Case Dismissed: Definite Descriptions are not Ambiguous

In  The Case for Referential Descriptions Michael Devitt presents his case for the claim that definite descriptions like, for instance, ‘the author of Naming and Necessity’, are semantically ambiguous between  referential and attributive uses. The alternative to this is the Russellian view which treats definite descriptions as semantically equivelent to quantifier phrases (‘there is someone who is the author of Naming and Necessity’) and to explain the referential uses as some kind of Gricean implicature. So, one view has ‘the author of namming and necessity’ as having two meanings (just like ‘bank’) whereas the other just gives it one meaning.  

Kripke gives an argument against the referential thesis in his paper “Speaker Reference and Semantic Reference” that, as far as I know, Devitt never replies to, in the following passage

there is no reason to suppose that in making an indirect discourse report on what someone else has said I myself must have similar intentions, or be engaged in the same kind of speech act; in fact it is clear that I am not. If I say ‘Jones says the police are around the corner,’ Jones may have meant it as a warning but I need not say it as a warning. If the referential-attributive distinction is neither syntactic nor semantic, there is no reason, without further argument, to suppose that my usage, in indirect discourse, should match the man on whom I report, as referential or attributive. The case is quite different for a genuine semantic ambiguity. If Jones says, ‘I have never been to a bank,’ and I report this, saying, ‘Jones denied that he was ever at a bank,’ the sense I give to ‘bank’ must match Jones’ if my report is to be accurate. (p83 SR)

I think that argument goes like this. If I say “The author of On Denoting” was a lady’s man” and I am using the description referentially and then you report that to someone else saying ‘Richard said that the author of On Denoting was a lady’s man’ you do not have to be using the description referentially (or be giving it that sense) and vice versa. In fact you may not even be able to use it referentially, as you may not know who the author of On Denoting is. If the referential use was a pragmatic phenomenon then this is what we expect as that matches speech acts in general. If the referential use were a semantic phenomenon then this would be ruled out because in genuine semantic ambiguities we do have to report the words with the same sense. Thus since descriptions act more like pragmatic phenomena there is no ambiguity. Notice that we can also adapt this argument to the case involving names. I may say “Kripke is the greatest living philosopher” and you may go and say “Richard said that Kripke is the greatest living philosopher” you may not even be in a position to use the name referentially. If in this case you think you do get a belief about Kripke (because it is a famous name), then consider if I say “Jenny McArthur is a good cook” you then say ‘Does Jenny know how to make pheasant under glass?’ you may do so even though you do not know who Jenny is. So this is a reason to think that names are not ambiguous as between referential and attributive.

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4 thoughts on “Case Dismissed: Definite Descriptions are not Ambiguous

  1. Hi Richard,
    I wonder if we complicate the case by appealing to de re/de dicto distinction, in order to point that Devitt is right vs Kripke:

    Let’s use this sentence:
    “Jana wants to marry the fattest man in Utah”
    One use is where it says that Jana wants to marry fattest man in Utah, whoever he might be. This would the de dicto case, which seems to relate to the attributive use.
    The other use would be where it says that Jana wants to marry certain person, who happens to be the fattest man in Utah. The re case seems to relate with referential use.

    Say that you report “Jana wants to marry the fattest man in Utah”. If I report that “Richard said that Jana wants to marry the fattest man in Utah”, the semantic ambiguity is still present here, and if I’m to report what you said accurately, the ‘fattest man in Utah’ should mean the same thing that it meant when you pronounced it, i.e. either referential (in de re case) meaning, or attributive (in de dicto case) meaning.

  2. Hey Tanasije,

    Yeah a lot of people run the De Re/De Cicto distinction together…Kent BAch has a nice paper on this where he expolains why they are distinct…The basic point is that a De Re thought involves having a thought where the subject position of the thought (whatever that is) is causally related to some object in the right way, a de dicto thought is a thought about an object as satsfying some description. One usualy express a de re thought in a referential use of a desctiption, but that is not necessary (I think Donnellen actually gave an example of this in his original paper, the one about the King?)…one could also express a de dicto thought in a referential use of descriptions.

    But let’s wave that for now. When I say that about Jana, let’s suppose that I mean to be talking about a particular person, say Paul. When you report what I said you do not have to be talking about Paul, you may not even know that Paul is the fattest person in Utah, but I don’t think that that means that when you report me as saying that that you misreport me, do you?

    So, it looks to me like you are just beging the question here. I agree that we have to give the utterance the same meaning, but what is at issue here is whether this is part of its, meaning, or whether it should be explained in someother way (via Gricean machinarty or whatever)…and I don’t have the intuition that you would misreport me if you did not know who Paul was…

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