Smith’s Murderer

The article entitled “Reference and Definite Descriptions” by Keith S. Donnellan questions the existing theories of definite descriptions that are the most widely used and commonly references, i.e. those by Strawson and Russell, and offers a novel view on the concept. In turn, Donnellan attempts to prove that definite descriptions have not only the referential use as suggested by the previously mentioned two theorists, but also the attributive use, as well as challenging some conventional assumptions about the referential use of such descriptions. Discussion of the new theory of definite descriptions presented in the article under consideration is accompanied with convincing and thoroughly analyzed examples, one of which is the so-called “Smith’s murderer” example used by Donnellan to prove his theory of definite descriptions and their two possible uses. Overall, the Smith’s murderer example shows that definite descriptions can have two different meanings, but Donnellan does not agree that this fact makes them ambiguous by nature since he considers both meanings to be clear in use. 

The Smith’s murderer example used by Donnellan to prove that definite descriptions can have two different meanings, thus being used attributively and referentially, is based on a sentence “Smith’s murderer is insane”. Donnellan does not agree with the Russell and Strawson that this definite description can be understood as only referential as claimed by the former or an inseparable mixture of referential and attributive as claimed by the latter. In turn, Donnellan suggests that this particular sentence can be understood as having two distinct meanings that depend on the context of the situation and intentions of the speaker.

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Hence, the sentence about Smith’s murderer can have attributive use of the definite description while imagining the following scenario described in detail by Donnellan. For instance, it is known that Smith was murdered in some brutal or cruel way and everybody loved Smith because he was a nice person. Therefore, it is difficult for a speaker uttering the above sentence that “Smith’s murderer is insane” to imagine that anybody would want to kill Smith, especially in a brutal manner. This incredulity gives rise to an exclamation and attributive description of mental faculties of the unknown murderer denoted by the word ‘insane’. This way, Donnellan emphasizes that the attributive use of the definite description in the case under consideration is used to describe the potential murderer without referencing to any particular individual. Besides, such use of the description implies that there must be a murderer, which has implications for the entire utterance in case Smith was not murdered, but committed suicide. In the latter instance, there would be no individual whom the attributive definite description would concern, which would render the entire sentence meaningless. This implication of the lack of an object described attributively is more apparent when definite descriptions are used in questions or commands. As Donnellan indicates with the use of some other examples besides the Smith’s murderer one, “When a definite description is used attributively in a command or question and nothing fits the description, the command cannot be obeyed and the question cannot be answered”. 

The definite description in the Smith’s murderer example can also have another completely different meaning from the one described above, which Donnellan calls the referential use. In order to understand how this particular use functions, it is necessary to place the above sentence in a completely different context. Hence, one can imagine that Smith was murdered and that some particular individual whom Donnellan calls Jones was accused of committing the murder. The audience targeted by the sentence indicating insanity of the Smith’s murderer knows the personality of the defendant in the case, which means that the definite description in the example is used to refer to a particular person. In turn, a claim about insanity can be based on some external circumstances, for instance, behavior of Jones at trial or some medical examination. However, the origin of the insanity claim is not essential for the referential use of the definite description since the main thing is to refer to a definite person and make sure that the audience understands to whom the speaker refers. Considering the above mentioned hypothetical situation about Smith committing suicide, the sentence with the definite description used referentially does not become automatically false. The matter is that it is irrelevant whether Jones murdered Smith or not, as well as it is irrelevant whether he is sane or insane. The only thing that matters is the referential use, i.e. whether the targeted audience understands to whom the speaker refers by calling this person Smith’s murderer. In case the audience understands this reference, the main goal of the speaker has been achieved and the definite description has managed to successfully accomplish its referential use intention. Thus, Donnellan points out that correct identification of a person or object referred to in the definite description is possible even though there might be no one who would fit the used description.

Based on the above discussion of two different meanings of one and the same definite description used in different contexts and with different intentions, Donnellan (287) generalizes his view as follows: “there are two uses of sentences of the form, ‘The ɸ is ȸ.’ In the first, if nothing is the ɸ then nothing has been said to be ȸ. In the second, the fact that nothing is the ɸ does not have this consequence”. This is one of the main differences between the attributive and referential uses of the definite descriptions. Hence, Donnellan attempts to explain in his Smith’s murderer example and subsequent generalization of the two uses that when a definite description is used referentially, there are two sorts of implications or presuppositions on behalf of the speaker. The first one is that the speaker assumes that the used description would fit the object or subject used in the definite description, while the second one is that there is a particular person or object that the speaker believes to fit this description. In turn, the attribute use follows primarily only one presupposition, i.e. someone or something would fit the description. In the example under consideration, the speaker using the definite description presupposes referentially that Jones is the Smith’s murderer and that Jones is insane. While using the same utterance attributively, the speaker presupposes only that anyone who would kill Smith would be insane without having any particular individual in mind. Such view of the two possible meanings of definite descriptions implies that beliefs of the speaker are essential and have to be taken into consideration since they predetermine which use has been exploited. 

Taking into consideration the above Smith’s murderer example and discussion of its implications, it is possible to define the two meanings of definite descriptions singled out by the author. In fact, the author does not invent any terms nor gives new definitions of already existing concepts and notions. The only contribution to the terminology relating to definite descriptions concerns the author’s attempt to distinguish between the two different uses, which in turn allows speaking about referential definite descriptions and attributive definite descriptions. Thus, a definite description can be said to be used referentially in case its primary goal is to refer to a particular person or object that the speaker has in mind and assumes to fit the description. Besides, the speaker assumes that the audience has a similar assumption about the described person or object and would understand this reference. At the same, it should be noted that truthfulness of the description itself is not really relevant if the audience does understand the reference, thereby fulfilling the original intention of the definite description referential use. In turn, a definite description use can be defined as attributive if its primary goal is to provide attributive description without referencing to any particular object or person. In such case, should there be no one or nothing that would fit the description, the entire utterance will become meaningless although it is not possible to state that it can be deemed to be neither true nor false.

Although the author distinguishes between the two possible uses of definite descriptions, he also points out it is not possible to determine for sure whether some definite description has been used referentially or attributively without knowing the context of the utterance and intentions of the speaker. If the sentence about Smith’s murderer is used without any context, it is impossible to tell whether the speaker intended it to merely present attributive description or to refer to some particular person. Therefore, the Donnellan’s theory of definite descriptions is mostly theoretical by nature and seems to have some limitations in terms of its empirical applicability. It is a rare occasion in real life that those who attempt to analyze definite descriptions would know for sure intentions of the speaker. However, it does not mean that the author’s point is invalid as it really contributes to the comprehension of definite descriptions and their potential uses. Besides, the article under consideration provides a justified and argumentative criticism of the previous theories of definite descriptions suggested by Russell and Strawson. The author shows that the Russell’s view of definite descriptions concerns mostly the ones used attributively and challenges all Russell’s main assumptions about truthfulness and purpose of such descriptions. In turn, Strawson seems to combine the two uses and fails to distinguish between the two and to represent their truthfulness or falseness under different circumstances accurately. Therefore, Donnellan comes to a conclusion that neither of the existing two theories is correct in its representation of definite descriptions, which makes his theory rather needed and topical. 

The above discussion of the Smith’s murderer example shows that definite descriptions can have two meanings, i.e. being used referentially and attributively. However, Donnellan does not agree that this implies presence of any ambiguity relating to the use of definite descriptions. Hence, the author does not intend to show that definite descriptions are ambiguous, but strives to prove that they have the dual use. Moreover, Donnellan proves that there is no ambiguity irrespective of whether the definite description is used referentially or attributively. Regardless of a particular use intended by the speaker, grammatical structure of the utterance containing the definite description remains the same, thereby meaning that there is no grammatical ambiguity. Similarly, there seems to be no syntactic ambiguity as the syntax remains the same as well. Semantic ambiguity is also absent since words used in definite descriptions are clear and unambiguous. The only possible ambiguity stemming from the claim that definite descriptors may have two different meanings is pragmatic. This pragmatic ambiguity is explained by the fact that there is a distinction between the two different roles that the definite description plays based on the original intention of the speaker. Therefore, it is evident that Donnellan’s example about the Smith’s murdered as well as some other examples used in the article under consideration shows that definite descriptions can have the dual use, yet they can hardly be called ambiguous by nature.

Withal, Keith Donnellan reconsiders existing theories of definite descriptions by identifying and thoroughly analyzing gaps and shortcomings in the previous views of definite descriptions and their uses. Hence, the author does not support a view that such descriptors fulfill primarily attributive function nor agrees with an assumption that the two mixes can be combined as it might lead to confusion. In turn, he supports a viewpoint that definite descriptors can be used mainly in two roles, including referential and attributive uses. Under the attributive use, the above mentioned example of the Smith’s murderer focuses on a provision of an attributive description of the murdered without a focus on or reference to any particular individual. Under the referential use, the key goal of the speaker in the same example becomes his/her intention to refer to a particular individual through the definite description by assuming that the latter would help the targeted audience realize about whom the utterance has been. This way, the example shows that one and the same definite description can have dual meanings depending on original intentions of the speaker. However, it is impossible to conclude that such description becomes ambiguous as the semantic, grammatical, and syntactic properties of the sentence remain the same. The only ambiguity present in this case is pragmatic. Besides, it may be difficult to determine for sure whether a definite descriptor has been used referentially or attributively unless the speaker’s intentions are known for sure. Thus, the Smith’s murderer example proves duality of the definite descriptors use and meaning.

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