In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Descriptions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections
  • Russell’s Theory of Descriptions
  • Strawson and the Early Critique
  • Strawson and the Contemporary Critique
  • Free Description Theory
  • Nominal Restriction
  • The Referential/Attributive Distinction
  • The Semantic Significance of the Referential/Attributive Distinction
  • Discourse Representation Theory
  • Descriptions as Predicates
  • The Uniqueness Implication
  • Plural Descriptions
  • Generic Descriptions

Philosophy Descriptions
Berit Brogaard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0032


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 Ludlow 2004 offers a comprehensive but slightly outdated overview of different theories of descriptions, including Russell’s theory of descriptions, Donnellan’s ambiguity theory, unified theories of definite and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.

  • Ludlow, Peter. “Descriptions.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2004.

    Good introduction to the contemporary debate about Russell’s theory of descriptions and its applications.

  • Ludlow, Peter, and Stephen Neale. “Descriptions.” In The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Language. Edited by Michael Devitt and Richard Hanley, 288–313. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631231424.2006.00018.x

    Long and comprehensive overview article reviewing the debate about descriptions.

  • Neale, Stephen. Descriptions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

    Accessible defense of Russell’s theory of descriptions. Suitable as a textbook for use in a graduate-level seminar in philosophy of language or philosophical logic.

  • PhilPapers: Descriptions.

    Regularly updated bibliography.

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