Descriptions and pressupositions: Strawson vs. Russel

  • M Ramachandran


A Russellian theory of (definite) descriptions takes an utterance of the form ‘The F is G' to express a purely general proposition that affirms the existence of a (contextually) unique F: there is exactly one F [which is C] and it is G. Strawson, by contrast, takes the utterer to presuppose in some sense that there is exactly one salient F, but this is not part of what is asserted; rather, when the presupposition is not met the utterance simply fails to express a (true or false) proposition. A defender of Strawson's approach, however, must square up to what appear to be straightforward counterexamples to the presupposition thesis, and must also provide an account of certain linguistic phenomena that supposedly demand treating descriptions as quantifiers, as the Russellian theory does. In this paper I propose fresh considerations in favour of Strawson's approach. I shift attention from what the utterer presupposes to preconditions for the use of descriptions, and distinguish between referring and predicative uses of descriptions (not to be confused with referential and attributive uses); importantly, the referring and predicative uses have different preconditions, I argue, and these provide some satisfactory responses to the aforementioned challenges facing the Strawsonian.

South African Journal of Philosophy Vol. 27 (3) 2008: pp. 242-257

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eISSN: 0258-0136