Descriptions, ambiguity, and representationalist theories of interpretation


Theories of descriptions tend to involve commitments about the ambiguity of descriptions. For example, sentences containing descriptions are widely taken to be ambiguous between de re, de dicto, and intermediate interpretations and are sometimes thought to be ambiguous between the former and directly referential interpretations. I provide arguments to suggest that none of these interpretations are due to ambiguities (or indexicality). On the other hand, I argue that descriptions are ambiguous between the above family of interpretations and what may be called ‘institutional’ as well as generic interpretations. My arguments suggest that an adequate theory of descriptions may require considerable rethinking. Most contemporary theories of descriptions appear to be committed to one or more claims about the ambiguity of descriptions that I reject in this paper. I suggest that my observations provide a reason to renew efforts to develop a theory of descriptions within a representationalist theory of interpretation.

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  1. 1.

    Quine distinguished ‘notional’ and ‘relational’ interpretations instead. I merely seek to attach a familiar label to a roughly characterized family of interpretations.

  2. 2.

    Similar interpretive possibilities are afforded by sentences like ‘I want to find six dogs that talk,’ ‘I want to find most dogs that talk,’ etc. For the purposes of this paper, my concern will exclusively be definite and indefinite descriptions of the form ‘the F’ and ‘a F’.

  3. 3.

    For example: A king is free to execute his laws and his citizens as he sees fit.

  4. 4.

    Ioup (1975); Keshet (2008).

  5. 5.

    An anonymous reviewer pointed out that examples parallel to (9) using ‘most’ instead the indefinite may suggest that even more uncontroversially quantificational expressions fail to be ambiguous between specific and general interpretations, suggesting that even for those expressions, there are more interpretive distinctions than can be captured by grammatically encoded ambiguities of scope.

  6. 6.

    I use ‘the murderer of Smith’ because it has become a standard example, even though it sounds somewhat awkward. In his classic paper, Donnellan uses both ‘the murderer of Smith’ and ‘Smith’s murderer.’ See Donnellan (1966, p. 286).

  7. 7.

    As Sennett observes, one could replace ‘die at dawn’ with a verb like ‘met’ in a modified scenario, should there be a worry that ‘the Prince and Queen’ is interpreted collectively. However, this worry does not seem urgent.

  8. 8.

    For example, an anonymous reviewer suggested that it is impossible to interpret, “the speaker of the house and minority leader of the senate will die at dawn” as saying that two individuals will die at dawn.

  9. 9.

    For example, pseudo-gapping, unlike VP ellipsis, rules out voice mismatches. See Merchant (2008).

  10. 10.

    For similar conclusions, see Chomsky (2000).

  11. 11.

    I use ‘institutional readings’ for want of a better label and to distinguish them from the broader class of interpretations that are sometimes called ‘weak definites’.

  12. 12.

    Note that there are other types of prima facie counterexamples, which are beyond the scope of this paper. My concern here is only with what I call ‘institutional readings’.

  13. 13.

    I thank André Estévez-Torres for the linguistic data on Spanish.

  14. 14.

    This is not to deny that there are other types of cases that potentially put pressure on the uniqueness condition.

  15. 15.

    Views of this sort were first presented by Karttunen (1976), Heim (1982) and Kamp (1981).

  16. 16.

    An anonymous reviewer suggested that Heim, Kamp, and Karttunen’s particular representationalist theories might have particular trouble if my arguments generalize to expressions like ‘most’. Also see footnote 5.


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I thank Gideon Rosen, Gil Harman, Paul Benacerraf, Delia Graff, Jay Atlas, and Philippe Schlenker, as well as an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments and discussions.

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Koralus, P. Descriptions, ambiguity, and representationalist theories of interpretation. Philos Stud 162, 275–290 (2013).

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  • Descriptions
  • Ambiguity
  • Generics
  • Uniqueness Presupposition
  • Representationalist Theories of Interpretation