Descriptions, Chapters 2-3

Descriptions, Chapters 2-3 - Chapter 2 The Theory of...

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Chapter 2 The Theory of Descriptions 2.1 Introductory Remarks It is virtually impossible to do justice to the seman tical and logical insights of Russell 's Theory of Descriptions without a proper grasp of its philosophical foundations; and this requires a sensitivity to, and an awareness of Russell's sensitivity to, issues that are at least as much psychological as they are semantical (or logical). Of course any final evaluation of the theory , construed as a contribution to sem- antics and logic will depend upon its predictive power in the face of problems concerning identity , substitutivity, propositional attitude reports, the logical (and other) modalities, nondenoting noun phrases, quantifier scope, pronominal anaphora, and so on . But semantical problems cannot be addressed in a vacuum. There is an important respect in which semantical questions cannot be detached from questions about understanding; this is something Russell saw , and nowhere is it more in evidence than in his distinction between names and descriptions. Indeed, if one ignores his theory of thought, one runs the very grave risk of failing to understand and appreciate his Theory of Descriptions. I have three main aims in this chapter. The first is to layout the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of Russell's theory . The second is to locate the seman tical side of the theory within a general account of quantified noun phrases in natural language . The third is to explore and extend the range and application of the theory. Although the initial discussion will, of necessity, have a definite exegetical character, I shall not shy away from rejecting what I perceive to be inessential features of Russell's overall pro- posal. For example, his sense-datum epistemology and his consequent desire to treat ordinary proper names as disguised descriptions, his talk of objects as constituents of singular propositions, and his use of the formalism of Principia Math ematica, even if they are not objec- tionable in themselves, seem to me to be features that can be dis-
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The Theory of Descriptions 15 pensed with without compromising either the general appeal of the Theory of Descriptions or the distinction between object-dependent and object-independent propositions that lies behind it. After discussion of the philosophical foundations of the theory (2.2), I turn to its formal statement (2.3) and a preliminary appraisal of its value when applied to sentenc es of natural language (2.4). A general discussion of quantification in natural language (2.5) then gives us a syntactical and semantical framework within which to locate the Theory of Descriptions, extend it to nonsingular and more complex descriptions, and dispense with the formalism of Principia Mathematica (2.6). The chapter ends with a brief discussion of what one need not be committed to when one endorses the Theory of Descriptions (2.7).
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