Has the problem of incompleteness rested on a mistake?

Mind 114 (456):889-913 (2005)


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 intentions single out a particular description-theoretic proposition as the proposition expressed. However, this is an objection only if it is assumed that successful linguistic communication requires the hearer to identify a proposition uniquely intended by the speaker. We argue that this assumption is mistaken. On our view, no proposition, descriptive or referential, is uniquely intended in such a context; thus, no proposition can nor need be identified as the proposition expressed. One significant upshot is that, once the aforementioned assumption is rejected, incompleteness no longer poses a threat to Russell's theory of descriptions.

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Gary Ostertag
CUNY Graduate Center

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Citations of this work

Demonstratives as Individual Concepts.Paul Elbourne - 2008 - Linguistics and Philosophy 31 (4):409-466.
A Century Later.Stephen Neale - 2005 - Mind 114 (456):809-871.

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