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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Strawson and Grice on "the": robbing Peter to pay Paul


Donnellan thinks that both Russell and Strawson (Grice's student at St. John's) make two false assumptions, and that by rejecting these assumptions we can solve a number of problems with both theories which emerge from their theories.

The first assumption is that we can ask how a definite description functions in a sentence independently of a particular occasion on which it is used.

Donnellan thinks that there is a very basic problem with the way Strawson attempts to give an account of the meanings of descriptions.

Strawson attempts to show how descriptions contribute to the meanings of sentences.

But Strawson does not focus on how descriptions contribute to the meanings of sentences on particular occasions of the use of those sentences.

The second assumption Donnellan wants to call into question is that in many cases an utterer who uses a definite description can be said (in some sense) to presuppose or implicate that something fits the description.

Strawson assumes that where the presupposition or implication is cancelled the truth value of what the speaker said is affected.

It ain't!

Strawson assumes that whenever an utterer utters a sentence of the form

i. The F is G.

what they say is not true if there is no thing which is F.

And Grice hated a truth-value gap!

These two assumptions are related in Donnellan’s mind.

For, Donnellan thinks, if Strawson had paid more attention to the interpretation of sentences containing definite descriptions on particular occasions of use, he would have seen that there are
two distinct uses of definite descriptions -- what Grice calls the 'identificatory/non-identificatory' distinction -- , and that on one of these uses, there is no such requirement for the truth of the sentence that anything satisfy the description

ii. the F.

So Donnellan and Grice think that if we focus on how definite descriptions are used, we’ll see that they are used in two quite different ways.

At the beginning of §III of the article, Donnellan introduces some terminology (which Grice finds misguided) for these two different uses of descriptions. What's more Grice finds Donnellan's conclusions misguided, too.

“I will call," Donnellan says, "the two uses of descriptions I have in mind the attributive use and
the referential use."

Grice prefers 'identificatory/non-identificatory.

An utterer U who uses a description d in a non-identificatory way in an utterance
refers to whatever is the so-and-so.

An utterer U  who uses a description d in an identificatory way in an utterance, on the other hand, uses the description to enable his addressee to pick out what he is referring to
and predicates something about that thing.

In the first case the description might be said to occur essentially, for the utterer wishes to predicate something about whatever fits that description.

But in the referential use the
definite description is merely one tool for doing a certain job - calling attention
to a thing - and in general any other device for doing the same thing does as well. For example, the use of your finger. What Witters calls 'ostension' (after St. Augustine).

Note that Donnellan and Grice do not have in mind here a distinction between two different kinds
of descriptions - like a distinction between complex and simple descriptions, for example.

Rather, this is a distinction between two different uses of definite descriptions: two different
ways that one and the same description could be used.

To illustrate the difference, consider cases of an alleged ambiguity.

is one way to think of them. There is one word, ‘bank’ in English. But it has two different
uses: it may be used either to pick out financial institutions, or to pick out the sides of rivers.
There is one word, and two ways of using it.

Grice's example is 'vice':

He was caught in the grip of a vice.

(Grice's example does not translate to American English were 'vyse' is used for the carpenter's tool, and 'vice' for the bad habit).  (But since he was LECTURING, and not PUBLISHING -- who cares?)

Donnellan and Grice are not be claiming that a definite descriptions (or 'the') is ambiguous in just the way that
‘bank’ or 'vice' is.

"Do not multiply senses of 'the' beyond necessity."

But Donnellan and Grice are saying that there are two different ways of using definite descriptions, just as there are two different ways of using 'bank' or 'vice'.

To show that they are talking about two different ways of using a single expression rather than
two different classes of expressions, they illustrate his distinction first by considering two
different uses of a single sentence:

“Smith’s murderer is insane.”

Grice's example:

"Smith's butler mixed our coats and hats."

Later, on finding out that Smith is bankrupt,

"Smith's butler (whoever he is) shall be looking for a new position -- if he can find it."

Consider the following two

Attributive use.

We come across Smith, foully murdered.

From the manner of killing and
Smith’s good character, we might claim

“The murderer of Smith is insane.”

This might be
paraphrased as the claim that

Whoever killed Smith, call him Bill, was insane.

Referential use.

We are at the trial of Smith, who has been accused of murdering Nowell.

the basis of his Smith's behaviour, we might claim

“The murderer of Nowell is insane.”

In this case it is
the utterer’s intention not to use the description to refer to whoever satisfies some condition,
but to pick out that one individual: Smith.

How are these uses supposed to be different?

Donnellan and Grice isolate a number of points of difference;

Here we want to focus on two.

Remember the initial way they explained the difference
- in attributive uses the description occurs essentially, as these are cases in which we want
to speak about whatever satisfies the description, whereas in referential uses the description
is just one tool among others we could have used to single out the referent of the definite

The further differences they note follows from this basic distinction.
Difference 1.

In attributive or non-identificatory uses of ‘The F is G’, if nothing is F, then nothing has been said to
be G: nothing is referred to.

But in referential or identificatory uses of ‘The F is G’, something will still have
been said to be G, even if that thing is not F.

Difference 2.

In both uses of ‘The F is G’, it is in some sense IMPLICATED that
something is F.

This is merely a conversationally implicature in the case of negation:

"The king of France ain't bald: France is a republic now."

But in referential or identificatory uses, it is implicated that some particular object o is F, whereas
in attributive uses it is implicated that something or other is F without this being implicated of any
particular object.

So we have the following differences between the two uses of definite descriptions:

Non-identificatory use of ‘The F is G’ ----- vs. ------ Identificatory use of ‘The F is G’
The utterer’s intention is to say
something about whatever is the F  -----------vs. The utterer’s intention is to pick out
some particular individual (whether
or not they are the F) and say something
about that individual
If nothing is F, then the speaker does
not refer to anything, and so does not
say that anything is G
If nothing is F, the speaker still
refers to something, and says that it
is G
It is presupposed or implied that
something or other is F
It is presupposed or implied that
some particular object is F

Donnellan and Grice further support their case that these are two very different uses by showing that
the distinction shows up in speech acts other than assertions.

Look for the king of France, and should you find he is bald, suggest that he wear a wig for the ceremony!

Grice and Donnellan ask us to consider a party,
when someone sees someone across the room drinking a clear liquid out of a martini glass
and asks,

‘Who is the interesting person drinking the martini?’

This use is referential or identificatory.

Grice's example is

"Smith's butler"

who turns out to be Smith's gardener.

Smith asked his gardener to dress as a butler to impress his friends at the party.

Even if the person were drinking water out of a martini glass, the utterer would (AT THE LEVEL OF WHAT HE IMPLICATED OR MEANT) still have asked
something about that person, and the speaker’s utterance does implicate that that
person in particular is drinking a martini.

Donnellan and Grice then ask us to consider a meeting of Teetotalers, in which someone has informed the president that one of the members is drinking a martini.

If the president then asks,

is the person drinking the martini?

his use is attributive or non-identificatory.

If no one is drinking a martini, the
speaker does not succeed in asking a question about anyone, and does not presuppose that
anyone in particular is drinking a martini.

Grice's example is

"the Merseyside native who climbed Mt. Everest on hands and knees".

"Let's call him Marmaduke Bloggs".

The Merseyside Geographical Society organizes a party in his honour.

"Somebody won't be attending the party".
"What do you mean?"
"I mean this Merseyside native who climbed Mt. Everest on hands and knees. He was invented by the journalists."


Grice and Donnellan makes the same point about commands. The sentence

‘Bring me the book on the table’

may be used in an identificatory way, as when the speaker and audience both have a particular book in

But if the topic is whether a book has been placed on a delicate antique table, the
command ‘Bring me the book on the table’ has the marks of a non-identificatory usage.

At this stage, Grice and Donnellan have made a good case that he is on to a distinction with fairly wide application.

Two basic questions remain:

(i) What makes a use of a definite description identificatory or non-identificatory?


(ii) How does this distinction bear on Peano's and Russell’s theory of

We already know that the identificatory/non-identificatory distinction cannot be explained in terms of
a distinction between two different kinds of descriptions.

After all, as Donnellan and Grice have argued,
one and the same description may be used in an identificatory way in one context and in a non-identificatory way in

A natural suggestion is that what makes the difference is whether the speaker has any beliefs
(or a 'dossier' as Grice prefers) about whether a particular individual satisfies the description.

This seems to fit the Smith’s murderer cases; in the attributive use, the speaker does not have any beliefs that a particular
individual is the murderer of Smith, whereas in the attributive use (in the courtroom) he

But, as Donnellan and Grice point out this is not quite right.

The person standing
by Smith’s body could have had beliefs about who the murderer was, and still used the
description attributively; and someone might even believe that someone other than Jones
murdered Smith, while still using the description referentially to pick Nowell out.

Rather, it seems clear that, as Donnellan and Grice suggest, it is the intentions of a speaker which
make the difference between identificatory and non-identificatory uses of a definite description.

After all, the intuitive way to explain the distinction in the first place is that referential uses are
characterized by speakers intending to use the description to single out a particular individual
about whom they wish to say something.

As Donnellan and Grice put the matter, in general, whether or not a definite description is used in an identificatory or non-identificatory way is a function of the speaker’s intentions in a particular case.

It is clear that Donnellan thinks that this distinction we have been discussing poses some
problems for Russell’s theory of descriptions.

Grice is not so sure!

Donnellan thinks that neither Russell’s nor Strawson’s theory represents a correct account of the use of definite descriptions - Russell’s because it ignores altogether the identificatory use.

Why does he say this?

As we’ve seen, Russell’s theory requires that, in order to any utterance
of a sentence of the form

The F is G.

to be true, it must be the case that there is some object
o which is the unique F.

But Strawson is a different animal and Russell knew it ("Mr. Strawson on referring", by Russell, "Mind")

Donnellan and Grice are at pains to show that, when we use definite
descriptions referentially, this is simply not so.

When, for example, we say

 “The man over
there drinking a martini is interesting,”

if we are using the description referentially (if, e.g.,
we are intending to use the description to pick out some man at whom we are looking),
it seems that we can refer to the man in the corner, and say something true of him, even
if he is not drinking a martini, and so even if there is nothing which uniquely satisfies the

So it seems that, if you share Donnellan's and Grice's solid philosophical intuitions about this case - (and both have a brilliant eye for examples) and it is hard not to agree that we can succeed in saying something true about someone even if we make a mistake about what they are drinking - Russell’s theory fails to account for this kind of case.

Donnellan suggests that, for all he’s said, Russell’s theory is an adequate account of attributive
uses of definite descriptions.

So maybe when we say “The murder of Smith is insane”
while standing by Smith’s corpse, what we say is true just in case there is one and only one
murderer of Smith, and that person is insane.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Russell’s
theory fails to give an account of one important feature of our use of definite descriptions,
their referential use.

Donnellan closes his essay with some more general reflections about Russell’s view
of meaning and reference.

Frege held that all referring expressions, whether definite descriptions or singular
terms, have both a sense and a reference.

Frege held a number of views about
all referring expressions:

(i) they can have a sense, even if they lack a reference; and

(ii) their
sense determines their reference.

Russell and Peano broke with this picture in one important sense, insofar as he saw a difference between proper names, on the one hand, and descriptions, on the other.

Unlike Frege, Peano and Russell held that
definite descriptions were quantifier phrases; but, like Frege, they held that they have a sense
distinct from their reference, and that (i) they can have a sense even if they lack a reference,
and that (ii) their sense determines their reference (the reference of a definite description is
whatever the unique thing is which has the properties specified by the description).

But, again unlike Frege, Peano and Russell  held that there were a class of referring expressions about which
these Fregean theses did not hold.

At the time of ‘On Denoting,’ Russell called such referring
expressions proper names - thus he contrasted, for example, ‘Scott’ with the description
‘the author of Waverly.’

Later powerful considerations pushed him away from this view of
ordinary proper names, but he still held that what he called logically proper names, and what
Donnellan and Grice calls genuine proper names (like "Paul Grice"), are referring expressions of a quite different sort.

About such expressions Russell held that they have no sense distinct from their reference,
and hence that their lacking a reference would also entail their lacking a meaning.

You might
say that Russell thought of these logically proper names as genuinely referential referring

Donnellan, as we have seen, disagrees with Russell’s theory of descriptions.

But he makes
clear in this last passage that he thinks that Russell’s overall picture of referring expressions
is, in an important way, correct.

In particular, Donnellan endorses Russell’s anti-Fregean distinction
between two different classes of referring expressions: those that pick out an object in the
world directly, and those that do so via the mediation of a more general Fregean sense.
For Donnellan, Russell’s main mistake was one of detail.

Russell was right to think that there is a
distinction between directly referring and indirectly referring expressions, but wrong to think
that all definite descriptions fall into the category of indirectly referring expressions, which
pick out some object only insofar as that object satisfies some general condition attached
to the word. (This general condition will be the word or phrase’s meaning, or sense.)

in recognizing a class of uses of definite descriptions which fall into the directly referring
camp, Donnellan is, in a way, claiming that Russell was more right than even he knew.

And Grice KNEW.


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