The Open UniversitySkip to content

Co-extensive theories and unembedded definite descriptions

Barber, A. (2005). Co-extensive theories and unembedded definite descriptions. In: Elugardo, Reinaldo and Stainton, Robert J. eds. Ellipsis and Nonsentential Speech. Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy (81). Springer, pp. 185–201.

Google Scholar: Look up in Google Scholar


Russell argued, famously, that definite descriptions are not logical constituents of the sentences in which they appear. In neither of the following should we suppose that the definite description picks anything out:

The King of France is bald
The Prince of Wales is bald

Since France is a republic, nothing could be picked out by the first; and if the semantic structures of each are the same, it cannot be the function of the second to pick anything out either. On the alternative semantics developed in his 1905 article 'On Denoting', definite descriptions do not have meaning in isolation; they have meaning only in the context of a whole sentence.
Andrew Botterell and Robert Stainton have pointed out that this conclusion appears to be at odds with the phenomenon of unembedded definite descriptions, in which definite descriptions are uttered, meaningfully, without accompanying predicates. For example, it is possible to utter 'The last temptation' on its own and in doing so express a proposition (that a salient profiterole ought to be resisted, perhaps). Since definite descriptions can be used in this way, how can it be right to claim, with Russell, that they lack meaning in isolation?
The present paper seeks to show how a Russellian semantics for definite descriptions (on a certain understanding of what is required for a semantics to be Russellian) is entirely compatible with the phenomenon of unembedded definite descriptions. In particular, Botterell and Stainton are wrong to think that generalized quantifier semantics is better able to cope with the phenomenon than a more authentically Russellian syncategorematic semantics.

Item Type: Book Section
ISBN: 1-4020-2299-9, 978-1-4020-2299-9
Extra Information: The full text (in its pre-publication form) is available via the author's homepage:
Keywords: definite descriptions; logical form; ellipsis; meaning in isolation
Academic Unit/School: Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) > Social Sciences and Global Studies > Philosophy
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) > Social Sciences and Global Studies
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS)
Item ID: 5934
Depositing User: Alexander Barber
Date Deposited: 21 Nov 2006
Last Modified: 06 Aug 2019 08:26
Share this page:

Actions (login may be required)

Policies | Disclaimer

© The Open University   contact the OU