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Philosophy Descriptions
by
Berit Brogaard

Introduction

Descriptions are commonly thought to be phrases of the form “an F,” “the F,” “F’s,” “the F’s,” and NP’s “F” (e.g., “John’s mother”). They can be indefinite (e.g., “an F” and “F’s”), definite (e.g., “the F” and “the F’s”), singular (e.g., “an F” and “the F”), or plural (e.g., “the F’s” and “F’s”). In English plural, indefinite descriptions lack an article and are for that reason also known as “bare plurals.” How to account for the semantics and pragmatics of descriptions has been one of the central topics in philosophy for centuries. This entry focuses on the historical and contemporary philosophical debate about Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions and the theories that developed as responses to this theory.

General Overviews

There are several good introductory overviews of the debate about descriptions. Neale 1990 contains a good overview of the contemporary debate about descriptions. Ludlow 2004 offers a comprehensive but slightly outdated overview of different theories of descriptions, including Russell’s theory of descriptions, Donnellan’s ambiguity theory, unified theories of definite and indefinite descriptions, descriptions as predicates, and theories of plural, mass, and generic descriptions. He also offers an overview of theories of pronominal anaphora and descriptive theories of proper names. Ludlow and Neale 2006 provides a comprehensive overview of the debate about descriptions. The PhilPapers entry on descriptions is updated regularly, and in some cases abstracts and full texts are provided.

Collections

There are several good collections and readers on descriptions. Ostertag 1998 is a collection of classic readings on descriptions, on topics ranging from Russell’s theory of descriptions and its origin to Strawson and Donnellan’s classic replies. Contributors include Betrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, Karel Lambert, P. F. Strawson, Stephen Neale, Keith Donnellan, H. P. Grice, Christopher Peacocke, Saul Kripke, Howard Wettstein, Scott Soames, and Stephen Schiffer. In the introduction Ostertag provides a good overview of the main arguments in the debate. Reimer and Bezuidenhout 2004 is an impressive collection of essays on incomplete descriptions, the referential/attributive distinction, presupposition and truth-value gaps, representation of definite and indefinites in semantic theory, anaphoric pronouns and descriptions, indefinites and dynamic semantics/syntax, and descriptive names. Contributors include Francois Recanati, Ernie Lepore, Stephen Neale, Kent Bach, Nathan Salmon, Geoffrey Nunberg, Michael Devitt, Kai von Fintel, Jay Atlas, Mark Sainsbury, Joseph Almog, Peter Ludlow and Gabriel Segal, Richard Breheny, Paul Dekker, Craige Roberts, Alice ter Meulen, Ruth Kempson and Wilfried Meyer-Viol, Robin Jeshion, and Marga Reimer. One hundred years after the publication of Russell’s “On Denoting,” Mind published a special issue on Russell’s theory (Neale 2005). This issue contains Russell’s classic text and new contributions by Stephen Neale, Ray Buchanan and Gary Ostertag, Richard Cartwright, Olafur Pall Jonsson, David Kaplan, Saul Kripke, Alex Oliver and Timothy Smiley, Nathan Salmon, Stephen Schiffer, and Zoltán Gendler Szabό. Griffin and Jacquette 2009 is a nice collection of fifteen essays presented at an international conference in 2005: “Russell vs. Meinong: 100 Years after ‘On Denoting.’” The essays address Russell’s theory of mathematics, Russell’s theory of descriptions, the motivations underlying Meinong’s object theory, and Russell’s rejection of it. Contributors include Alasdair Urquhart, Graham Stevens, Francis Jeffry Pelletier and Bernard Linsky, Kevin C. Klement, Gideon Makin, Omar W. Nasim, David Bostock, Johann Christian Marek, Dale Jacquette, Nicholas Griffin, Peter Loptson, Gabriele Contessa, Gregory C. Landini, Michael Nelson, and Nathan Salmon.

  • Griffin, Nicholas, and Dale Jacquette. Russell vs. Meinong: The Legacy of “On Denoting.” New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    A high-quality collection of fifteen essays presented at “Russell vs. Meinong: 100 Years after ‘On Denoting,’” an international conference held at McMaster University in 2005. The essays address Russell’s theory of mathematics, Russell’s theory of descriptions, the motivations underlying Meinong’s object theory, and Russell’s rejection of it. Suitable for a graduate-level course in philosophy of language or philosophical logic.

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  • Neale, Stephen, ed. “Special Issue: 100 Years of ‘On Denoting.’” Mind 114 (2005).

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    Collection of primarily new essays on Russell’s classic text. Suitable for a graduate-level course in the philosophy of language or philosophical logic.

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  • Ostertag, Gary. Definite Descriptions: A Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

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    Collection of classic readings on descriptions. Suitable for an upper-level undergraduate- or graduate-level course in philosophy of language or philosophical logic.

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  • Reimer, Marga, and Anne Bezuidenhout. Descriptions and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    A collection of essays on descriptions at the intersection of philosophy and linguistics. Its scope is broad and its content current. Suitable for a graduate-level seminar on the philosophy of language.

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Russell’s Theory of Descriptions

Most of the philosophical literature on descriptions has dealt with singular descriptions and has followed Bertrand Russell in treating these phrases on a par with quantified noun phrases such as “some F” and “every F.” In the early 1900s descriptions were commonly treated as special kinds of proper names. In his well-known book Principles of Mathematics (not to be confused with Principia Mathematica, which Russell later co-authored with Alfred Whitehead), Russell suggested that unlike genuinely proper names (e.g., “Bertrand Russell”), which denote their referents directly, descriptions are to be treated as so-called denoting phrases. Denoting phrases denote their denotation by way of a denoting concept indicated by the phrase. In the seminal “On Denoting” (Russell 1905), this picture of descriptions changed. Russell here argued that there are no denoting concepts. Description sentences are to be interpreted as different sentences in which no denoting phrase occurs. Descriptions are incomplete symbols that have no meaning in themselves; they can be defined only via a contextual definition and not directly. Russell offers two main arguments for this theory. One is the famous Gray’s Elegy argument. The other is that from non-uniquely denoting descriptions. For interpretations and criticism analyses of these arguments and the doctrine of “On Denoting,” see Kaplan 1970, Hylton 1990, Kremer 1994, Noonan 1996, Makin 2000, Salmon 2005, and Brogaard 2006.

Strawson and the Early Critique

In “On Referring” (Strawson 1950) Strawson offered reasons for treating definite descriptions as referring expressions. His main charge against Russell was that Russell incorporates aspects of what a description sentence presupposes into what it says. Intuitively, when the presupposition fails, we have a misfire, not, as Russell would have it, a falsehood. For example, “The king of France is bald” mistakenly presupposes that France is a monarchy, and so an utterance of this sentence has no truth-value. See also Strawson 1964. As further evidence against Russell, Strawson pointed out that most definite descriptions are incomplete and thus do not have to be uniquely satisfied. “The book is on the table” is a perfectly felicitous sentence in many contexts. But in the actual world, it is not true that there is exactly one book on exactly one table, as Russell’s theory would predict if the sentence were true. Russell 1957 is a reply to Strawson, but it is hard to understand and therefore rarely read. Austin 1978 provides a helpful interpretation. Other classic defenses of Russell against Strawson’s critique include Sellars 1954, Hochberg 1970, and Mates 1973. Sellars 1954 is a partial vindication of Strawson.

Strawson and the Contemporary Critique

Contemporary critiques of and elaborations on the referential view of incomplete descriptions may be found, for example, in Bach 1987 (chapters 5–6), Devitt 2004, Lepore 2004, von Fintel 2004, Schiffer 2005, Ramachandran 2008, and Pelletier and Linsky 2009. Buchanan and Ostertag 2005 argues that the incompleteness problem can be avoided if we reject the assumption that the hearer must identify a unique proposition intended by the speaker in order for communication to succeed.

  • Bach, Kent. Thought and Reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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    Comprehensive overview of the basis and aspects of reference. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with the problem of incomplete descriptions, and Chapter 6 addresses the referential/attributive distinction.

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  • Buchanan, Ray, and Gary Ostertag. “Has the Problem of Incompleteness Rested on a Mistake?” Mind 114.456 (2005).

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    Argues that the assumption that successful communication requires the hearer to identify a particular proposition as the proposition uniquely intended by the speaker is mistaken, and that without such an assumption incomplete definite descriptions do not present a problem for Russell’s theory of descriptions.

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  • Devitt, Michael. “The Case for Referential Descriptions.” In Descriptions and Beyond. Edited by Anne Bezuidenhout and Marga Reimer, 280–305. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    Argues that sentences containing incomplete definite descriptions used referentially are true only when the definite description refers to a particular object that the speaker has in mind by virtue of being causally linked to it in an appropriate way.

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  • Lepore, Ernie. “An Abuse of Context in Semantics: The Case of Incomplete Definite Descriptions.” In Descriptions and Beyond. Edited by Anne Bezuidenhout and Marga Reimer, 41–67. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    Argues that incomplete definite descriptions of the form “the F” do not denote or refer to anything because no unique F satisfies them, though they may convey something in communication. Uses this conclusion to argue against an abuse of context in semantics.

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  • Pelletier, Francis Jeffry, and Bernard Linsky. “Russell vs. Frege on Definite Descriptions as Singular Terms.” In Russell vs. Meinong: The Legacy of “On Denoting.” Edited by Nicholas Griffin and Dale Jacquette, 40–64. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    Looks at Russell’s theory understood as a refutation of the descriptions-as-singular-terms views. Regards Russell’s criticisms of these theories to the effect that they entail a form of Meinongianism: if descriptions are treated as singular terms, then we are committed to nonexisting entities such as kings of France, unicorns, and golden mountains. However, one can escape these criticisms if one rejects the assumption that description claims of the form “The F is F” are logical truths.

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  • Ramachandran, Murali. “Special Issue: Descriptions and Presuppositions: Strawson vs. Russell.” South African Journal of Philosophy 27 (2008): 64–79.

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    Offers an alternative to Strawson’s referential account, according to which there are preconditions for the use of descriptions, different ones for referential and predicative uses.

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  • Rothschild, Daniel. “Presuppositions and Scope.” Journal of Philosophy 104 (2007): 71–106.

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    Argues that definite descriptions and proper names can be treated as singular terms aimed at picking out entities that satisfy certain presuppositions and that this view provides a more adequate analysis of the interaction of modals with definite descriptions and proper names than alternatives.

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  • Schiffer, Stephen. “Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions.” Mind 114.456 (2005).

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    Argues that Russell’s theory cannot accommodate referential uses of descriptions.

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  • von Fintel, Kai. “Would You Believe It? The King of France Is Back!” In Descriptions and Beyond. Edited by Marga Reimer and Anne Bezuidenhout, 315–341. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    People hesitate to assign truth-values to sentences such as “The king of France is bald” but are happy to assign the truth-value false to sentences such as “My friend went for a drive with the King of France last week.” Von Fintel argues against the view that sentences of the latter type, unlike sentences of the former type, have no presupposition of existence. Neither type of sentence has a truth-value.

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Free Description Theory

Free description-theoretic approaches to incomplete descriptions may be found in Lambert 1972 and Grandy 1972, and the free description-theoretic approach is further developed in Burge 1974 and Sainsbury 2002. Free description theories (1) construe expressions of the form “the F” as genuine singular terms but (2) do not assign anything in the domain of discourse to “the F” if there is no unique F in the domain. Free description theory assumes a positive or negative free logic (with identity).

Nominal Restriction

The problem of incomplete descriptions has also been dealt with, for instance, by appealing to a phenomenon known as “quantifier domain restriction” or “nominal restriction.” If we were to say that every bottle is on the table, we would not ordinarily mean that every bottle in the universe is on the table. What we would be saying in the envisaged circumstance is that every >bottle, i< is on the table, where i is contextually completed. So, “>bottle, i<”denotes, say, the set of bottles in the kitchen. It has been suggested that the problem of incomplete descriptions can be resolved in the same way (see Stanley 2002a). “The book is on the table” can be treated as if it’s of the form “The >book, i< is on the >table, j<,” where “>book, i<”and “>table, j<,” once the variables are contextually completed, denote, say, the set of books we have in mind and the set of tables in the living room, respectively. The quantifier domain restriction strategy is developed in Stanley and Szabó 2000 and Stanley 2002a. Something like this approach is also considered in Reimer 1992 and von Fintel 1994. Criticism may be found in Bach 2000 and Neale 2000. Szabó, though a proponent of nominal restriction, does not believe nominal restriction can fully resolve the problem of incomplete descriptions. Stanley 2002b and Neale 2004 suggest that friends and foes of the referential use of incomplete descriptions might both be right. Suppose, for example, that we say (intending to communicate a proposition about a person in our visual field), “The guy is drunk.” Suppose Bill is the contextually relevant person. Perhaps what we express is the proposition x: guy (x) & x = Bill & x is drunk. There are various mechanisms that could deliver this result—for example, the theory of domain restriction advocated by Stanley and Szabό 2000, or the account of incompleteness advocated in Neale 2004.

The Referential/Attributive Distinction

Another legendary charge against Russell originated in Donnellan 1966. According to Donnellan, we often use definite descriptions in two distinct ways. A description may be used attributively to pick out the object (if any) that uniquely satisfies the description. But it may also be used referentially to refer to the object the speaker has in mind, and it may be so used even if the object does not satisfy the relevant description. Donnellan believes that Russell’s theory is countered by these observations because it ignores the referential use, and that Strawson’s view is countered because it ignores the attributive use. Kripke 1977 argues that the distinction is not semantically significant. However, it is not clear that Donnellan thinks the referential/attributive distinction has semantic significance (at least in the sense of “semantic” that Kripke assumes). In Patton 1997, Ludlow and Neale 1991, Sennet 2002, Bontly 2005, and other works, further criticism was subsequently offered of the view that the referential/attributive distinction is semantically significant. See also Strawson and the Contemporary Critique for additional discussions by Bach. Schiffer 1995 argues against the “hidden-indexical theory of descriptions.”

The Semantic Significance of the Referential/Attributive Distinction

Works sympathetic to the view that the referential/attributive distinction is semantically significant include Stalnaker 1970, Kaplan 1978, Donnellan 1978, Wettstein 1981, Wettstein 1983, Récanati 1989, Ramachandran 1993, Devitt 2008, and Amaral 2008. Donnellan 1978 introduced the concept, with Wettstein 1981, Wettstein 1983, and Kaplan 1978 expanding on and defending the thesis.

  • Amaral, Felipe S. “Definite Descriptions Are Ambiguous.” Analysis 68 (2008): 288–297.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8284.2008.00755.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Defense of the ambiguity thesis using cross-linguistic data.

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  • Devitt, Michael “Referential Descriptions and Conversational Implicatures.” European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 3 (2008): 7–32.

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    Considers the suggestion that referential uses of descriptions can be explained using the generalized conversational implicature model but argues that although one could explain referential uses this way, it is not the best explanation. The fact that the referential use of definite descriptions is standard shows that “the” is semantically ambiguous and hence referential uses of descriptions are semantic.

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  • Donnellan, Keith. “Speaker Reference, Descriptions, and Anaphora.” In Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 9. Edited by Peter Cole, 47–68. New York: Academic Press, 1978.

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    Offers arguments for the semantic significance of the referential/attributive distinction that are based on the phenomenon of anaphora (the use of a word to replace another that was previously used in a sentence in order to avoid repetition). More generally, the arguments are intended to show that speaker reference cannot be separated from semantic reference.

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  • Kaplan, David. “DTHAT.” Syntax and Semantics 9 (1978): 221–243.

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    Uses the Stalnaker 1970/Kaplan 1977 two-stage generation theory to vindicate Donnellan.

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  • Ramachandran, Murali. “A Strawsonian Objection to Russell’s Theory of Descriptions.” Analysis 53 (1993): 209–212.

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    Challenges the Russellian analysis. Bach replies in a subsequent issue.

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  • Récanati, François. “Referential/Attributive: A Contextualist Proposal.” Philosophical Studies 56 (1989): 217–249.

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    Argues that acceptance of the methodological principle “Grice’s Modified Occam’s Razor” does not force us to reject what he calls the “naïve theory,” that is, the theory that the referential/attributive distinction is semantically significant, and then sets forth a contextual version of the naïve theory.

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  • Stalnaker, Robert. “Pragmatics.” Synthese 22 (1970): 272–289.

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    Advances a two-stage theory of language. Semantic and syntactic rules produce an interpreted sentence; this together with features of the context determines a proposition, and then this together with a world determines a truth-value. Such can be used to defend the semantic significance of the referential/attributive distinction.

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  • Wettstein, Howard K. “Demonstrative Reference and Definite Descriptions.” Philosophical Studies 40.2 (1981): 241–257.

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    Argues that the referential-attributive distinction is a genuine semantic distinction.

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  • Wettstein, Howard K. “The Semantic Significance of the Referential-Attributive Distinction.” Philosophical Studies 44 (1983): 187–196.

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    Expands on the argument for the semantic significance of the referential-attributive distinction set forth in Wettstein 1981 and responds to the objections in Salmon 1982.

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Discourse Representation Theory

In recent years further challenges have been directed against Russell’s original theory. Lewis 1975, Kamp 1981, and Heim 1982 defend predicate views of descriptions in argument position. Lewis 1975 is primarily a theory of adverbs of quantification, but it can be seen as a predecessor of Kamp’s discourse representation theory and Heim’s file change semantics. Both views are commonly referred to as discourse representation theory (DRT). DRT departs from more traditional semantic approaches in several ways. First, descriptions introduce predicates with a free variable. Second, anaphoric pronouns are interpreted as the same variable as was introduced by its quantifier antecedent. Third, there is a default (textwide) existential binding of free variables. However, in the case of conditional and relative clause sentences, the variables may be bound by the initial quantifier or an adverb of quantification (Q-adverb). The quantifiers in DRT are thus unselective: they bind every free variable in their scope. This approach has been further developed by Kadmon 2001. Szabó 2005 expresses sympathies with DRT and the predicate view of descriptions. Glanzberg 2007 and Glanzberg 2009 offer arguments against the common view that scope-interactions with negation and Mates cases in which definite descriptions and quantifiers co-occur give us reason to believe definite descriptions are quantifiers. Though Glanzberg’s arguments are not aimed at defending DRT or a predicative view of descriptions, they do give credence to the view that definite descriptions are basically scopeless. Glanzberg 2006 provides a link for a discussion of type-e theories (or Fregean theories), according to which donkey pronouns go proxy for definite quantifiers.

Descriptions as Predicates

Fara 2001 and Fara 2006 defend the view that descriptions should not be treated as quantified noun phrases, but rather as complex predicate expressions. Fara offers two main reasons in favor of this view. One reason is that ordinary quantifiers, unlike descriptions, do not occur in a predicate position. This argument may also be found in Wilson 1978, Williams 1983, and Doron 1988. A second reason is that descriptions do not seem to give rise to the sorts of scope ambiguities that they would if they were quantifiers. This argument may also be found in Wilson 1978 and Higginbotham 1987. Fara’s main argument against Russell’s analysis of descriptions in the argument position turns on the apparent variable quantificational force of descriptions. Consider, for instance, “An owner of a Porsche is usually smug.” This sentence can, of course, be read as saying that some owner of a Porsche is smug most of the time. But it can also be read as saying that Porsche owners, in general, are smug most of the time, or that most Porsche owners are smug. Fara argues that this presents an insuperable problem for Russell’s theory. A defense of Russell against these kinds of criticism can be found in Neale 1990, Ostertag 2002, and Brogaard 2007.

The Uniqueness Implication

There have been other recent challenges to Russell’s original theory. Szabó 2000, Szabό 2003, and Ludlow and Segal 2004 have argued that Russell’s theory to the effect that definite descriptions carry a semantic uniqueness implication is mistaken. According to them, the sentence “The book is on the table” does not semantically imply that there is a unique book on a unique table; it merely conventionally or conversationally implicates it. A defense of Russell against this sort of criticism may be found in Abbott 2003a, Abbott 2003b, Elbourne 2005, Brogaard 2007, and Pupa 2010. Kroll 2008 is a response to Elbourne 2005.

Plural Descriptions

Most of the philosophical literature on descriptions is concerned with singular definite descriptions. Plural definite descriptions present independent problems (see Oliver and Smiley 2005). In a Russellian account of plural definite descriptions, sentences of the form “The F’s are G” imply that every one of the F’s satisfies a singular form of the plural predicate G in distributive environments (see additional discussions under Descriptions as Predicates). Russellians thus fail to account for the difference in truth-conditions between, for instance, “The students asked questions” and “Every one of the students asked questions.” Two classic works on partitives, definiteness, and the partitive constraint (the constraint on which noun phrases are allowed in partitives) are Barwise and Cooper 1981 and Hoeksema 1984. Thinkers in favor of a unitary account of singular descriptions occasionally allege that the unitary account can be extrapolated to account for plural definite descriptions. For treatments of plural and second-order quantification more generally, see Scha 1981, Landman 1989a, Landman 1989b, Boolos 1984, Linnebo 2009, McKay 2006, and Rayo 2007.

Generic Descriptions

A further criticism of Russell’s theory is that it is not a fully general theory of descriptions, because it cannot be extrapolated to account for generic uses of descriptions, as in “The dinosaur is extinct.” Brogaard 2007 and others have argued that it is plausible that common nouns like “dinosaur” or “bear” can vary in their interpretation, sometimes serving as predicates true of individual animals, while at other times serving as predicates true of subspecies or larger taxa, as in “There are two bears in Alaska: the black bear and the grizzly” or “The crustaceans evolved simultaneously.” “The dinosaur,” in one of its senses, might then denote a totality or fusion of dinosaurs. Brogaard 2007 argues that this sort of approach cannot deal with cases such as “The tiger is striped” and “The Chrysler is sold on the West Coast.” Carlson 1980 offers other problematic cases—for instance, “The president makes good decisions when he is from Ohio”; “The president has eaten at the Statler Hilton on Saturday night every week for the past 25 years”; “The president inhabited the White House continuously for 136 years until Truman moved into Blair House”; and “Five times since the turn of the century, the president has been assassinated by a disgruntled job-seeker.” Discussions of and solutions to these and other problems relating to generic descriptions may be found in Bacon 1973, Koslicki 1999, Ojeda 1991, Nickel 2008, and Leslie 2008.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0032

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