Article/Publication Details

Indefinite Descriptions as Referring Terms

(Original title: Indefinite Descriptions as Referring Terms)
Organon F, 2009, vol. 16, No 4, pp. 569-586.
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Abstract

I argue that indefinite descriptions are referring terms. This is not the ambiguity thesis: that sometimes they are referring terms and sometimes something else, such as quantifiers (as argued by Chastain and recently Devitt). No. On my view they are always referring terms; and never quantifiers. I defend this thesis by modifying the standard conception of what a referring term is: a modification that needs to be made anyway, irrespective of the treatment of indefinites. I derive this approach from my speech-act theoretic semantics (2004). The basic thought is that referring terms have as their meanings speech-acts of a certain kind called proto-referring acts. These are acts in which speakers advertise or present intentions to denote, where denotation is a word-world relation, and advertising an intention is acting as if one has intentions, where it is open whether one has them or not, or whether the referring term used denotes or not. I show how this works for proper names. The meaning of a proper name is the speech-act proto-referring act type defined by a certain referential tree. This gives us the basis for an account of proper name meaning irrespective of denotation: a uniform treatment of full and empty names. Applied to indefinites, we can capture cases where speakers perform proto-acts—in which they advertise an intention to denote something—where they intend to denote, but others where they do not, but they still perform the proto-act: advertising an intention to denote. Two cases are ‘Fred saw a hippo’ and ‘Jane did not see a hippo’. In both cases U performs the same proto-act, represent it as R(a hippo)pro, but possesses the advertised intention in the first case, but not in the second. In the first case, R(a hippo)pro gains referential content—its descriptive content is expanded to include seen by Fred, whereas in its second token use it has no content augmentation or sentential determination of reference. In the second case ‘a hippo’ is an empty referring term, just as ‘Pegasus’ is empty in ‘Fred did not see Pegasus; he does not exist’. But in both sentences ‘a hippo’ functions in the same basic way: in both cases the basic proto-referring act R(a hippo)pro is performed. Using this approach, I show how definite descriptions can be construed as indefinites with added meaning.

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