Reference without Referents

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  1. Reference without Referents - Oxford Scholarship
  2. 2007.01.07
  3. R. M. Sainsbury

This book is available as part of Oxford Scholarship Online - view abstracts and keywords at book and chapter level. A Clarendon Press Publication. Reference is a central topic in philosophy of language, and has been the main focus of discussion about how language relates to the world.

Sainsbury sets out a new approach to the concept, which promises to bring to an end some long-standing debates in semantic theory. Lucid and accessible, and written with a minimum of technicality, Sainsbury's book also includes a useful historical survey. It will be of interest to those working in logic, mind, and metaphysics as well as essential reading for philosophers of language. There is a single category of referring expressions, all of which deserve essentially the same kind of semantic treatment.

Included in this category are both singular and plural referring expressions "Aristotle", "The Pleiades" , complex and non-complex referring expressions "The President of the USA in ", "Nixon" , and empty and non-empty referring expressions "Vulcan", "Neptune". Referring expressions are to be described semantically by a reference condition, rather than by being associated with a referent.

Reference without Referents - Oxford Scholarship

In arguing for these theses, Sainsbury's book promises to end the fruitless oscillation between Millian and descriptivist views. Millian views insist that every name has a referent, and find it hard to give a good account of names which appear not to have referents, or at least are not known to do so, like ones introduced through error "Vulcan" , ones where it is disputed whether they have a bearer "Patanjali" and ones used in fiction.

Descriptivist theories require that each name be associated with some body of information. These theories fly in the face of the fact names are useful precisely because there is often no overlap of information among speakers and hearers. The alternative position for which the book argues is firmly non-descriptivist, though it also does not require a referent.

He examines plural names and descriptions.


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Plurals do not denote an irreducible plurality, nor a set, nor a mereological fusion of individuals. On the other hand, Sainsbury tells us that 'the Apostles' does not denote Matthew and does not denote John, etc. It denotes Matthew and John and Peter, etc. The reason given for rejecting the latter view is in the form of a reductio: So plurals cannot denote the individuals. Our worry that plurals do not denote strange pluralities is not necessarily allayed by this, and we might resist the argument for it by urging the weaker principle: And one might attempt to maintain the view that plurals like the Apostles simultaneously denote each individual.

Sainsbury provides a largely referential treatment of definite descriptions. Broadly definite descriptions have reference axioms of the form: Russell is driven to the view that definite descriptions are quantifiers because a there are empty intelligible definite descriptions, and b referring terms must denote. Sainsbury rejects b in this argument.


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  8. Sainsbury, however, does not think that all definite descriptions denote. He allows that both Donnellan's referential and attributive uses are referring terms , but contends that some definite descriptions do not function as referring terms -- cases like: The first man in space might have been an American. In this case, the speaker cannot be said to have a referential intention. But why does it follow from that that the term concerned is not a referring term, since many referring terms are used without referential intentions?

    Existence and fiction are discussed in chapter 6. Sainsbury's treatment of fiction deftly applies the distinction between truth and fidelity to a fiction in unraveling various puzzles. The treatment of existence brings in troubling issues of scope.

    2007.01.07

    Sainsbury affirms that all instances of Vulcan is non-existent are necessarily false This is odd -- such sentences look assertable -- but there are reasons for this view, though Sainsbury does not make them explicit. Take Caesar is non-existent. One might think this is contingently false. The latter is necessarily false, according to Sainsbury, since there is no quantification over non-existing entities -- see But that implies that the former, Caesar is non-existent , is necessarily false. If so, no instance of N is non-existent is true.


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    But is it so obvious that Vulcan is non-existent is false? It would seem then that there is some pressure on the rejection of non-existent entities.

    Pronoun Reference Clarification

    Chapter 7 develops a theory of pre-linguistic reference and individual concepts, qua elements of individuals' psychology. According to the latter theory, individual concepts, when they denote, track objects not through informational adequacy, but through causal-perception based connections.

    No information, encoded in predicates, is essential to any individual concepts The theory is rich and nuanced, covering such issues as recognition, discriminatory knowledge, and sortals. But there is an oddness within the context of RWR as developed by Sainsbury.

    R. M. Sainsbury

    Sainsbury says that there are no individual concepts that function purely descriptively. But we have seen i that for his treatment of pronouns anaphoric on indefinite descriptions that they will have to be descriptive individual concepts; ii He treats attributive uses of definite descriptions as referring terms.

    Presumably, definite descriptions used referentially in this way require intentions -- linguistic reference requires pre-linguistic reference But intentions require prior concepts in some sense. Why are these not descriptive individual concepts? Such a theory delivers T-sentences, 'S' is true iff P from which can be derived reports of what speakers say in uttering 'S'. Not quite homophony but as close as we can get. Publications Pages Publications Pages.

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