Ambiguous Articles: An Essay On The Theory Of Descriptions

Dissertation, The Graduate Center, Cuny (2008)
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Abstract

What, from a semantic perspective, is the difference between singular indefinite and definite descriptions? Just over a century ago, Russell provided what has become the standard philosophical response. Descriptions are quantifier phrases, not referring expressions. As such, they differ with respect to the quantities they denote. Indefinite descriptions denote existential quantities; definite descriptions denote uniquely existential quantities. Now around the 1930s and 1940s, some linguists, working independently of philosophers, developed a radically different response. Descriptions, linguists such as Jespersen held, were referring expressions, not quantifier phrases. Accordingly, descriptions differ with respect their rules of reference. Indefinite descriptions refer to „novel‟ items, definite descriptions to „familiar‟ ones. My dissertation serves as the first systematic effort to bridge the gap between these two seemingly incompatible responses. It provides a satisfactory answer to the above question which links the seemingly intractable divide between Russellians and familiarity theorists. This is achieved by utilizing two observations: Donnellan‟s observation that speakers use descriptions not only as devices of quantification but also as devices of reference, and Devitt‟s observation that these two uses, being regular, systematic, and cross-linguistic, have the status of convention in our language. Taken in conjunction, these two observations, I argue, require postulating that descriptions are semantically ambiguous. These observations compel the thoughtful theorist to maintain that descriptions have two distinct semantic functions, one quantificational and one referential. Accordingly, the semantic contrast between singular indefinite and definite descriptions is two-fold. Descriptions can contrast either quantificationally or with respect to the speaker‟s view of the audience‟s familiarity with the description‟s referent.

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Francesco Pupa
Nassau Community College

Citations of this work

Against the argument from convention.Anders J. Schoubye - 2012 - Linguistics and Philosophy 35 (6):515-532.
The argument from convention revisited.Francesco Pupa - 2018 - Synthese 195 (5):2175-2204.
On the Russellian Reformation.Francesco Pupa - 2010 - Philosophical Studies 147 (2):247-271.

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