2008 OnReferringAndNotReferring

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Subject Headings: Referring Expression, Semantics.



It is generally assumed, and occasionally argued, that there is indeed a class of referring expressionsindexicals, demonstratives, and proper names — and that they aren’t just eminently capable of being used to refer, which nobody can deny, but that they themselves refer, albeit relative to contexts. There is general consensus that at least some expressions do this, but there is considerable dispute about which ones. It is rare to find a philosopher who includes indefinite descriptions among referring expressions, but some are liberal enough to include definite descriptions. Some reject definites but include demonstrative descriptions (complex demonstratives) on their list. Some balk at descriptions of any kind referring but have no qualms about proper names. Some have doubts about proper names referring, but readily include indexicals and simple demonstratives. Anyhow, I can’t recall anyone actually responding to Strawson’s argument. Instead, what I’ve observed is that philosophers slide down a verbal slippery slope. Suppose Madonna says, referring to Britney Spears, “She is ambitious.”

With this slippery slide in mind, from now on (except when discussing others’ views) instead of using ‘referring expression’ I’ll use the marginally better phrase ‘singular term’ for expressions that can be used to refer.

By ‘reference’ I will mean singular reference only (I will not be considering whether general terms refer and, if so, to what), and when I describe a use as nonreferential, I will not mean that reference fails but that there is no attempt to refer. footnote: Although our topic is singular reference, there is a broad sense in which every expression refers (or at least every expression that has a semantic value that contributes to the propositional content of sentences in which it occurs) … In any case, the phrase ‘referring expression’ is ordinarily limited to any expression whose propositional contribution is its referent (if it has one)..

Speaker Reference

  • S0 Speaker reference is a four-place relation, between a speaker, an expression, an audience, and a referent: you use an expression to refer someone to something.
  • S1 To be in a position to refer to something (or to understand a reference to it) requires being able to have singular thoughts about it, and that requires perceiving it, being informed of it, or (having perceived or been informed of it) remembering it.
  • S2 To refer an audience to something involves expressing a singular proposition about it.
  • S3 In using a certain expression to refer someone to something, you are trying to get them, via the fact that you are using that expression, to think of it as what you intend them to think of.
  • S4 We generally choose the least informative sort of expression whose use will enable the hearer to identify the individual we wish to refer to, but this is not a matter of convention.
  • S5 Often the only way to refer to something is by using a definite description.
  • S6 Just as an object can be described without being referred to, so a singular proposition can be described without being grasped.
  • S7 Descriptive ‘reference’, or singling out, is not genuine reference.
  • S8 With a specific use of an indefinite description, one is not referring but merely alluding to something.
  • S9 So-called discourse “reference” is not genuine reference.
  • S10 Fictional “reference” is pseudo-reference.

Linguistic (semantic) reference and singular terms

  • L0 If an expression refers, it does so directly, by introducing its referent into the proposition semantically expressed by sentences in which it occurs (so ‘direct reference’ is redundant).
  • L1 So-called singular terms or referring expressions — indexicals, demonstratives (both simple and complex), proper names, and definite descriptions — can all be used in nonreferential ways too.
  • L2 A given singular term seems to mean the same thing whether it is used referentially or not, and an adequate semantic theory should explain this or else explain it away.
  • L3 When meaning doesn’t fix reference, generally “context” doesn’t either.
  • L4 The speaker’s referential intention determines speaker reference, but it does not determine semantic reference, except in a pickwickian way.
  • L5 There is no such thing as descriptive “reference-fixing” (not because something isn’t fixed, but because it isn’t reference).
  • L6 Pragmatic arguments of the same sort used to defeat objections against Millianism (such as those based on fictional and empty names and on occurrences of names in attitude contexts) can also be used against Millianism itself.

1 Speaker Reference

2. Linguistic (Semantic) Reference and Singular Terms

Proper Names

  • Like it or not, proper names do have non-referential uses, including attribute uses and predicative uses.
  • Consider that in standard first-order logic the role of proper names is play by individual constants and existence is represented by the existential qualifier. … We have to resort to using a formula like '∃x(x=n)', which is to say there exists something identical to n. And, when there is not such thing as [math]\displaystyle{ n }[/math], we can't use the negation of a formula of that form '¬ ∃x(x=n)', to express the truth that there isn't anything to which [math]\displaystyle{ n }[/math] is identical, because standard first-order logic disallows empty names.... Russell had a logical motivation for insisting that a genuine name be one which is (epistemically) guaranteed to have a referent.
  • Even more problematic is the case of negative existentials, and the related problem of empty names. (To assert, for example, that Hamlet does not exist is surely not to assert of Hamlet that he does not exist, mush less to presuppose that he exists. It is possible to argue that Hamlet is a fictional character, specifically an abstract entity created by Shakespeare.

5. The Bottom Line

  • Referring is not as easy as is commonly supposed. Much of what speaker do that passes for referring really isn't but is merely alluding or describing.


 AuthorvolumeDate ValuetitletypejournaltitleUrldoinoteyear
2008 OnReferringAndNotReferringKent BachOn Referring and Not Referringhttp://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Linguistics/SemanticsPragmaticsPhilosophyofL/?view=usa&ci=9780195331639 Reference: Interdisciplinary Perspectiveshttp://userwww.sfsu.edu/~kbach/referring.pdf2008