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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-X011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

‘Definite descriptions’ are noun phrases of the form ‘the’ + noun complex (for example, ‘the finest Greek poet’, ‘the cube of five’) or of the form possessive + noun complex (for example, ‘Sparta’s defeat of Athens’). As Russell realized, it is important to philosophy to be clear about the semantics of such expressions. In the sentence ‘Aeschylus fought at Marathon’, the function of the subject, ‘Aeschylus’, is to refer to something; it is a referential noun phrase (or ‘singular term’). By contrast, in the sentence ‘Every Athenian remembers Marathon’, the subject noun phrase, ‘every Athenian’, is not referential but quantificational. Definite descriptions appear at first sight to be referential. Frege treated them referentially, but Russell held that they should be treated quantificationally in accordance with his theory of descriptions, and argued that certain philosophical puzzles were thereby solved.

Citing this article:
Neale, Stephen. Descriptions, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-X011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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