I have previously discussed Devitt’s claim that definite descriptions are ambiguous as between a referntial and an attributive meaning. In my earlier post I gave an argument from Kripke that to my mind is pretty convincing and for which I can’t see a plausible reply.
One of the positive arguments that Devitt gives is a comparison to demonstratives like ‘that’ (argument 3). His point is that the convention by which we express singular thoughts using ‘that’ is straightforwardly a semantic convention (‘if anything is’ as he puts it). Add to this that ‘the’ and ‘that’ are completely interchangable. Anytime that we could use one we can also use the other. So, to take the classic example, if I were to say ‘the murder of Smith is insane’ to express my singular thought about Smith’s murder I could just as well have said ‘that murder of Smith is insane’. This, together with the previous point suggests that ‘the’ has a referential meaning (just like ‘that’).
But if we take the comaprison seriously we will have to postulate an abiguity for ‘that’ as well since there are attributive uses. For insatnce if I am looking at the bloodly murder scene and I say ‘that murder of Smith is insane’ it is clear that I could mean ‘that murder of Smith –whover he is– is insane’. But we have no reason to posit this kind of ambiguity for ‘that’ so we have no reason to postulate it for ‘the’. If anything, what the comparison to demonstratives show is that it isn’t obvious that ‘the’ has the Russellian attributive meaning.