What’s the Payoff?

As some of you may know I am no fan of the ambiguity thesis, which is the claim that definite descriptions like ‘the author of this blog’ are ambiguous as betwee a refferential and attributive use (see here and here). But what hangs on this question? Say it turns out that definite descriptions are ambiguous, what’s the big deal? What do we gain (or loose)? Any thoughts?

7 thoughts on “What’s the Payoff?

  1. I thought the standard line is Donnellan’s critique of Russel’s theory of definite descriptions. It trades on the uniqueness requirement. If that goes, so goes Russel’s theory.

  2. Granted: Russell thought he had given a correct account of the univocal meaning of all definite descriptions, and if the ambiguity thesis is correct then Russell has only told part of the story. But it seems like a simple fix to say that Russell’s theory is true of many, but not all, definite descriptions.

  3. […] What do we lose if definite descriptions are ambiguous between reference and attribution? I’m pretty sympathetic to the ambiguity issue. (Primarily due to issues in religion such as the issue of God in discourse) Check out Richard’s arguments against ambiguity (linked to in the post). […]

  4. I’m not sure we actually lose anything practically since in real life language is ambiguous and definite descriptions were always a philosophical idealization. Further I can’t see that anything actually depends upon such idealizations. This is actually one reason why some simply reject this whole approach and instead look for grounds in more practical hermeneutics.

    That said I must confess a certain weakness for reading the definite description arguments even if I’m not sure they do amount to much. Even artificial idealizations can lead to interesting arguments.

  5. We’d lose, among other things, univocal solutions to belief puzzles, identity puzzles, non-existence puzzles, rigidity puzzles. We’d also lose uniform analyzes of logical inferences and scope-relations. Moreover, we’d at least be tempted by the idea that many, if not all, natutral language determiners are ambiguous. This, I suppose, would have ripple effects in the philosophy of mind, language acquisition and comprehension. As for the gains, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe the truth.

  6. Hmmm…. Frank, you seem to have a few ideas about this. have you considered writing anything on this topic? ;>)

  7. Hey everyone, thanks for the comments!

    Flaffer, what do you mean when you say that if the uniqueness critereon goes then so does Russell’s theory?

    Colin, is that really a simple fix? which ones would it be true of and which would it be false of? How would you tell the difference?

    Clark, surely you are not claiming that every word in English is ambiguos?!?! Also, what do you mean when you say that definite descriptions are a philosophical idealization? You think philosophers made up the idea that the word ‘the’ inplies uniqueness?

    Frank, yeah but what’s the big deal if we loose univocal accounts? I always hear about these ripple effects but what are they?

    Josh. 🙂

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