Essentially Incomplete Descriptions

Abstract
In this paper I offer a defence of a Russellian analysis of the referential uses of incomplete (mis)descriptions, in a contextual setting. With regard to the debate between a unificationist and an ambiguity approach to the formal treatment of definite descriptions (introduction), I will support the former against the latter. In 1. I explain what I mean by "essentially" incomplete descriptions: incomplete descriptions are context dependent descriptions. In 2. I examine one of the best versions of the unificationist “explicit” approach given by Buchanan and Ostertag. I then show that this proposal seems unable to treat the normal uses of misdescriptions. I then accept the challenge of treating misdescriptions as a key to solving the problem of context dependent descriptions. In 3. I briefly discuss Michael Devitt’s and Joseph Almog’s treatments of referential descriptions, showing that they find it difficult to explain misdescriptions. In 4. I suggest an alternative approach to DD as contextuals, under a normative epistemic stance. Definite descriptions express (i) what a speaker should have in mind in using certain words in a certain context and (ii) what a normal speaker is justified in saying in a context, given a common basic knowledge of the lexicon. In 5. I define a procedure running on contextual parameters (partiality, perspective and approximation) as a means of representing the role of pragmatics as a filter for semantic interpretation. In 6. I defend my procedural approach against possible objections concerning the problem of the boundaries between semantics and pragmatics, relying on the distinction between semantics and theory of meaning
Keywords Definite Descriptions  Contextual Reasoning  Stephen Neale  Michael Devitt  Joseph Almog  Bertrand Russell  John McCarthy
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