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Review of  Definite Descriptions

Reviewer: Anne Louise Bezuidenhout
Book Title: Definite Descriptions
Book Author: Gary Ostertag
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 9.1307

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Ostertag, Gary (ed) (1998) Definite Descriptions: A Reader, Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, xii + 411pp, $30.00.

The collection begins with a substantive introductory essay by the
editor. This is followed by fifteen papers, the majority of which were
originally published in journals or in other anthologies, although some
were originally chapters or parts of chapters of books. The collection
ends with a useful bibliography, with readings arranged by topic.

The first of the fifteen papers in Ostertag's anthology is Russell's
1905 paper 'On Denoting', and the remaining papers are arranged in more
or less chronological order, ending with a 1995 paper of Stephen
Schiffer's titled 'Descriptions, Indexicals, and Belief Reports: Some
Dilemmas (But Not the Ones You Expect)'. The one deviation from the
chronological sequence is Stephen Neale's 1993 paper 'Grammatical Form,
Logical Form, and Incomplete Symbols', which is placed in the sequence
just after several papers authored or co-authored by Russell.

Presumably the reason for placing Neale's paper out of chronological
order is that it illuminates some of the more technical background
notions whose grasp is essential to an understanding of the debate
represented in the ensuing papers. Neale discusses the distinction
between grammatical and logical form, raises questions about the
appropriate way to represent ordinary language quantifiers in semantic
theory, discusses Russell's claim that definite descriptions are
incomplete symbols, and discusses the implications of this for an
attempt to give a compositional semantics for sentences containing

The other papers in the collection are the classic ones by Strawson,
Donnellan and Kripke, as well as more recently influential papers by
such authors as Peacocke, Wettstein, Soames and Neale. Ostertag regrets
that he couldn't have included more papers in his volume. He regrets for
instance not including some of the work by Marga Reimer or by Nathan
Salmon. Ostertag compensates for this gap in a small way by spending
some time in his introductory essay on Reimer's arguments against
treating 'the F' as a quantifier, and on Salmon's arguments against
Wettstein's anti-Russellian views.

Ostertag's introductory chapter breaks the mold for this sort of
essay, in the sense that it doesn't contain a summary of the central
arguments of the collected papers. Possibly Ostertag felt that since
the majority of the papers in his collection are classics in the field,
or at least frequently referred to by others in the field, it was
unnecessary to encapsulate their central arguments in this way.
Presumably most instructors using this as a textbook in a philosophy of
language course will be very familiar with the arguments contained in
these papers.

Instead, Ostertag's essay presents a (by his own admission partial) view
of some of the twists and turns the debate has taken. Ostertag begins
with a brief historical account of Russell's reasons for moving away
from the extreme realist view which, under the influence of Meinong, he
had earlier accepted, to the position defended in 'On denoting'.
Ostertag then lays out the treatment that Russell gave to definite
descriptions in Principia Mathematica, noting some of the contortions
that Russell had to go through to represent scope differences in his
notation. Ostertag ends this section by explaining the method of
representing natural language quantifiers (the method of restricted
quantification) that is favored by contemporary Russellians, such as

This is followed by an interesting section in which Ostertag argues that
the contemporary significance of Russell's work is rather different from
the significance it had when Russell first published 'On denoting',
partly due to the fact that Russell's treatment of descriptions as
devices of quantification has been so readily incorporated into
contemporary grammatical theory.

Ostertag turns next to a discussion of the referential/attributive
distinction. Ostertag's conclusion is that referential uses of
descriptions are adequately accounted for by a Gricean strategy. That
is, in cases in which a description is used referentially, we must
distinguish what is meant from what is said. The referential
understanding is retrieved via Gricean mechanisms as an implicature from
what is said. Ostertag doesn't explicitly discuss some of the
neo-Gricean and relevance theoretical alternatives that have appeared
recently in the literature that challenge this Gricean solution.
However, Ostertag's footnotes do point readers to some of these
alternative accounts.

Ostertag concludes with a discussion of the problem of incomplete
descriptions (e.g. descriptions such as 'The table is covered with
books', which Strawson first drew attention to), and with a discussion
of various challenges by Marga Reimer and others to Russell's
assimilation of descriptions to quantifiers. Ostertag seems more
pessimistic that Russellians can deal adequately with these problems,
and concludes his discussion with the claim that once we accept the
context-sensitivity of descriptions, which it seems we must, then "we
are no longer in possession of an account of how the meaning of the
quantifier phrase "the F" is determined by the meanings of its
constituents." (p. 28).

Overall, Ostertag's essay is very interesting. However, there is one
very small printing error, which leads to some difficulties in following
the thread of Ostertag's argument. On p. 24 the references should be not
to the sentences numbered (2) and (3), but to the sentences numbered (5)
and (6).

In his preface, Ostertag remarks that it is somewhat surprising that no
free standing collection of essays on descriptions has yet appeared.
Issues having to do with definite descriptions form one of the core
topics in the philosophy of language and all the major textbooks in the
philosophy of language contain a section devoted to these issues. Free
standing collections of essays on other topics central to the philosophy
of language have appeared over the years. For instance, Yourgrau (1990)
and Salmon & Soames (1988).

So there does seem to be a need for a collection such as the present
one, which could be useful for an upper level undergraduate or graduate
seminar devoted to the topic of descriptions. The only philosophy of
language textbook which comes close to having as much coverage of this
topic is Ludlow (1997), which contains seven essays under the heading of
definite and indefinite descriptions.

The topic of indefinite descriptions is not addressed in Ostertag's
collection, which is one of the disappointments about this volume, and
is related to one of the major shortcomings of this volume. All the
papers in Ostertag's collection are by philosophers. The classic
philosophical debate has tended to focus on a narrow range of issues,
with the alleged distinction between referential and attributive uses of
definite descriptions being the dominant one. Linguists who have worked
on the topic of descriptions generally are interested in a much broader
set of issues. Some of the best current work by philosophers on
descriptions (such as that by Stephen Neale) is cross-fertilized by the
work of linguists. Hence it would have been good to include work by
linguists, not only to open up the philosophical discussion to a wider
range of issues, but also to guard against the chance that students will
come away with the impression that work on the topic by other
professionals is of only marginal relevance to the philosophical debate.

There is important recent work by linguists on the topic of the
referential/attributive distinction; on the comparison between definite
and indefinite descriptions; on the so-called generic, specific and
predicative uses of descriptions; on the claim (found in work as early
as Strawson's classic response to Russell) that the definite/indefinite
distinction is related to the given/new distinction for information in a
conversational context; and on the semantics/pragmatics distinction as
it applies to descriptions. Some representative authors are: Irene Heim
(1989), Ruth Kempson, (1986) and Villy Rouchota, (1992) and (1994).

In addition, there is more technical work in linguistics which explores
the extent to which definiteness is a semantic property of expressions,
and hence the extent to which it is possible to offer a linguistically
universal characterization of (in)definiteness. Such work is represented
in a recent collection of papers edited by Eric Reuland and Alice ter
Meulen. See Reuland & ter Meulen (1987).

Peter Ludlow, in his preface to the philosophy of language textbook
mentioned above, remarks that "the philosophy of language, or at least a
core part of it, has matured to the point where it is now being spun off
into linguistic theory." Ludlow, (1997) p. xiii. Ludlow takes this to
mean that certain core problems in philosophy of language are being
"naturalized" via their incorporation into linguistics, and he uses this
claim to justify the inclusion of the work of linguists in his
collection, alongside the classics of the philosophy of language. I am
not sure that I would go as far as Ludlow in claiming that core parts of
the philosophy of language are now a part of linguistics. But given that
natural languages, as well as the speakers of such languages, are
objects of study for the cognitive sciences, it makes sense for
philosophers of language to pay attention to what other cognitive
scientists are saying about such things. This means paying attention to
linguistic research, but it also means paying attention to work on
language by psychologists, anthropologists, computer scientists and

To give just one example of where such cross-fertilization might occur:
developmental psychologists have long been interested in how it is that
children master the distinction between definite and indefinite
referring expressions. See for instance Karmiloff-Smith (1979) and
Emslie & Stevenson (1981). Charting the development of children's
semantic and pragmatic skills could potentially help clarify issues
having to do with the correct semantic representation of (in)definites,
as well as help in the resolution of questions concerning the boundary
between the semantic and the pragmatic.

This said, it should be stressed that as a text for use in a mainstream
philosophy of language class, whose principle aim is to introduce
students to the debate about definite descriptions as it has unfolded
over the last 90 years, this volume is unsurpassed. The editor has
clearly given a lot of thought to picking papers which are
representative of this mainstream debate. It would be unreasonable to
demand that all the tributaries, as well as the new offshoots, to this
debate be represented in a single, manageably compact volume. Perhaps
the editor and/or his publishers will consider in the future bringing
out a companion volume in which papers representing this wider debate
are brought together?


Emslie, H. & Stevenson, R. (1981) 'Pre-school children's use of the
articles in definite and indefinite referring expressions', Journal of
Child Language, 8: 313-328.

Heim, I. (1989) The Semantics of Definite and Indefinite Noun Phrases,
New York, Garland Press.

Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1979) A Functional Approach to Child Language,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kempson, R. (1986) 'Definite NPs and Context-Dependence: A Unified
Theory of Anaphora', in Travis (ed) Meaning and Interpretation, Oxford:
Blackwell, 209-239.

Ludlow, P. (ed) (1997) Readings in the Philosophy of Language,
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Reuland, E. & ter Meulen, A. (1987) The Representation of
(In)definiteness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rouchota, V. (1992) 'On the Referential/Attributive Distinction',
Lingua, 87: 137-167.

Rouchota, V. (1994) 'On Indefinite Descriptions' Journal of Linguistics,
30: 441-475.

Salmon, N. & Soames, S. (eds) (1988) Propositions and Attitudes, Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Yourgrau, P. (ed) (1990) Demonstratives, Oxford: Oxford University

Anne Bezuidenhout is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and a Core
Member of Linguistics at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.
She is interested in the pragmatic aspects of language and
communication, and has attempted to apply the insights of Relevance
Theory to traditional debates in the philosophy of language, such as the
debate about referential and attributive uses of descriptions, and the
debate about the correct semantics for propositional attitude
ascriptions. She is also currently working with Cooper Cutting,
Department of Psychology, Illinois State University on an experimental
investigation of the pragmatic processes involved in utterance

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