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A Defense of Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions against Donnellan’s Distinction Open Access


Other title
Russell's Theory of Definite Descriptions
Nasrin Sultana
Donnellan's Distinction
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Sultana, Nasrin
Supervisor and department
Linsky, Bernard (Philosophy)
Brigandt, Ingo (Philosophy)
Examining committee member and department
Brigandt, Ingo (Philosophy)
Linsky, Bernard (Philosophy)
Hazen, Allen (Philosophy)
Department of Philosophy

Date accepted
Graduation date
2017-11:Fall 2017
Master of Arts
Degree level
According to Russell’s theory of descriptions, a sentence of the form “The F is G” expresses the general proposition There is exactly one F and whatever is an F is G. According to Donnellan, there are two types of uses of a definite description: an attributive use and a referential use. A definite description is said to be used attributively when a speaker intends to assert something about whoever or whatever fits the description “the F”. In that case “The F is G” expresses there is exactly one F and whatever is an F is G. On the other hand, a definite description, according to him, is said to be used referentially when a speaker uses a sentence containing that definite description to state something about a particular object, o, the speaker has already had in mind. In such a case the sentence “The F is G” expresses the proposition o is G. Thus, a sentence of the form “The F is G” is ambiguous, it has two sorts of meaning: an attributive meaning and a referential meaning. Based on the ambiguity mentioned above Donnellan claims that Russell’s theory is incorrect as it fails to accommodate the referential meaning of sentences containing definite descriptions. In this thesis, I defend Russell’s theory against the problem arising from Donnellan’s distinction. I show that Donnellan’s distinction doesn’t posit a genuine problem for Russell’s theory in either way: (a) neither is a sentence containing a definite description ambiguous, i.e. it has always one lexical meaning; (b) nor does Russell’s theory deny the pragmatic significance of a sentence containing a definite description. In support of (a), (i) I focus on the distinction between semantics and pragmatics and argue that the existence of convention alone cannot be a sufficient condition for determining the semantic meaning of a sentence, rather the semantic meaning of a sentence is the literal meaning which is defined by a dictionary and the grammar of a language. (ii) I refute Michael Devitt’s arguments for the semantic significance of referential definite descriptions based on the regularity of using referential descriptions, and the similarity between the function and mechanism of determining the referents of “the F” and “that F”. And (iii) I defend Kripke, who claims that Donnellan’s distinction can be explained by a general apparatus of speech acts, by showing that the general proposition There is exactly one F and whatever is an F is G is the literal meaning or what is said by “The F is G”, whereas the singular proposition o is G, expressed by “The F is G”, is a generalized conversational implicature which is derived in virtue of the meaning of the words used in the utterance of “The F is G”, though o is G is different from the literal meaning of “The F is G” (i.e. There is exactly one F and whatever is an F is G). In support of (b), I focus on the intention and significance of Russell’s theory of descriptions. I argue that Russell’s theory of definite descriptions is a theory of denotation; and hence it is a theory of semantics, and not of pragmatics, whereas the distinction Donnellan offered is an issue of pragmatics. So, a pragmatically significant theory like Donnellan’s cannot posit a genuine problem to a semantic theory like Russell’s.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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