Logic, Epistemology and Metaphysics Seminar | All Descriptions are Referential

Logic, Epistemology and Metaphysics Seminar | All Descriptions are Referential
28 January 2020, 5.30pm - 7.30pm
Room 246, Second Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Speakers:Eliot Michaelson and Ethan Nowak (KCL)

Title: All Descriptions are Referential

Abstract: While it's highly controversial whether definite descriptions are referential, almost no one has taken seriously the possibility that indefinite descriptions are referential. Against this prevailing dogma, we'll argue that there are good reasons for treating indefinite descriptions referentially. In particular, we'll argue that in most conversational contexts indefinite descriptions bring with them a uniqueness presupposition---something which follows naturally if they are devices of reference. Then we'll argue that apparent bare-existential readings of indefinite descriptions are easily accounted for by appealing to either their metasemantic features or, in certain cases, their subordination under a modal or evidential operator. So, contra Russell, there turns out to be no need to think of indefinites as referring to ambiguous objects; either they refer, or else they are bound. Finally, we show how the same resources can be extended to offer a unified, non-ambiguous referentialist account of definite descriptions---an account, consonant with Strawson's, according to which all non-generic uses of definite descriptions are referential. The resultant view manages to achieve the same sort of unity in the semantics of descriptions of some other recent accounts, but unlike them it can offer a natural explanation of what distinguishes definite from indefinite descriptions in languages like English: definite descriptions presuppose that the listener has an independent route available to identify the referent, whereas indefinite descriptions presuppose that the listener's route to the referent will have to run through the speaker, via a sort of deference to what the speaker had in mind

The Centre for Logic and Language hosts a regular seminar series - the Logic, Epistemology and Metaphysics Forum (LEM). The forum generally meets fortnightly in term time.


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