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The overarching topic of this dissertation is the semantics and pragmatics of definite descriptions. It focuses on the question whether sentences such as ‘the king of France is bald’ literally assert the existence of a unique king (and therefore are false) or simply presuppose the existence of such a king (and thus fail to express propositions). One immediate obstacle to resolving this question is that immediate truth value judgments about such sentences (sentences with non-denoting descriptions) are particularly unstable; some elicit a clear intuition of falsity whereas others simply seem awkward or strange. Because of these variations, truth value judgments are generally considered unreliable. In the first chapter of the dissertation, an explanation of this phenomenon is developed. It is observed that when these types of sentences are considered in the context of a discourse, a systematic pattern in judgments emerges. This pattern, it is argued, should be explained in terms of certain pragmatic factors, e.g. whether a speaker’s utterance is interpreted as cooperative. A detailed and general explanation of the phenomenon is then presented which draws importantly on recent research in the semantics and pragmatics of questions and focus. It is shown that the behavior of these judgments can be systematically explained, that truth value judgments are not as unreliable as standardly assumed, and that the proposed explanation best supports the conclusion that definite descriptions presuppose rather than assert existence. In the second chapter, the following problem is investigated. If definite descriptions are assumed to literally assert existence, a sentence such as ‘Hans wants the ghost in his attic to be quiet’ is incorrectly predicted to be true only if Hans wants there to be a (unique) ghost in his attic. This prediction is often considered evidence against Russell’s quantificational analysis and evidence in favor of the referential analysis of Frege and Strawson. Against this claim, it is demonstrated that this problem is a general problem about the existence commitments of natural language determiners, i.e. not an argument in favor of a referential analysis. It is shown that in order to avoid these undesirable predictions, quite radical changes to the semantic framework are required. For example, it must be assumed that a sentence of the form ‘The F is G’ has the open sentence ‘x is G’ as its asserted content. A uniform quantificational and presuppositional analysis of definites and indefinites is outlined which by exploiting certain features of so-called dynamic semantics unproblematically assumes that the asserted contents indeed are open sentences. In view of the proposed quantificational/presuppositional analysis, the dissertation is concluded by a rejection of the argument put forward by Reimer (1998) and Devitt (2004) that definite descriptions are ambiguous between attributive (quantificational) and referential (indexical) uses. Reimer and Devitt’s argument is (in contrast to Donnellan, 1966) based primarily on the assumption that definite descriptions are conventionally used to communicate singular thoughts and that the conventional meaning of a definite description therefore must be fundamentally indexical/directly referential. I argue that this argument relies crucially on tacit assumptions about semantic processing for which no empirical evidence is provided. I also argue that the argument is too general; if sound, it would be an argument for an indexical treatment of most, if not all, other determiners. I then conclude by demonstrating that the view does not explain any new data and thus has no clear motivation. In short, this dissertation provides a detailed pragmatic explanation of a long-standing puzzle about truth value judgments and then outlines a novel dynamic semantic analysis of definites and indefinites. This analysis solves a significant problem about existence commitments — a problem that neither Russell’s nor the Frege/Strawson analysis are equipped to handle. This analysis is then defended against the claim that definite descriptions are ambiguous.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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