Strawson. `On Referring` - University of San Diego

Meaning and Reference
Strawson “On Referring”
Strawson’s Agenda
• Prologue (pp. 320-321): Strawson notes that sentences and other
linguistic expressions have a variety of different uses (echoing a
Wittgenstinean theme: don’t ask for the meaning—ask for the use)
• Exposition of Russell’s theory of descriptions (pp. 320-323)
• Critique of Russell’s theory (pp. 320-324)
• Strawson’s account of meaning as use (pp. 324-329): Strawson
distinguishes linguistic expressions, their uses and utterances.
• Strawson argues that assertion presupposes reference (pp. 329335)
• Strawson argues that all sentences are context-dependent (pp. 335341)
• Epilogue (pp. 341-344): reflections on indefinite reference, identity
Ideal Language or Ordinary Language?
• Underlying the Russell-Strawson Debate is a deep disagreement
about what philosophy can and should do.
• Should we be searching for an ideal language which, on some
accounts, displays the structure of reality, or concerning ourselves
with ordinary language as a human activity?
• Strawson’s critique of Russell is directed against his philosophical
program which, Strawson suggests
– is motivated by bad epistemology, assuming that all we’re
“acquainted” with are current sense-data—the referents of
“logically proper names”
– and promotes bad metaphysics: the idea that an ideal language
contrived for the purposes of logic and foundations of
mathematics reveals the structure of reality and answers
questions about what there is.
Meaning as “Use”
Contra Russell: words don't refer—people do!
We very commonly use expressions of certain kinds to mention or
refer to some individual person or single object or particular event or
place or process in the course of doing what we should normally
describe as making a statement about that person, object, place,
event or process. I shall call this way of using expressions the
‘uniquely referring use.’
• referring and asserting (“making a statement”) are actions—things
people do with words
• rather than classifying words as, e.g. “denoting expressions” in
virtue of their form (as Russell does) we should classify the uses
people make of words and other linguistic expressions, e.g. the
“uniquely referring use.”
• Example: “the whale” isn’t always used to refer to an individual
Uniquely referring expressions
• Expressions which typically have a uniquely referring use include:
– demonstratives (this, that…)
– proper names (Ducati, George Wilson…)
– pronouns (he, she…)
– definite descriptions (the chocolate lab, the guy who wrote
Narration in Light…)
• NB: Strawson includes indexicals, which figure importantly in
natural languages
– Indexicals are words whose reference depends on context of
utterance—typically pronouns and demonstratives
– Strawson suggests that proper names and definite descriptions
are also sensitive to context: consider, e.g. “George Wilson”!
Russell’s Theory of Descriptions
• Russell distinguishes the (surface) grammatical form of sentences
from their logical form
– Sentences that purport to be about ordinary things aren’t really
subject-predicate sentences
– Only sentences whose subjects are “logically proper names” are
really subject-predicate sentences
• Logically proper names are mere tags whose meanings are just the
things they designate
• The meanings of logically proper names are objects of acquaintence
about which we can’t be mistaken—Russell’s theory of descriptions
is entangled with his epistemology!
Sentences, Uses and Utterances
• Strawson distinguishes
– sentences (sentence types)
– uses of sentences (to make various statements)
– utterances of sentences (sentence tokens)
and correspondingly
– expressions (expression types)
– uses of expressions (including their “uniquely referring use”)
– utterances of expressions (expression tokens)
Sentences and Utterances
It is in the sense in which it would be correct to speak of one and the
same sentence being uttered on all these various occasions that I
want to use the expression ‘a sentence.’ There are, however,
obvious differences between different occasions of the use of this
• “Sentences” and “utterances” are not different things but different
ways of counting the same things
• The distinction between “sentences” and “utterances” is an
example of the type/token distinction
• “Type” and “token” are not different things but different ways of
counting the same things
Count the letters . . .
Counting by TYPE
There are 3 letters of the alphabet in “banana”
Counting by TOKEN
There are 6 individual letters in “banana”
2 sentence tokens - 1 sentence type
John is Paul’s brother
John is Paul’s brother
TYPE and TOKEN aren’t different
kinds of things like apples and
oranges--they’re just two different
ways of counting the same things.
We can count sentences by token
or by type.
The Use of a Sentence
(S) The king of France is wise
• Different tokens of the same type sentence or expression may have
different uses.
• The use of a sentence or expression on any given occasion
depends on context
[I]f one man uttered it [S] in the reign of Louis XIV and another man
uttered it in the reign of Louis XV, it would be natural to say (to
assume) that they were respectively talking about different people;
and it might be held that the first man, in using the sentence, made a
true assertion, while the second man, in using the the same
sentence, made a false assertion.
• Definite descriptions behave like indexicals!
• And the truth value of utterances in which these expressions occur
depends on context!
The Use of a Name
George Wilson
George Wilson
• The same expression may be used to refer to different individuals
• Proper names also behave like indexicals!
Expressions with Referring Use
degree of context dependence
extent of descriptive content
Ad hoc vs. general conventions
Functional Role Not Reducible to Form!
• Strawson notes once again that the character of an expression is
determined by its use
– Definite descriptions can be used as names, e.g. “The Old
Pretender,” “The Holy Roman Empire”
– And proper names can become common nouns or descriptions
Truth Value
[W]e cannot talk of the sentence being true of false, but only of it’s
being used to make a true or false assertion.
(S) The king of France is wise.
• S uttered during the reign of Louis XIV makes a true assertion
• S uttered during the reign of Louis XV makes a false assertion
What about S uttered now, when there is no king of France?
• According to Strawson, an utterance of S now is
– significant (has meaning, isn’t just gibberish)
– but has no truth value, i.e. is neither true nor false.
Meaning and Truth Value
Meaning…is a function of the sentence or expression; mentioning
and referring and truth or falsity, are functions of the use of the
sentence or expression. To give the meaning of an expression…is to
give general directions for its use to refer to or mention particular
objects or persons; to give the meaning of a sentence is to give
general directions for its use in making true or false assertions.
• We can explain how sentences like S, with non-referring subject
terms, can have meaning without recourse to Russell’s theory of
– An utterance of S has meaning in virtue of being an S-type
sentence even when its subject term fails to refer
• Difference between Strawson and Russell
– Russell: when there is no king of France S is false
– Strawson: when there is no king of France S is neither true nor
Sense and Reference
[T]he meaning of an expression is not the set of things or the single
thing it may correctly be used to refer to: the meaning is the set of
rules, habits, conventions for its use in referring
• “Meaning” is ambiguous between sense (dictionary-meaning) and
reference (picking out, as in “I mean you!”)
• Russell confuses the two and so imagines that for the subject term
of a sentence to have meaning (and hence for the sentence to have
meaning) it must succeed in referring.
• “Hence the troublesome mythology of the logically proper name”:
since logically proper names are supposed to pick out objects of
acquaintance about which we can’t be mistaken they can’t fail to
[R]eferring to or mentioning a particular thing cannot be dissolved
into any kind of assertion. To refer is not to assert, though you refer
in order to go on to assert.
• Reference and assertion are different acts: assertion presupposes a
successful act of reference.
First you catch
your fish!
Subject and Predicate
One of the main purposes for which we use language is the purpose
of stating facts about things…If we want to fulfill this purpose, we
must have some way of forestalling the question, ‘What…are you
talking about?’ as well as the question, ‘What are you saying about
it’…The task of forestalling the first question is the referring…task.
The task of forestalling the second is the attributive…task. In the
conventional English sentence…the performance of these two tasks
can be roughly and approximately assigned to separable
expressions…[which] corresponds to the conventional grammatical
classification of subject and predicate.
• The subject-predicate distinction is one of function: what makes an
expression the subject or predicate of a sentence is the job we use it
to do
• The job of the subject term is to refer; the job of the predicate is to
assign some attribute to the object picked out by the subject term.
Beware of Bad Metaphysics!
This functional distinction [between subject and predicate] has cast
long philosophical shadows. The distinctions between particular and
universal, between substance and quality, are such pseudo-material
• Failure to recognize that the distinction is one of use or function
leads to bad metaphysics: imagining that the subject-predicate
distinction somehow reflects the structure reality
• Russell’s “programme for ‘abolishing particulars’” by replacing
ordinary proper names and definite descriptions with logical
machinery represents an attempt to get rid of the “metaphysical
unknown”—recognizing only “logically proper names” which refer to
objects about which we can be certain.
• But if we recognize that the subject-predicate distinction is one of
use with no metaphysical baggage attached this program is
• Concluding remarks about indefinite descriptions, identity
statements and the “logic of subjects and predicates” in Aristotelian
Logic according the the Square of Opposition.
• The universal propositions of the fourfold schedule, it is said, must
either be given a negatively existential interpretation…or they must
be interpreted as conjunctions of negatively and positively existential
statements…whichever of the above alternatives is selected, some
of the traditional laws have to be abandoned.
• All the more reason for holding that in asserting subject-predicate
sentences of the form “all S are P” or “No S are P” we do not
assert the existence of S’s but rather presuppose it
• Hence that where there are no S’s the sentences in question are
neither true nor false.
Traditional Square of Opposition
All S are P
No S are P
Some S are P
Some S are not P
Boolean Square of Opposition
All S are P
No S are P
Some S are P
Some S are not P
Russell’s Response to Strawson
[Ordinary language philosophers] are persuaded that common
speech is good enough not only for daily life, but also for philosophy.
I, on the contrary am persuaded that common speech…requires
modification…for technical purposes, technical languages differing
from those of daily life are indispensible.
• Strawson confuses the problem of descriptions with the problem of
– We can understand that as the problem of dealing with language
that includes indexicals like “I,” “here,” “now” etc. which
assume a point of view
– The Theory of Descriptions isn’t meant to do that job
• The purpose of the theory of descriptions isn’t to analyze “ordinary
language” but to produce an ideal language that corrects it
Some bads in ordinary language
• Vagueness
– Bad for scientific and mathematical purposes
– [Also generates the Sorites Paradox when we apply legitimate
patterns of inference to vague statements]
• Misleading subject-predicate form: leads to bad substanceaccident metaphysics:
The subject-predicate logic to which we are accustomed depends
for its convenience upon the fact that at the usual temperature of the
earth there are approximately permanent ‘things’”
• Truth value gaps
– Bivalence is a convenient idealization (for classical logic)
– Compare to the idealized truth-functional conditional of classical
Not all language is egocentric
• It is…not difficult to give other examples of the use of descriptive
phrases from which egocentricity is wholly absent…as the following:
‘the square-root of minus one is half the square-root of minus four.’
• It is of the essence of a scientific account of the world to reduce to a
minimum the egocentric element in an assertion“
• I agree…with Mr Strawson’s statement that ordinary language has
no logic
• So we should adopt whatever conventions do the job for our
purposes, regarding the square of opposition and everything else”
Who won?
The present king of France is bald
No truth