Coalescent theories and divergent paraphrases: definites, non-extensional contexts, and familiarity


A recent challenge to Russell’s theory of definite description centers upon the divergent behavior of definites and their Russellian paraphrases in non-extensional contexts. Russellians can meet this challenge, I argue, by incorporating the familiarity theory of definiteness into Russell’s theory. The synthesis of these two seemingly incompatible theories produces a conceptually consistent and empirically powerful framework. As I show, the coalescence of Russellianism and the familiarity theory of definiteness stands as a legitimate alternative to both Traditional Russellianism and alternative semantic frameworks.

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  1. 1.

    The challenge emerged with Donnellan (1966). For some canonical Russellian replies, see Kripke (1979b) and Neale (1990, 2004).

  2. 2.

    See Searle (1969), Heim (1991), Kripke (2005), Rothschild (2007), Elbourne (2010, 2013, 2018), and Schoubye (2013).

  3. 3.

    On the former framework, see Schoubye (2013); on the latter, see Elbourne (2010, 2013, 2018).

  4. 4.

    In Pupa (2013), I had labeled this view ‘Enlightened Russellianism’.

  5. 5.

    These precise formulations occur in Pupa (2013). Christophersen (1939), Jespersen (1949), Strawson (1950), Hawkins (1978), and Pupa (2008) present different externalist formulations.

  6. 6.

    See Karttunen (1976), Kamp (1981), Heim (1982, 1983), and Roberts (2003).

  7. 7.

    Roberts (2003) distinguishes between two forms of familiarity: strong familiarity and weak familiarity. While Roberts cast the distinction solely in terms of discourse referents, there’s a straightforward expansion of the distinction to denotations. An individual or discourse referent is strongly familiar just so long as the definite that denotes the individual or picks out the discourse referent is anaphorically linked to another phrase that denotes the same individual or picks out the same discourse referent. An individual or a discourse referent is weakly familiar just in case the individual the definite denotes or the discourse referent the definite picks out is familiar but the definite used to denote the individual or pick out the discourse referent is not anaphorically-linked to another phrase that denotes the same individual or picks out the same discourse referent. As is plain, both the externalist and internalist variants of the familiarity condition sketched here invoke weak familiarity, not strong familiarity.

  8. 8.

    In (1e), ‘THE F’ is a placeholder for either the denotation or discourse referent of ‘the F’.

  9. 9.

    In 6.1, I will discuss a second advantage. Coalescent Russellianism can account for the regularity of ‘familiarity usage’ and the cross-linguistic nature of the familiarity condition; Traditional Russellianism cannot. In fn. 19, I note that Coalescent Russellianism helps Russellians make sense of intentional identity (Geach 1967).

  10. 10.

    For discussions of different divergences in different non-extensional or non-assertoric contexts, see Searle (1969), Heim (1982), Kripke (2005), and Rothschild (2007). The account that follows seamlessly extends to these divergences.

  11. 11.

    I have made two changes to Elbourne’s examples. First, I changed ‘my’ to ‘Han’s’. Second, to make Elbourne’s paraphrase in (6a) thoroughly Russellian, I have replaced ‘it’ with ‘every such ghost’.

  12. 12.

    In Pupa (2013), I employed Grice’s (1989) manner maxim to account for the communication in question.

  13. 13.

    Again, I have altered Elbourne’s paraphrase, replacing ‘it’ with ‘every such dog’.

  14. 14.

    See Kripke (1979b).

  15. 15.

    It’s worth noting that the truth of A doesn’t actually undermine Russellianism. Utilizing what Neale (1990) calls the ‘explicit’ approach, a Russellian may hold that when a speaker uses (10) (i.e. ‘no boy sold the dog he had bought’) to produce a relativized reading, her use of the quantifier phrase ‘no boy’ goes proxy for the more restrictive ‘no boy who had bought a dog’. So, A is compatible with Russellianism after all. I would like to thank Gary Ostertag for bringing this point to my attention.

  16. 16.

    Interestingly, the same set of issues arise when singular definites appear as anaphors in donkey sentences. See Neale (1990: p. 230 and fn. 18) for a discussion.

  17. 17.

    For examples, see Strawson (1950), Heim (1982), and Roberts (2003).

  18. 18.

    See Elbourne (2018: p. 1604).

  19. 19.

    With Lanier (2014), consider (i), a variant from Geach (1967: p .628):

    i. Hob thinks a witch blighted Bob’s mare and Nob wonders whether the witch killed Cob’s sow. (Lanier 2014: p .294).

    Lanier (2014: p .300, fn. 20) argues that a speaker who asserts (i) uses ‘the witch’ as shorthand for ‘the witch described by the actual common communication link between Hob and Nob’. Thus, Lanier claims, the speaker’s use of (i) expresses what (ii) expresses:

    ii. Hob thinks a witch blighted Bob’s mare and Nob wonders whether the witch described by the actual common communication link between Hob and Nob killed Cob’s sow.

    On a Russellian analysis, (ii) may be true even though there are no witches and even if neither Hob nor Nob believe of any particular person that she is a witch. This is exactly what we want. But, as Lanier (2014: p. 301) notes, there is a lingering question: what grounds the expansion of the definite in (i)? Coalescent Russellianism provides an answer. Geach (1967: p .300) stipulates that a speaker who asserts (i) knows Hob and Nob used ‘the witch’ to talk about the same ‘witch’. The speaker, Coalescent Russellians may claim, has such knowledge only if the speaker knows that Hob and Nob used ‘the witch’ to pick out the same discourse referent. The discourse referent is Hob and Nob’s actual common communication link. The discourse referent is not a constituent of what (ii) expresses even though ‘the actual common communication link between Hob and Nob’ denotes the discourse referent in question: a definite’s denotation is not a constituent of what is expressed. Nonetheless, internalism gives Coalescent Russellians the tools to explain why the empty definite in (i) serves as a truncated version of the empty definite in (ii). I would like to thank a referee at Synthese for raising this issue.

  20. 20.

    A complication. Speakers who knowingly use empty definites tend to deploy them in extra-conversational environments (e.g. in theoretical explanations concerning empty definites) or in dysfunctional conversational environments – in environments in which (some subset of) their target audience does not know that the definite is empty and does not know that the speaker knows that the definite is empty. In the former case, it’s not clear that felicity considerations arise. In the latter case, the speaker produces an aura of felicity, one which those in the know can dispel.

  21. 21.

    Russell (1919: p .171) describes the different cardinality readings associated with singular and plural indefinites as a difference in rhetoric.

  22. 22.

    Presumably, this was a mistake. See Neale (1990: p. 36).

  23. 23.

    See Russell (1905: p. 481), Whitehead and Russell (1927: p. 30), and Neale (1990: p. 36).

  24. 24.

    I find Russell’s stance troubling here. Given the plural marker’s semantic contribution, ‘some men’ doesn’t simply ‘suggest’ ‘more than one man’ but expresses it.

  25. 25.

    I would like to thank Gary Ostertag for bringing this point to my attention.

  26. 26.

    Throughout, I will ignore misdescription cases and the complications they introduce. An investigation of those complications is irrelevant here.

  27. 27.

    See Bach (1981, 1987, 2004) and Neale (1990).

  28. 28.

    See Neale (2004, 2005). The label ‘Gödelian’ is his. Following Devitt (2007), I previously held that Neale’s proposal isn’t a genuinely Russellian proposal (see Pupa 2008, 129–30). This was a mistake: as Neale (2008) notes, Russellians in general and Russell (1905) in particular allow definites to denote functions that contain individuals as proper parts (e.g. ‘the present King of France’). For Neale (1990: p. 115, fn. 53), what would violate the spirit of Russellianism is to treat referential definites as having the form ‘[The xx = that]’.

  29. 29.

    See Neale (2004) and Bach (2004). These works are in part a response to Devitt (1997, 2004), who argues that the regularity of referential usage forestalls a Russellian account of it. For a critical appraisal of Devitt’s view, see Pupa (2018).

  30. 30.

    See Hawkins (1978, 1991), Heim (1982), Abbott (1999), Roberts (2003), Hawthorne and Manley (2012), and Elbourne (2018).

  31. 31.

    See Elbourne (2018).

  32. 32.

    See Szabó (2000).

  33. 33.

    See Fraurud (1990) and Poesio and Vieira (1998) for two such studies. There are, of course, some theoretical difficulties with these types of studies. For details, see Pupa (2013: fn. 46) and Pupa (2018: fn. 54).

  34. 34.

    For examples of the former strategy, see Abbott (1999, 2010), Kearns (2011), and Pupa (2013). For examples of the latter strategy, see Szabó (2000, 2003), Roberts (2003), and Ludlow and Segal (2004). Hawthorne and Manley (2012) favor the derivation of familiarity from an ‘existential’ account of the definite article, an account in which ‘the F’ is truth-conditionally equivalent to ‘there is at least one F’.

  35. 35.

    This, of course, is an application of Devitt’s (1997, 2004, 2007) ‘argument from convention’ for referential definites, which inspired my ‘Russellian’ derivation of the familiarity condition. For details, see Pupa (2013).

  36. 36.

    Arkoh and Matthewson center their discussion around Schwarz’s (2009) weak/strong distinction. A weak article is a non-anaphoric determiner, whereas a strong article is an anaphoric determiner. Schwarz holds that strong articles encodes both strong familiarity and uniqueness, whereas weak determiners simply encode uniqueness. Schwarz claims that standard German, Fering, and other regional German dialects incorporate such a distinction. Arkoh and Matthewson conclude that Akan’s definite article encodes weak familiarity and uniqueness. Though, on the latter point, matters are somewhat muddled. While Arkoh and Matthewson state that “uniqueness is not encoded” (2013: p. 11) in the definite article, they provide the entry below for ‘nʊ’, an entry that mirrors Schwarz’s (2009: p. 260) Elbourne-inspired (2005: p. 114) entry for the strong determiners of Fering and standard German:

    ⟧ = λsr. λF. λy: ∀!x(Fx, sr & x = y). ιx(Fx, sr & x = y). [Where ‘sr’ denotes a resource situation].

    On this Fregean analysis, Akan’s definite article encodes uniqueness as a referential presupposition. Schwarz’s account of the strong definite articles of Fering and standard German proceeds in the same vein. (A Russellian analysis would obviously treat the articles’ uniqueness readings in a different manner.).

  37. 37.

    Arkoh and Matthewson list the translation of ‘nʊ’ as ‘FAM’, a shorthand for ‘familiar’. I have put the neutral ‘DEF’ in its place.

  38. 38.

    See Heim (1982), Hawkins (1991), Roberts (2003), and Pupa (2013).

  39. 39.

    It should be noted that Hawkins and Roberts make use of different theoretical frameworks in their accommodation accounts of the unfamiliar use of establishing relatives.

  40. 40.

    Elbourne claims that familiarity theorists cannot employ accommodation because they would “have to say that speakers have to accommodate something which they know to be false, namely that the woman in question was already familiar”. (1607: my emphasis). But, remember, it is audiences who accommodate speakers. And when they do so they assume something – namely that whatever satisfies the definite is familiar – to keep the conversation moving. As Hawthorne and Manley frame it, the audience “quietly puts up” (2012: p. 165) with the speaker’s false presupposition. Finally, as Hawthorne and Manley note, Stalnaker (1972) provides cases where audiences do accommodate false claims. Hawthorne and Manley claim that normally audiences do not do so. They do not provide any evidence for this claim. Perhaps they’re right. But, there do seem to be numerous roles – parent, teacher, worker, colleague, consoler – in which audiences seem willing to assume, for the purposes at hand, that some claim is true even though they know it to be false. We should not lose sight of the fact that “in some contexts, the truth is beside the point” (Stalnaker 1972: p. 389).

  41. 41.

    See Pupa (2013).

  42. 42.

    Elbourne states that Jennifer’s unfamiliar usage will not seem defective in retrospect. His evidence: Hawkins, Roberts, and Hawthorne and Manley do not detect any whiff of infelicity. These theorists, however, never consider any circumstance in which Jennifer’s usage would be infelicitous. They do not consider what circumstances could make the usage infelicitous. It’s surely tautological, however, that Jennifer’s use of the establishing relative will be infelicitous in some contexts. I take the above discussion to provide evidence that Jennifer’s usage would be infelicitous were Sera to refuse Jennifer the accommodation she requires.

  43. 43.

    Thus, the way in which familiarity theorists handle some instances of unfamiliar usage is reminiscent of the way in which some Russellians handle instances of incomplete definites. Some Russellians maintain that while a seemingly incomplete definite may have multiple satisfiers in one domain, it will have exactly one satisfier in the domain in which it ought to be evaluated (see Neale 1990, 2004, 2005). In the same way, familiarity theorists may hold that while some definite usage might not conform to the familiarity condition at the moment of utterance, it will nonetheless conform to the familiarity condition at the moment in which it ought to be evaluated for familiarity.


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I benefitted greatly from suggestions by Paul Elbourne, Gary Ostertag, and two anonymous referees at Synthese.

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Pupa, F. Coalescent theories and divergent paraphrases: definites, non-extensional contexts, and familiarity. Synthese (2021).

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  • Definite descriptions
  • Russell's theory of descriptions
  • The familiarity theory of definiteness
  • Non-extensional contexts
  • Relativized definites
  • The unfamiliar use of definites