Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions: an Examination

Dissertation, University of Calgary, Calgary, Ab, Canada (2012)
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Despite its enormous popularity, Russell’s theory of definite descriptions has received various criticisms. Two of the most important objections against this theory are those arising from the Argument from Incompleteness and the Argument from Donnellan’s Distinction. According to the former although a speaker may say something true by assertively uttering a sentence containing an incomplete description , on the Russellian analysis such a sentence expresses a false proposition; so, Russell’s theory cannot adequately deal with such sentences. According to the latter objection a descriptive sentence is actually ambiguous—it expresses a general proposition when the description contained in it is used attributively, and a singular proposition when the description in question is used referentially; Russell’s theory is inadequate as it fails to capture this ambiguity and offers an analysis according to which a descriptive sentence expresses only a general proposition. These objections are examined in the present dissertation. It is shown here that these objections arise from: (i) ignoring the distinction between the meaning of a sentence and the assertions made by using it, (ii) the failure to distinguish between the semantic meaning of a sentence and the pragmatic meaning with which it is used on a particular occasion. To make the distinction mentioned in (i), a significant part of Scott Soames’ theory concerning meaning and assertions has been adopted in this dissertation; and, to make the distinction mentioned in (ii), a test, namely the cancellability test, and two Distinguishing Criteria, namely DC-1 and DC-2, have been developed here. It has been argued here that if we properly make the relevant distinctions, then we will find that: (a) the phenomenon cited by the Argument from Incompleteness can be well explained keeping the Russellian analysis of descriptive sentences intact, (b) the phenomenon arising from the Argument from Donnellan’s Distinction raises an issue of pragmatics and is irrelevant to Russell’s semantic analysis of descriptive sentences. So, none of the above criticisms poses a genuine threat to Russell’s theory of definite descriptions; his theory actually provides, to a large extent, a correct semantic analysis of descriptive sentences.

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Mostofa Nazmul Mansur
Jahangirnagar University


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