Theory of Descriptions, Meaning and Presupposition

  • Alejandro Rossi
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 172)


The aim of this article is to stage a confrontation in broad terms between Russell’s Theory of Descriptions and the critique which Strawson made of it, so as to set out, with the minimum of precision required, the diverse levels of the objections; we shall not attempt to criticize, from our own point of view, the doctrines of Strawson. We shall begin with an exposition of the theory of descriptions which will be, in length, considerably greater than the part of the paper dedicated to Strawson. The reason for this is simply that Russell’s theses are more complex and developed than those of Strawson and the latter’s criticisms cannot be posed if the theory of descriptions is not carefully presented. Furthermore, our exposition of Russell will pass over many problems and difficulties for his theory, since they are not considered to be important given the aims of this paper. We also wish to make it clear that the confrontation will be staged from the viewpoint of ordinary language. By this we do not mean to say in any way that the theory of descriptions is restricted to this area. But it is there that the dispute with Strawson arises. Whether that is an injustice or not is a separate problem. In any case, there is enough evidence that at least Russell himself does not exclude ordinary language from the scope of application of his theory. And, finally, we wish to point out that Strawson’s doctrine about presupposition will be considered only in relation to definite descriptions, leaving aside its applications, for example, to the square of opposition of classical logic.


Definite Description Ordinary Language True Proposition Existential Quantifier Propositional Function 
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    B. Russell, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, p. 174; Logic and Knowledge, p. 244.Google Scholar
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    P. F. Strawson, “On Referring,” in Essavs in Conceptual Analysis (Maonillan, 1956 ), pp. 24–25.Google Scholar
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    P. F. Strawson, “On Referring,” pp. 27 ff.Google Scholar
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© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1984

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  • Alejandro Rossi

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