Descriptions, truth value intuitions, and questions

Anders J. Schoubye

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Since the famous debate between Russell (Mind 14: 479-493, 1905, Mind 66: 385-389, 1957) and Strawson (Mind 59: 320-344, 1950; Introduction to logical theory, 1952; Theoria, 30: 96-118, 1964) linguistic intuitions about truth values have been considered notoriously unreliable as a guide to the semantics of definite descriptions. As a result, most existing semantic analyses of definites leave a large number of intuitions unexplained. In this paper, I explore the nature of the relationship between truth value intuitions and non-referring definites. Inspired by comments in Strawson (Introduction to logical theory, 1964), I argue that given certain systematic considerations, one can provide a structured explanation of conflicting intuitions. I show that the intuitions of falsity, which proponents of a Russellian analysis often appeal to, result from evaluating sentences in relation to specific questions in context. This is shown by developing a method for predicting when sentences containing non-referring definites elicit intuitions of falsity. My proposed analysis draws importantly on Roberts (in: Yoon & Kathol (eds.) OSU working papers in Linguistics: vol. 49: Papers in Semantics 1998; in: Horn & Ward (eds.) Handbook of pragmatics, 2004) and recent research in the semantics and pragmatics of focus.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)583-617
Number of pages35
JournalLinguistics and Philosophy
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2009


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