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Robert Stufflebeam


The topic of this paper is the logical analysis and translation of definite descriptions (structures of the form ‘the F’), in particular Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Descriptions, as put forth in “On Denoting” (1905). I argue in favor of an opposing theory, a presuppositional analysis of definite descriptions that fits in the tradition of Frege and Strawson, building upon the recent work of Heim and Elbourne. I argue that a definite description has a referential function that is supported by presuppositions of existence and uniqueness located outside of the analyzed sentence. Using a series of example sentences, I show that a presuppositional analysis handles the logic of ordinary language in a manner superior to a Russellian analysis, produces more natural readings of embedded sentences containing definite descriptions, explains why definite descriptions function in a consistent way across different types of sentences, and provides a much better account of the logical commitments of using referential terms. After providing background on Russell’s theory and its criticisms, I review and analyze Elbourne’s examples of sentences embedding definite descriptions in non-doxastic propositional attitudes or the antecedents of conditionals. I then present and analyze my own examples involving embedding within disjunctions and within two kinds of non-statement: questions and commands. I compare the effects of embedding sentences using proper names—another kind of referential term. I then analyze some logical consequences of Russellian analysis, and answer a potential Russellian objection.


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