903Neale 1990 extensively refines and defends the Russellian theory, giving it a more modern treatment.  Strawson 1950 and Donnellan 1966 represent two classic attacks on the theory.  Finally, Sharvy 1980 attempts to generalize on Russell's theory so as to account for plural descriptions as well.
Introductions Ludlow 2008
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  1. Definiteness and Identification in English.Barbara Abbott - manuscript
    Many characterizations of definiteness in natural language have been given. However a number of them converge on a single idea involving uniqueness of applicability of a property. This paper will attempt to do two things. One is to try to unify some of these current views of definiteness, seeing them as drawing out Gricean conversational implicatures of the uniqueness concept, and the other is to try a more articulated approach to dealing with some recalcitrant counterexamples. I will focus primarily, but (...)
  2. Issues in the Semantics and Pragmatics of Definite Descriptions in English.Barbara Abbott - manuscript
  3. Notes to a Recent Discussion on Descriptions.Lennart Ågvist - 1959 - Philosophical Studies 10 (2):28 - 30.
  4. Referentially Used Descriptions: A Reply to Devitt.Kent Bach - 2007 - European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 3 (2):33-48.
  5. Referential/Attributive.Kent Bach - 1981 - Synthese 49 (2):219 - 244.
  6. An Alternative Contextual Definition for Descriptions.John Bacon - 1965 - Philosophical Studies 16 (5):75 - 76.
  7. Co-Extensive Theories and Unembedded Definite Descriptions.Alex Barber - 2005 - In Reinaldo Elugardo & Robert J. Stainton (eds.), Ellipsis and Nonsentential Speech. Springer. pp. 185–201.
    Russell argued, famously, that definite descriptions are not logical constituents of the sentences in which they appear. In neither of the following should we suppose that the definite description picks anything out: The King of France is bald The Prince of Wales is bald Since France is a republic, nothing could be picked out by the first; and if the semantic structures of each are the same, it cannot be the function of the second to pick anything out either. On (...)
  8. Pragmatics and Definite Descriptions.John A. Barker - 1972 - Tulane Studies in Philosophy 21:63-84.
  9. Descriptions in Nonextensional Contexts.Gustav Bergmann - 1948 - Philosophy of Science 15 (4):353-355.
  10. Searle on Descriptions.Simon Blackburn - 1972 - Mind 81 (323):409-414.
  11. 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.
  12. How to Give Someone Horns. Paradoxes of Presupposition in Antiquity.Susanne Bobzien - 2012 - Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 15:159-84.
    ABSTRACT: This paper discusses ancient versions of paradoxes today classified as paradoxes of presupposition and how their ancient solutions compare with contemporary ones. Sections 1-4 air ancient evidence for the Fallacy of Complex Question and suggested solutions, introduce the Horn Paradox, consider its authorship and contemporary solutions. Section 5 reconstructs the Stoic solution, suggesting the Stoics produced a Russellian-type solution based on a hidden scope ambiguity of negation. The difference to Russell's explanation of definite descriptions is that in the Horn (...)
  13. 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 (...)
  14. Uses of Definite Descriptions and Russell's Theory.Alan Brinton - 1977 - Philosophical Studies 31 (4):261 - 267.
  15. A Note on Descriptions.May Brodbeck - 1957 - Philosophical Studies 8 (6):95 - 96.
  16. The ‘Gray’s Elegy’ Argument, and The Prospects for the Theory of Denoting Concepts.B. Brogaard - 2006 - Synthese 152 (1):47-79.
    Russell's new theory of denoting phrases introduced in "On Denoting" in Mind 1905 is now a paradigm of analytic philosophy. The main argument for Russell's new theory is the so-called 'Gray's Elegy' argument, which purports to show that the theory of denoting concepts promoted by Russell in the 1903 Principles of Mathematics is incoherent. The 'Gray's Elegy' argument rests on the premise that if a denoting concept occurs in a proposition, then the proposition is not about the concept. I argue (...)
  17. Russell's Theory of Descriptions Vs. The Predicative Analysis: A Reply to Graff.Berit Brogaard - unknown
    I. Descriptions in Predicative Position The predicative analysis and Russell’s theory part company when it comes to the argument structure assigned to sentences like (1). (1) Washington is the greatest French soldier. On a standard Russellian analysis, (1) has the following (a) logical form and (b) truth conditions.
  18. Review of Nicholas Griffin, Dale Jacquette (Eds.), Russell Vs. Meinong: The Legacy of "on Denoting"[REVIEW]Berit Brogaard - 2009 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2009 (4).
  19. Review of Andrea Bottani, Richard Davies (Eds.), Modes of Existence: Papers in Ontology and Philosophical Logic[REVIEW]Berit Brogaard - 2007 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2007 (8).
  20. Has the Problem of Incompleteness Rested on a Mistake?Ray Buchanan & Gary Ostertag - 2005 - Mind 114 (456):889-913.
    A common objection to Russell's theory of descriptions concerns incomplete definite descriptions: uses of (for example) ‘the book is overdue’ in contexts where there is clearly more than one book. Many contemporary Russellians hold that such utterances will invariably convey a contextually determined complete proposition, for example, that the book in your briefcase is overdue. But according to the objection this gets things wrong: typically, when a speaker utters such a sentence, no facts about the context or the speaker's communicative (...)
  21. A New Look at Definite Descriptions.Mario Bunge - 1971 - Kagaku Tetsugaku 4:131-146.
  22. The Scaffolding of Russell's Theory of Descriptions.Ronald J. Butler - 1954 - Philosophical Review 63 (3):350-364.
  23. The Theory of Descriptions: Russell and the Philosophy of Language.Stewart Candlish - 2012 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (4):820-821.
  24. Russell's Distinction Between the Primary and Secondary Occurrence of Definite Descriptions.Chrystine E. Cassin - 1971 - Mind 80 (320):620-622.
  25. Presuppositions, Names, and Descriptions.Romane Clark - 1956 - Philosophical Quarterly 6 (23):145-154.
  26. Names, Descriptions and Quantifiers.John Collins - manuscript
  27. Ontology and the Theory of Descriptions.Charles Crittenden - 1970 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 31 (1):85-96.
  28. On the Theory of Meaning of "on Denoting".William Demopoulos - 1999 - Noûs 33 (3):439-458.
  29. Descriptions, Negation, and Focus.Michael Glanzberg - 2009 - In Robert Stainton & Christopher Viger (eds.), Compositionality, Context, and Semantic Values: Essays in Honor of Ernie Lepore. Springer.
    One of the mainstays of the theory of definite descriptions since Russell (1905) has been their interaction with negation. In particular, Russellians, who advocate the view that definite descriptions are a kind of quantifier, point to these interactions as evidence in favor of the their view. The argument runs roughly as follows.
  30. The Indefinability of €œOne”.Laurence Goldstein - 2002 - Journal of Philosophical Logic 31 (1):29-42.
    Logicism is one of the great reductionist projects. Numbers and the relationships in which they stand may seem to possess suspect ontological credentials – to be entia non grata – and, further, to be beyond the reach of knowledge. In seeking to reduce mathematics to a small set of principles that form the logical basis of all reasoning, logicism holds out the prospect of ontological economy and epistemological security. This paper attempts to show that a fundamental logicist project, that of (...)
  31. Descriptions as Predicates.Graff Fara Delia - 2001 - Philosophical Studies 102 (1):1-42.
    Although Strawson’s main aim in “On Referring” was to argue that definite descriptions can be used referentially – that is, “to mention or refer to some individual person or single object . . . , in the course of doing what we should normally describe as making a statement about that person [or] object” (1950, p. 320) – he denied that definite descriptions are always used referentially. The description in ‘Napoleon was the greatest French soldier’ is not used referentially, says (...)
  32. Descriptions with Adverbs of Quantification.Delia Graff - 2006 - Philosophical Issues 16 16:65–87.
    In “Descriptions as Predicates” (Graff 2001) I argued that definite and indefinite descriptions should be given a uniform semantic treatment as predicates rather than as quantifier phrases. The aim of the current paper is to clarify and elaborate one of the arguments for the descriptions-as-predicates view, one that concerns the interaction of descriptions with adverbs of quantification.
  33. Descriptions As Predicates.Delia Graff - 2001 - Philosophical Studies 102 (1):1-42.
    Although Strawson’s main aim in “On Referring” was to argue that definite descriptions can be used referentially – that is, “to mention or refer to some individual person or single object . . . , in the course of doing what we should normally describe as making a statement about that person [or] object” (1950, p. 320) – he denied that definite descriptions are always used referentially. The description in ‘Napoleon was the greatest French soldier’ is not used referentially, says (...)
  34. Russell's Revenge: A Problem for Bivalent Fregean Theories of Descriptions.Jan Heylen - 2017 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 98 (4):636-652.
    Fregean theories of descriptions as terms have to deal with improper descriptions. To save bivalence various proposals have been made that involve assigning referents to improper descriptions. While bivalence is indeed saved, there is a price to be paid. Instantiations of the same general scheme, viz. the one and only individual that is F and G is G, are not only allowed but even required to have different truth values.
  35. Zelfpredicatie: Middeleeuwse En Hedendaagse Perspectieven.Jan Heylen & Can Laurens Löwe - 2017 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 79 (2):239-258.
    The focus of the article is the self-predication principle, according to which the/a such-and-such is such-and-such. We consider contemporary approaches (Frege, Russell, Meinong) to the self-predication principle, as well as fourteenth-century approaches (Burley, Ockham, Buridan). In crucial ways, the Ockham-Buridan view prefigures Russell’s view, and Burley’s view shows a striking resemblance to Meinong’s view. In short the Russell-Ockham-Buridan view holds: no existence, no truth. The Burley-Meinong view holds, in short: intelligibility suffices for truth. Both views approach self-predication in a uniform (...)
  36. Knowledge and Understanding.David Hunter - 2001 - Mind and Language 16 (5):542–546.
    Some philosophical proposals seem to die hard. In a recent paper, Jason Stanley has worked to resurrect the description theory of reference, at least as it might apply to natural kind terms like ‘elm’ (Stanley, 1999). The theory’s founding idea is that to understand ‘elm’ one must know a uniquely identifying truth about elms. Famously, Hilary Putnam showed that ordinary users of ‘elm’ may understand it while lacking such knowledge, and may even be unable to distinguish elms from beeches (Putnam, (...)
  37. A Companion to Philosophical Logic.Dale Jacquette (ed.) - 2002 - Wiley-Blackwell.
    This collection of newly comissioned essays by international contributors offers a representative overview of the most important developments in contemporary philosophical logic. Presents controversies in philosophical implications and applications of formal symbolic logic. Surveys major trends and offers original insights.
  38. The Lying Test.Eliot Michaelson - 2016 - Mind and Language 31 (4):470-499.
    As an empirical inquiry into the nature of meaning, semantics must rely on data. Unfortunately, the primary data to which philosophers and linguists have traditionally appealed—judgments on the truth and falsity of sentences—have long been known to vary widely between competent speakers in a number of interesting cases. The present article constitutes an experiment in how to obtain some more consistent data for the enterprise of semantics. Specifically, it argues from some widely accepted Gricean premises to the conclusion that judgments (...)
  39. 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 (...)
  40. Definite Descriptions and Semantic Pluralism.Brendan Murday - 2014 - Philosophical Papers 43 (2):255-284.
    We pose two arguments for the view that sentences containing definite descriptions semantically express multiple propositions: a general proposition as Russell suggested, and a singular proposition featuring the individual who uniquely satisfies the description at the world-time of utterance. One argument mirrors David Kaplan's arguments that indexicals express singular propositions through a context-sensitive character. The second argument mirrors Kent Bach's and Stephen Neale's arguments for pluralist views about terms putatively triggering conventional implicatures, appositive, and nonrestrictive relative clauses. After presenting these (...)
  41. 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 (...)
  42. Facing Facts?Graham Oppy - 2004 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 82 (4):621 – 643.
    In his recent book, Stephen Neale provides an extended defence of the claim that Gödel's slingshot has dramatic consequences for fact theorists (and, in particular, for fact theorists who look with favour on referential treatments of definite descriptions). I argue that the book-length treatment provides no strengthening of the case that Neale has made elsewhere for this implausible claim. Moreover, I also argue that various criticisms of Neale's case that I made on a previous occasion have met with no successful (...)
  43. Quine and Russell.Gary Ostertag - 2013 - In Gilbert Harman Ernie Lepore (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Quine. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 403-431.
  44. Review of Anne Bezuidenhout (Ed.), Marga Reimer (Ed.), Descriptions and Beyond[REVIEW]Gary Ostertag - 2005 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2005 (8).
  45. Descriptions and Logical Form.Gary Ostertag - 2002 - In Dale Jacquette (ed.), A Companion to Philosophical Logic.
  46. A Scorekeeping Error.Gary Ostertag - 1999 - Philosophical Studies 96 (2):123-146.
  47. 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 (...)
  48. Embedded Definite Descriptions: A Novel Solution to a Familiar Problem.Francesco Pupa - 2013 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 94 (3):290-314.
    Paul Elbourne claims that Russellians cannot accommodate the behavior of certain embedded definite descriptions. Since Fregeans can handle such descriptions, Elbourne urges theorists to reject Russell's theory in favor of Frege's. Here, I show that such descriptions pose no threat to Russellianism. These descriptions, I argue, are neutral between the two camps.
  49. On the Russellian Reformation.Francesco Pupa - 2010 - Philosophical Studies 147 (2):247-271.
    Recently, an orthodox Russellian tenet has come under fire from within. In particular, some Russellians now argue that definite descriptions don’t semantically encode uniqueness. Instead, Reformed Russellians, as I call them, hold that definite descriptions are truth-theoretically identical to indefinite ones. On this approach, a definite description’s uniqueness reading becomes a matter of pragmatics, not semantics. These reforms, we’re told, provide both empirical and methodological benefits over and above the prevailing orthodoxy. As I argue, however, the Russellian Reformation contains serious (...)
  50. 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 (...)
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