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LINGUISTIX&LOGIK, Tony Marmo's blog
Friday, 22 July 2005


Russell's Theory of Definite Descriptions

By Stephen Schiffer

The theory of definite descriptions Bertrand Russell presented in On Denoting one hundred years ago was instrumental in defining the then newly emerging philosophy of language, but a more remarkable achievement is that this centenarian theory is the currently dominant theory of definite descriptions. But what, exactly, is this theory? The question needs to be asked because the theory Russell presented in 1905 is not acceptable in the form in which he then stated it, and while we have little trouble in deciding whether a theory of definite descriptions is sufficiently like the one Russell formulated to be worth calling Russellian, it happens that what question one thinks a semantic theory of definite descriptions needs to answer will depend on how one thinks certain foundational issues in the theory of meaning need to be resolved.

There is no consensus as to how those issues should be resolved. I elaborate on this a little in section I and in section II propose as a working hypothesis a conception of meaning for which I have argued elsewhere and in terms of whose architecture a Russellian theory of definite descriptions may be formulated. How the theory should be formulated in terms of that architecture is then the topic of section III. Section IV confronts my formulation of the Russellian theory with the apparent problem for it implied by certain referential uses of definite descriptions. There are at the most general level of abstraction two possible Russellian responses to this problem,
and one of them is the standard Russellian response to the referential-use problem. Section V critically discusses that response and argues for its rejection. Section VI critically discusses the other possible Russellian response and argues for its rejection, too. The final section, VII, gives a brief summary and discusses what the correct positive theory of definite descriptions might be, if it is not the Russellian theory.

Forthcoming in special edition of Mind, guest ed. Stephen Neale, celebrating 100th anniversary of On Denoting


Indefinite anaphoric expressions?

By Maria Luiza Cunha Lima & Edson Françozo

Definiteness is a central concern in semantics and philosophy of language since Russell (1905), for whom the difference between definite and indefinite expressions lies in the impossibility of referential use of indefinites. Since Strawson (1959) and Kripke (1977), however, indefinites are held to have referential uses as well. Given that both are now seen as referential, the difference between them became a matter of the given/new informational status of the referring expression in sentences or discourse ? in this connection, indefinite expressions are said to always indicate new referents. Therefore, one could never have indefinite anaphoric expressions. Yet, recent data (Schwartz 1999, Cunha Lima 2004) show that indefinite expressions are quite common in ordinary discourse. In the face of it, one can wonder what the role of indefinites is. We will discuss some proposals, stemming mainly from linguistic semantics, and will make the case for interpreting indefinites as type identifying devices. This, in turn, will point toward to the need of re-assessing the functions of articles in natural language.
(A PDF copy will be available soon)

Posted by Tony Marmo at 00:01 BST
Updated: Sunday, 14 August 2005 02:43 BST

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