Definite descriptions and the alleged east–west variation in judgments about reference

Philosophical Studies 175 (5):1183-1205 (2018)
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Machery et al. presented data suggesting the existence of cross-cultural variation in judgments about the reference of proper names. In this paper, we examine a previously overlooked confound in the subsequent studies that attempt to replicate the results of Machery et al. using East Asian languages. Machery et al. and Sytsma et al. claim that they have successfully replicated the original finding with probes written in Chinese and Japanese, respectively. These studies, however, crucially rely on uses of articleless, ‘bare noun phrases’ in Chinese and Japanese, which according to the linguistic literature are known to be multiply ambiguous. We argue that it becomes questionable whether the extant studies using East Asian languages revealed genuine cross-cultural variation when the probes are reevaluated based on a proper linguistic understanding of Chinese and Japanese bare noun phrases and English definite descriptions. We also present two experiments on native Japanese speakers that controlled the use of ambiguous bare noun phrases, the results of which suggest that the judgments of Japanese speakers concerning the reference of proper names may not diverge from those of English speakers.

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