Can the sentence "The man over there drinking Martini is a philosopher" be true
even though nothing satisfies the definite description?
Justify your answer.

A definite description is a phrase in the form of "the X" where X is a noun-phrase or a singular common noun(1).   In this case, "the X" is the noun phrase "The man over there drinking Martini".   A definite description is called "proper" if the noun phrase applies to (or picks out from the world) a unique individual or object.   For example "The Prime Minister of Canada on January 1st, 2009" applies to, or picks out, or denotes the particular individual existent known as "Stephen Harper".   A definite description where the noun phrase applies to more than one thing, like "The baby", is called "improper".   And to complete the picture, a definite description that applies to nothing - like "The first man on Mars" or "The largest prime number" or "The man over there drinking Martini" when there is no such man - is also called "improper".

In his 1905 seminal work "On Denoting"(2), Bertrand Russell presented what has become recognized as the benchmark analysis of proper definite descriptions.   His analysis of the definite description "The man over there drinking Martini is a philosopher" would break down the phrase as the logical conjunction of three separate assertions: -

(i)     there is at least one x such that x is a man over there drinking Martini; and

(ii)   there is at most one x such that x is a man over there drinking Martini; and

(iii) whatever is x is a philosopher.

In the symbology of classical quantified predicate logic, this would be translated as -

(∃x)(Mx & (∀y)(My ⊃ y=x) & Px)   -  
                      where "M" is the predicate "is a man over there drinking Martini"
                      and "P" is the predicate "is a philosopher".

Now clearly, by Russell's theory of definite descriptions, the truth-status of this description turns out false, since ex hypothesi, there is no x that fulfills the existential quantifier.   Hence, according to a superficial application of Russell's theory of definite descriptions one would have to evaluate the title statement as false, just because there is nothing that satisfies the definite description.

Now this result is sometimes considered to be a problem for Russell's Theory of Descriptions.   It turns out that in general usage, contrary to the expectations of Russell's Theory of Descriptions, I can assert "The man over there drinking Martini is a philosopher" in order to bring to your attention a person who I believe is a philosopher, without that person being either a man or drinking Martini.   And it is usually accepted that if the person I so bring to your attention is indeed a philosopher, I have asserted truly.   This intuitive contradiction to Russell's theory is offered as a demonstration that Russell's theory is fatally flawed

However, following the suggestions of H.P. Grice(3), Russell's theory of definite descriptions can be adjusted so as to avoid this difficulty.

First, we have to recognize a distinction between a statement or sentence containing a definite description - like the statement in the essay title - and an utterance of that statement or sentence.   Recognizing the distinction allows us to acknowledge that no definite description is uttered (written, spoken, or thought) without being uttered in some specific context of discourse, by an utterer directed to an audience.  

Second, we have to recognize a distinction between the words actually employed and the "message" being communicated.   Grice argued that conversational discourse is a purposeful and cooperative enterprise.   It is purposeful in that it is always assumed that the utterer intends to communicate some ideas (a "message") to the audience using the words employed in the context of usage.   If the words, taken literally, do not communicate a relevant "message", then the audience will interpret the words within the context to find the implied "message".   For example, suppose I am asked "Is John is a good driver?"   And suppose I respond "He would make a good parking attendant!"   Clearly, my message here is that John is not a good driver.   My message is not that he would make a good parking attendant because in the context of discourse, that information would not be a relevant response to the question.   So the audience will seek the implied message in the fact that I did not directly answer the question.   Hence one must distinguish between the literal meaning of the words actually uttered, and the "message" actually intended by the utterer.  

Although I may utter the description "The man over there drinking Martini", if the audience finds no actual existent satisfying the description, they will seek a non-literal interpretation.   Employing Grice's "Cooperative Principle" (and the associated maxims) the assumption that I am attempting to communicate a relevant "message" will induce the audience to seek an alternative, and more meaningful in context, interpretation of my words.   The audience can assume that what I actually mean to do by using these words is not to describe some object over there as a man drinking a Martini, but to draw your attention to the object over there that looks to me like a man drinking Martini.   Hence, although the sentence "The man over there drinking Martini is a philosopher" might not be literally true, in an appropriate context of discourse it may have a non-literal interpretation that is true.   And you will proceed to search out the area "over there" for a person that might look to me like a man drinking Martini, about whom I could truly assert "That is a philosopher".

This leads us to the distinction that Donnellan(4) draws between the referential use and the attributive use of a definite description.   Donnellan's famous illustrative example is the case of Smith's murderer.   Suppose I see Jones on trial for Smith's murder.   During the trial, I observe that Jones is sitting at the defence table talking to himself.   I assert to you "Smith's murderer is insane."   I employ the definite description "Smith's murderer" (equivalently "The murderer of Smith") to draw to your attention the individual sitting at the defence table, on trial for murdering Smith.   I employ the definite description to refer to Jones, and to assert of Jones that he is insane.   I do this even if Jones is not in fact Smith's murderer.   In other words, according to Donnellan, I successfully employ the definite description in a referential manner, even though the description is in fact false about the individual to whom I am referring.   And, arguably, my statement is true if Jones is insane, not if some person x, who actually murdered Smith, is insane.  

On the other hand, Dr. Barnes, having heard the testimony about the dramatically brutal and irrational nature of the murder, asserts to the court "Smith's murderer is insane."   He thereby is not referring to Jones, who happens to be on trial for the crime.   He asserts the property of being insane of whoever fits the description of "The murderer of Smith".   The doctor employs the definite description in an attributive manner, irrespective of whatever unique existent the description picks out from the world.

The difference between the two uses of the definite description is one of intent.   In the case of referential usage, the intent is to use the description to denote a specific individual - whether or not the description is accurate.   In the case of attributive usage, the intent is to use the description to pick out from the world whoever matches the description.   Referential usage is "object dependent" in that successful referential usage is dependent on the object intended to be picked out from the world.   Attributive usage is "object independent" in that attributive usage is successful if any object is picked out from the world by "fitting" the description.

Apply this distinction to the essay's title statement.   If I successfully employ the definite description in a referential manner to draw your attention to the particular referent of which I wish to assert that [he/she/it] is a philosopher, then one can argue that the statement in question is true if that person is indeed a philosopher.

In other words, the sentence "The man over there drinking Martini is a philosopher' can be true even though nothing satisfies the definite description.   And it can be true because (i) I am using words that are literally false to imply (via Gricean implicature) a definite description that is true; and (ii) I am employing the definite description in an object-dependent referential manner to draw your attention to a particular existent, regardless of the accuracy of the description I use.   Hence the statement can be true as long as the person to which I am referring is in truth a philosopher, whether or not that person is a man or is drinking Martini.

 

Notes and References

(1)   Wikipedia contributors;   Definite Description. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. February 5, 2009, 20:16 UTC. Accessed February 24, 2009.   Available at URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Definite_description&oldid=268755946>

(2)   Russell, Bertrand;   On Denoting, in Mind, New Series, Vol 14 (1905) pgs 479â"493.

(3)   Grice, H.P.;   Logic and Conversation (William James Lectures) in Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3, Speech Acts, ed. by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan. New York: Academic Press 1975, 41-58.

(4)   Donnellan, Keith; Reference and Definite Description. The Philosophical Review Vol 75 (1966), pgs 281-304.

 

Evans, G.;   The Varieties of Reference, Oxford University Press. Oxford, England, 1982.

Ludlow, Peter, "Descriptions", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2009/entries/descriptions/>.

Kripke, Saul;   Naming and Necessity. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1980.

Kripke, Saul; Identity and Necessity, in Meaning and Reference, A.W.Moore (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1993.   Pg162-190.

McKay, Thomas and Michael Nelson, "Propositional Attitude Reports", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/prop-attitude-reports/>.

Neale, Stephen;   Descriptions. The MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1990.

Russell, Bertrand;   Descriptions, in Meaning and Reference, A.W.Moore (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1993.   Pg 46-54

Putnam, Hilary;   Meaning and Reference, in Meaning and Reference, A.W.Moore (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1993.   Pg150-160

Sainsbury, R.M.;   Russell, Routledge & Kegan Paul. Boston, Massachusetts. 1979

Schiffer, Stephen;   Russell's Theory of Definite Descriptions, in Mind, New Series 2005 114(456):1135-1183

Strawson, P.F.; On Referring, in Meaning and Reference, A.W.Moore (ed.), Oxford University Press, 1993.   Pg 56-78

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