Are Descriptions Really Descriptive? An Experimental Study on Misdescription and Reference

Review of Philosophy and Psychology 10 (3):609-630 (2019)


This paper presents an experimental study on definite descriptions. According to the classical views, a definite description, i.e., a phrase of the form “the F”, has – roughly speaking - purely descriptive semantics, that is, it designates the object which uniquely satisfies the description. However, as several philosophers including Keith Donnellan have argued, there are uses of definite descriptions on which these expressions do not seem to designate objects which satisfy the descriptions. Namely, a description may refer in some circumstances to an object which does not have the property from the description. This argument is called “the Argument from misdescription” and it is raised against the classical views on the semantics of definite descriptions. In our paper, we present an experimental study on misdescription and explored reactions of ordinary users of language to various statements involving misdescriptions. The results of our research indicate that the intuition of ordinary speakers is consistent with the prediction expressed in the Argument from misdescription. We argue that the most common pragmatic explanation of misdescription, appealing to Gricean distinction between saying and meaning, is unconvincing. We vote for an alternative semantic account of definite descriptions, on which a description “the F” designates an object being F, which is at the same time the most salient individual according to a contextually established ranking of salience.

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References found in this work

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Scorekeeping in a Language Game.David Lewis - 1979 - Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 (1):339--359.
Naming and Necessity.S. Kripke - 1972 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 45 (4):665-666.
Reference and Definite Descriptions.Keith S. Donnellan - 1966 - Philosophical Review 75 (3):281-304.

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