Descriptions

MIT Press (1990)
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Abstract

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 ‘this’ and ‘that’. Following the custom in philosophy, in this chapter often we use ‘description’ as short for ‘definite description’; and following the custom in linguistics, often we use ‘definite’, ‘indefinite’, and ‘demonstrative’ as shorthand nouns. For the most part we focus on definite and indefinites, although a few words about demonstratives are called for. At the centre of debates about descriptions is the matter of whether they are devices of reference or of predication (simple or higher-order), and much discussion focuses on how various proposals are to be incorporated into broader theories of the semantics of natural language. But philosophical interest goes beyond the confines of linguistics, logic, and the philosophy of language because choices made about the semantics of descriptions have repercussions elsewhere, particularly in epistemology and metaphysics. A simple match of form and meaning appears to fail.1 First, many occurrences of expressions of both forms ‘the φ’ and ‘a φ’ appear to be used to talk about particular individuals. Consider (1).

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Stephen Neale
CUNY Graduate Center

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