Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 5, pp 1183–1205 | Cite as

Definite descriptions and the alleged east–west variation in judgments about reference

  • Yu IzumiEmail author
  • Masashi Kasaki
  • Yan Zhou
  • Sobei Oda


Machery et al. (2004) presented data suggesting the existence of cross-cultural variation in judgments about the reference of proper names. In this paper, we examine a previously overlooked confound in the subsequent studies that attempt to replicate the results of Machery et al. (2004) using East Asian languages. Machery et al. (2010, 2015) and Sytsma et al. (2015) claim that they have successfully replicated the original finding with probes written in Chinese and Japanese, respectively. These studies, however, crucially rely on uses of articleless, ‘bare noun phrases’ in Chinese and Japanese, which according to the linguistic literature are known to be multiply ambiguous. We argue that it becomes questionable whether the extant studies using East Asian languages revealed genuine cross-cultural variation when the probes are reevaluated based on a proper linguistic understanding of Chinese and Japanese bare noun phrases and English definite descriptions. We also present two experiments on native Japanese speakers that controlled the use of ambiguous bare noun phrases, the results of which suggest that the judgments of Japanese speakers concerning the reference of proper names may not diverge from those of English speakers.


Experimental philosophy Cross-cultural semantics Proper names Definite descriptions Articleless noun phrases 



We would like to thank James Beebe, Kent Erickson, Edouard Machery, Alex Rausch, Takashi Yagisawa, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on earlier drafts. We are also grateful to the audiences at the 2015 Japan Forum for Young Philosophers, the 2015 Buffalo Annual Experimental Philosophy Conference, the 2016 Central APA Meeting, Queen’s University Belfast, and Soochow University. This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (26770006) and for JSPS Fellows (15J06699).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and PhilosophyNanzan UniversityNagoya-shiJapan
  2. 2.Institute of Liberal Arts and SciencesNagoya UniversityNagoya-shiJapan
  3. 3.Division of EconomicsKyoto Sangyo DaigakuKyoto-shiJapan

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