Thursday, March 13, 2008

Attributive and referential use of definite descriptions, not a semantic distinction. Tim Pritchard

Tim’s talk last night was very good as most people seemed to agree. The central two claims were that
1. There is no linguistic mechanism that differentiates between referential and attributive uses of definite descriptions . (Although the distinction can be made.)
2. We think what it is we want to communicate, and we then find the best words with which to express it. (In other words there is no such thing as intending to mean by a sentence whatever it is that the sentence means).

To prove Tim’s 1st claim is difficult since no single example will suffice. My thought is that if we give an epistemological informational account of the distinction then we can show that there cannot be a linguistic mechanism that would work. The account would be that the attributive use is one where the speaker is informing the audience that the description is true. The referential use is where the speaker presupposes that the audience presuppose that the description is true. Since in both cases the speaker is intending the description to be taken as true, there can be no semantic difference.
For example, the utterance type
SD: Smith’s murderer is the one who stole the diamonds.
Now we have two definite descriptions. The speaker cannot presuppose that the audience presupposes both descriptions to be true of the same person, since otherwise his utterance would be redundant. But equally clearly the speaker can’t presuppose that both utterances are descriptions that refer to different people, or the utterance is plainly false. So in making utterances of this kind, the speaker must be using at least one attributively. Yet both definite descriptions have the same structure.
This might be clearer if we think in terms of investigations:

Investigation 1. Who murdered Smith?
Background knowledge: John stole the Diamonds.
New Evidence: Smith’s murderer is the one who stole the diamonds
Result: John murdered Smith

Investigation 2. Who stole the Diamonds?
Background knowledge: John Murdered Smith
New evidence: Smith’s murderer is the one who stole the diamonds
Result: John stole the diamonds.

Investigation 3. Who murdered Smith and who stole the diamonds?
Background Knowledge. Someone stole the diamonds and someone murdered Smith.
New evidence: Smith’s murderer is the one who stole the diamonds.
Result: Someone murdered Smith and stole the diamonds.

From these examples it is clear that there is an important epistemological difference between the uses of the new evidence in reaching conclusions. But it should be equally clear that there is no difference in meaning across the three cases. The new evidence in each case expresses the same proposition. The attributive/ referential distinction is purely epistemological.

Just for completeness:

Investigation 4.

Background knowledge. John murdered Smith and Jill stole the diamonds.
New evidence. Smith’s murderer is the one who stole the diamonds.
Result: ERROR!!!! Reject evidence or accept that Smith’s murderer is not Smith’s murderer or the one who stole the diamonds did not steal the diamonds or that John is Jill.

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