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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Strawsonian Definite Descriptions

Though I am definitely still a Russellian with respect to definite descriptions, I thought that Peter Lasersohn's "The Temperature Paradox as Evidence for a Presuppositional Analysis of Definite Descriptions", which I just read, made a quite convincing case for a Strawsonian treatment. I won't go into his reasons for preferring a Strawsonian treatment to the Russellian alternative but I do want to make a couple of remarks about Lasersohn's take on the Strawsonian approach.

The Strawsonian view is considered implausible by Millians because Millians naturally assume that if definite descriptions refer, then they contribute an individual to truth-conditions. So, 'the president' would contribute Bush to truth-conditions, which is quite implausible. Lasersohn's approach, however, allows for a more natural referential treatment of definite descriptions. The rough idea is that 'the' takes the intension of its argument and returns an extension at the world in question. So for the case of unembedded occurrences of 'the president', 'the' takes the intension of 'president' and returns Bush at the actual world. This version of the Strawsonian approach is considerably more plausible than the Millian version of the view. Add to this Lasersohn's very convincing arguments for adopting the Strawsonian approach and we have a very strong competitor to the Russellian stance.

2 comments:

Timmo said...

The Strawsonian view is considered implausible by Millians because Millians naturally assume that if definite descriptions refer, then they contribute an individual to truth-conditions. So, 'the president' would contribute Bush to truth-conditions, which is quite implausible.

Why should a "Millian" think that? For a "Millian", or direct reference theorist, the name 'Bush' contributes Bush himself, the man, to the proposition expressed by 'Bush is not cute' -- Bush is a constituent of the proposition Bush is not cute. I do not see, so far, why a "Millian" should think there is anything problematic about 'the president' contributing Bush to a proposition -- the proper name 'Bush' does that already.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Timmo,
The vast majority of Millians do not accept the Strawsonian position. But it is not because they cannot make sense of singular propositions. There are two reasons why the "naive" version of the Strawsonian position is implausible. (i) if descriptions contributed objects to propositions, then there would be a missing link between logical form and interpretation, and (ii) propositions which are clearly necessary would be contingent. 'Necessarily, the number of planets is nine', for example, would be true on both its wide-scope and its narrow-scope reading (assuming 'Nec' is an operator on propositions).