[lit-ideas] e: Donnellaniana

  • From: Adriano Palma <Palma@xxxxxxxxxx>
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  • Date: Wed, 25 Feb 2015 11:03:29 +0000


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Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: Donnellaniana

In Dennett's philosophical lexicon we read:

donnellan, v.  Contraction of "don't know from nothing". "This stuff about 
reference I  donnellan."

In a message dated 2/24/2015 11:11:09 A.M. Eastern Standard  Time, 
donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx writes:
>my ... tutors at Oxford, who kept  insisting on calling me 'Don-nell' - 
opposed to 'Doh-nal' 

Well,  according to  


the  pronunciation of "Donnellan" in IPA (International Phonetic
Association)  notation is

Black pronounced it /dɑ'nəlæn/. (There is a third possibility, "seeing the  
"Donnellan" has three syllables", Geary's /dɑnəl'æn/. 
And there are a few variants as to the pronunciation of the three vowels 
involved and the four consonants. "L" can be made VERY 'liquid', the initial 
'd'  can have a British sort of 'aspiration', and the 'n' can be geminated to 
account  for the fact that two middle 'n' are used in the spelling. 
In other words, there are allophonic variants to Black's mispronunciation
-- and this may have amused Donnellan (he never cared to correct his teacher on 
 this point -- pretty much echoing Donal McEvoy, 'why should I care?'). 
Before settling in London, it should be pointed out, Black spent some time in 
Paris, and it may have been THERE that he adopted this habit of postponing  
accents, as the French do (cfr. the Italian pronunciation /'palma/ versus the  
Parisian pronunciation, /pal'ma/). 
In fact, Black's own original surname was perhaps more difficult to pronounce. 
It was Tcherny (Some spell it, and pronounce it Cherny). It means, 
unoriginally, in Russian, 'black'. Had Lionel Tcherny (as Max Black's father 
was  called), a merchant, remained in Paris perhaps we would be speaking today 
of Max  Noir. 
In any case, Donnellan (however his surname was mispronounced one and again  by 
his teacher at Cornell) learned a lot from his teacher at Cornell. 
It was perhaps Black (or perhaps Grice) who led Donnellan to Russell (I'm sure 
Grice led him to Strawson). Black had met Russell at Cambridge.
We may see Donnellan's view of definite descriptions, or as I prefer, an 
elucidation of the word 'the', as an exercise in Russellian analysis -- 
ultimately Peanian, after Giuseppe Peano.
Whitehead and Russell borrow (but never return) from Giuseppe Peano "ɿ" -- what 
Peano calls the inverted iota operator, to read as ‘the’.

It is used  in expressions for definite descriptions, such as (ɿx)φx, which is 
read: "the x  such that φx". 

[(ɿx)φx] -- a definite description in brackets -- is a  scope indicator for 
definite descriptions.

Finally, E! is defined at  *14·02, in the context E!(ɿx)φx, to mean that the 
description (ɿx)φx is proper,  i.e., there is exactly one φ.

Donnellan thought that both Russell  and Strawson were wrong about this, while 
Grice ("robbing Peter to pay Paul")  thought that only Peter Strawson was 
wrong). More on the actual debate in the  ps.
Donnellan indeed thinks that both Russell and Strawson (Grice's student at St. 
John's) make two false assumptions, and that by rejecting these assumptions  we 
can solve a number of problems with both theories which emerge from their  
The first assumption is that we can ask how a definite description functions in 
a sentence independently of a particular occasion on which it is  used.
Donnellan thinks that there is a very basic problem with the way Strawson 
attempts to give an account of the meanings of descriptions.
Strawson attempts to show how descriptions contribute to the meanings of 
But Strawson does not focus on how descriptions contribute to the meanings of 
sentences on particular occasions of the use of those sentences.
The second assumption Donnellan wants to call into question is that in many  
cases an utterer who uses a definite description can be said (in some
sense) to  presuppose or implicate that something fits the description. 

Strawson assumes that where the presupposition or implication is  cancelled the 
truth value of what the speaker said is affected.

It ain't!

Strawson assumes that whenever an utterer utters a sentence of the form 

i. The F is G.

what they say is not true if there is no thing which is F.

And Grice hated a truth-value gap!

These two assumptions are related in Donnellan’s mind. 

For, Donnellan thinks, if Strawson had paid more attention to the 
interpretation of sentences containing definite descriptions on particular 
occasions of use, he would have seen that there are
two distinct uses of definite descriptions -- what Grice calls the 
'identificatory/non-identificatory' distinction --, and that on one of these  
uses, there is no such requirement for the truth of the sentence that anything 
satisfy the description 

ii. the F.

So Donnellan and Grice think that if we focus on how definite  descriptions are 
used, we’ll see that they are used in two quite different ways. 

At the beginning of §III of the article, Donnellan introduces some terminology 
(which Grice finds misguided) for these two different uses of  d escriptions. 
What's more Grice finds Donnellan's conclusions misguided,  too.

“I will call," Donnellan says, "the two uses of descriptions I have in mind the 
attributive use and
the referential use."

Grice prefers 'identificatory/non-identificatory.

An utterer U who uses a description d in a non-identificatory way in an 
utterance refers to whatever is the so-and-so. 

An utterer U  who uses a description d in an identificatory way in  an 
utterance, on the other hand, uses the description to enable his addressee to 
pick out what he is referring to
and predicates something about that thing. 
In the first case the description might be said to occur essentially, for the 
utterer wishes to predicate something about whatever fits that description.
But in the referential use the definite description is merely one tool for 
doing a certain job - calling attention to a thing - and in general any other 
device for doing the same thing does as well. For example, the use of your 
finger. What Witters calls 'ostension'  (after St. Augustine). 

Note that Donnellan and Grice do not have in mind here a distinction between 
two different kinds of descriptions - like a distinction between complex and 
simple descriptions, for example.
Rather, this is a distinction between two different uses of definite
descriptions: two different ways that one and the same description could be  
To illustrate the difference, consider cases of an alleged ambiguity.
Here is one way to think of them. There is one word, ‘bank’ in English. 
But  it has two different uses: it may be used either to pick out financial 
institutions, or to pick out the sides of rivers.
There is one word, and two ways of using it.
Grice's example is 'vice':
He was caught in the grip of a vice.
Grice's example does not translate to American English were 'vyse' is used for 
the carpenter's tool, and 'vice' for the bad habit. But since he was LECTURING, 
and not PUBLISHING -- who cares?
Donnellan and Grice are not be claiming that a definite descriptions (or
'the') is ambiguous in just the way that
‘bank’ or 'vice' is.

"Do not multiply senses of 'the' beyond necessity."
But Donnellan and Grice are saying that there are two different ways of using 
definite descriptions, just as there are two different ways of using 'bank' or 

To show that they are talking about two different ways of using a  single 
expression rather than two different classes of expressions, they  illustrate 
his distinction first by considering two different uses of a single
iii. Nowell’s murderer is insane.” 
Grice's example:
iv. Smith's butler mixed our coats and hats."
Later, on finding out that Smith is bankrupt, 
v. Smith's butler (whoever he is) shall be looking for a new position -- if  he 
can find it."
Consider the following two uses:
Attributive use or non-identificatory use:  

We come across Nowell, foully murdered. 

From the manner of killing and Nowell’s good character, we might claim 
vi. The murderer of Nowell is insane.
-- a variant of (iv) avoiding the possessive genitive and introducing 'the'. 
This might be paraphrased as the claim that 
vi. Whoever killed Nowell, call him Bill, was insane. 
Referential use or identificatory use: 
We are at the trial of Smith, who has been accused of murdering Nowell. One  
the basis of his Smith's behaviour, we might claim 
vii. The murderer of Nowell is insane. 

In this case it is the utterer’s intention not to use the description  to refer 
to whoever satisfies some condition, but to pick out that one individual: 

How are these uses supposed to be different? 

Donnellan and Grice isolate a number of points of difference;

Here we want to focus on two. 

Remember the initial way they explained the difference
In attributive or non-identificatory uses the description occurs essentially, 
as these are cases in which we want to speak about whatever  satisfies the 
description, whereas in referential uses the description is just  one tool 
among others we could have used to single out the referent of the definite 

The further differences they note follows from this basic  distinction.
Difference 1. 
In attributive or non-identificatory uses of ‘The F is G’, if nothing is F,  
then nothing has been said to be G: nothing is referred to. 

But in referential or identificatory uses of ‘The F is G’, something  will 
still have been said to be G, even if that thing is not F.
Difference 2. 
In both uses of ‘The F is G’, it is in some sense IMPLICATED that something  is 
This is merely a conversationally implicature in the case of  negation:
"The king of France ain't bald: France is a republic now."
But in referential or identificatory uses, it is implicated that some 
particular object o is F, whereas in attributive uses it is implicated that 
something or other is F without this being implicated of any particular  object.
So we have the following differences between the two uses of definite
Non-identificatory use of ‘The F is G’ ----- vs. ------ Identificatory use  of 
‘The F is G’
The utterer’s intention is to say
something about whatever is the F  -----------vs. The utterer’s  intention is 
to pick out
some particular individual (whether
or not they are the F) and say something
about that individual
If nothing is F, then the utterer does
not refer to anything, and so does not
say that anything is G
---- vs. If nothing is F, the utterer still
refers to something, and says that it
is G
It is presupposed or implied that
something or other is F
--- vs. It is presupposed or implied that
some particular object is F

Donnellan and Grice further support their case that these are two very 
different uses by showing that the distinction shows up in speech acts other 
than assertions. 

vii. Look for the king of France, and should you find he is bald,  suggest that 
he wear a wig for the ceremony!
Grice and Donnellan ask us to consider a party, when someone sees someone 
across the room drinking a clear liquid out of a martini glass and asks, 
ix. Who is the interesting person drinking the martini?

This use is referential or identificatory.
Grice's example involves
x. Smith's butler"
who turns out to be Smith's gardener.
Smith asked his gardener to dress as a butler to impress his friends at the 
Even if the person were drinking water out of a martini glass, the utterer  
something  about that person, and the speaker’s utterance does implicate that 
person  in particular is drinking a martini.
Donnellan and Grice then ask us to consider a meeting of Teetotalers, in  
which someone has informed the president that one of the members is drinking 
a  martini. 
If the president then asks, 
xi. Who is the person drinking the martini?

his use is attributive or non-identificatory.

If no one is drinking a martini, the utterer does not succeed in asking  a 
question about anyone, and does not presuppose that anyone in particular is  
drinking a martini.
Grice's example involves 
xii. the Merseyside native who climbed Mt. Everest on hands and  knees".
xiv. Let's call him Marmaduke Bloggs. 
Now, the Merseyside Geographical Society organizes a party in his honour.  
The following conversation occurs:


A: Somebody won't be  attending the party.
B: What do you mean?
A: mean this Merseyside native who climbed Mt. Everest on hands and  knees. 
He was invented by the journalists."
Grice and Donnellan makes the same point about commands. The sentence 
xvi. ‘Bring me the book on the table’

may be used in an identificatory way, as when the utterer and his  
addressee both have a particular book inmind. 
But if the topic is whether a book has been placed on a delicate antique  
table, the command 
xv i. Bring me the book on the table.
has the marks of a non-identificatory usage.

At this stage, Grice and Donnellan have made a good case that he is on  to 
a distinction with fairly wide application. 

Two basic questions remain: 
What makes a use of a definite description identificatory or  
How does this distinction bear on Peano's and Russell’s theory of  
We already know that the identificatory/non-identificatory distinction  
cannot be explained in terms of a distinction between two different kinds of  
After all, as Donnellan and Grice have argued, ne and the same description  
may be used in an identificatory way in one context and in a 
non-identificatory  way in another.
A natural suggestion is that what makes the difference is whether the  
speaker has any beliefs (or a 'dossier' as Grice prefers) about whether a  
particular individual satisfies the description. 
This seems to fit the Smith’s murderer cases; in the attributive use, the  
speaker does not have any beliefs that a particular individual is the 
murderer  of Smith, whereas in the attributive use (in the courtroom) he does. 
But, as Donnellan and Grice point out this is not quite right. 
The person standing by Nowell’s body could have had beliefs about who the  
murderer was, and still used the description attributively or in a  
non-identificatory way; and someone might even believe that someone other than  
Smith murdered Nowell, while still using the description referentially to pick  
Nowell out.
Rather, it seems clear that, as Donnellan and Grice suggest, it is the  
intentions of a speaker which make the difference between identificatory and  
non-identificatory uses of a definite description. 
After all, the intuitive way to explain the distinction in the first place  
is that referential uses are characterized by speakers intending to use the 
 description to single out a particular individual about whom they wish to 
say  something. 
As Donnellan and Grice put the matter, in general, whether or not a  
definite description is used in an identificatory or non-identificatory way is 
function of the speaker’s intentions in a particular case.

It is clear that Donnellan thinks that this distinction we have been  
discussing poses some problems for Russell’s theory of descriptions. 
Grice is not so sure!
Donnellan thinks that neither Russell’s nor Strawson’s theory represents a 
 correct account of the use of definite descriptions - Russell’s because it 
 ignores altogether the identificatory use.
Why does he say this? 
As we’ve seen, Russell’s theory requires that, in order to any utterance 
of  a sentence of the form 
The F is G.
to be true, it must be the case that there is some object o which is the  
unique F. 
But Strawson is a different animal and Russell knew it ("Mr. Strawson on  
referring", by Russell, "Mind"). Donnellan and Grice are at pains (but Grice  
loved a philosophical pain -- in the neck) to show that, when we use 
definite  escriptions referentially, this is simply not so. 
When, for example, we say
xvii. The man over there drinking a martini is interesting.
if we are using the description referentially (if, e.g., we are intending  
to use the description to pick out some man at whom we are looking),
it seems that we can refer to the man in the corner, and say something true 
 of him, even if he is not drinking a martini, and so even if there is 
nothing  which uniquely satisfies the description. 
So it seems that, if you share Donnellan's and Grice's solid philosophical  
intuitions about this case - (and both have a brilliant eye for examples) 
and it  is hard not to agree that we can succeed in saying something true 
about someone  even if we make a mistake about what they are drinking - Russell’
s theory fails  to account for this kind of case.

Donnellan suggests that, for all he’s said, Russell’s theory is an  
adequate account of attributive or non-identificatory uses of definite  

So maybe when we say “The murderer of Nowell is insane” while  standing by 
Nowell’s corpse, what we say is true just in case there is one and  only 
one murderer of Nowell, and that person is insane. 

But that doesn’t change the fact that Russell’s theory fails to give an  
account of one important feature of our use of definite descriptions, their  
identificatory use (which as Grice suggests, it's the MAIN use, _contra_  
Donnellan closes his essay with some more general reflections about  Russell
’s view of meaning and reference.
After all, Frege held that all referring expressions, whether definite  
descriptions or singular terms, have both a sense and a reference. 
Frege (like Peano, in Italy) held a number of views about all referring  
(i) they can have a sense, even if they lack a reference; and 
(ii) their sense determines their reference.
Russell and Peano improved on this picture in one important sense, insofar  
as he saw a difference between proper names, on the one hand, and 
descriptions,  on the other. 
Unlike Frege, Peano and Russell held that definite descriptions were  
quantifier phrases; but, like Frege, they held that they have a sense distinct  
from their reference, and that (i) they can have a sense even if they lack a  
reference, and that (ii) their sense determines their reference (the 
reference  of a definite description is whatever the unique thing is which has 
 properties specified by the description).
But, again unlike Frege, Peano and Russell (and later Gric) held that  
there were a class of referring expressions about which these Fregean theses 
 not hold. 
At the time of ‘On Denoting,’ Russell called such referring expressions  
proper names - thus he contrasted, for example, ‘Scott’ with the description 
 ‘the author of Waverly.’ 
Later powerful considerations pushed him away from this view of ordinary  
proper names, but he still held that what he called logically proper names, 
and  what
Donnellan and Grice calls genuine proper names (like, e.g. "Paul Grice"  
[with the associated description or dossier, "that distinguished-looking  
philosopher"] rather than "Pegasus", a 'vacuous name' with the associated  
dossier, "thought by the mythical Greeks to have flown and be owned by  
Bellerophon" -- another of his examples), are referring expressions of a quite  
different sort.

About such expressions Russell held that they have no sense distinct  from 
their reference, and hence that their lacking a reference would also entail  
their lacking a meaning. 
You might say that Russell thought of these logically proper names as  
genuinely referential referring expressions.
Donnellan, as we have seen, disagrees with Russell’s theory of  
But he makes clear that he thinks that Russell’s overall picture of  
referring expressions is, in an important way, correct. 
In particular, Donnellan endorses Russell’s anti-Fregean distinction  
between two different classes of referring expressions: those that pick out an  
object in the world directly, and those that do so via the mediation of a 
more  general Fregean sense.
For Donnellan, Russell’s main mistake was one of detail. 
Russell was right to think that there is a distinction between directly  
referring and indirectly referring expressions, but wrong to think that all  
definite descriptions fall into the category of indirectly referring  
expressions, which pick out some object only insofar as that object satisfies  
general condition attached to the word, in a 'de re' rather than 'de dicto' 
 way. (This general condition will be the word or phrase’s meaning, or  
So in recognizing a class of uses of definite descriptions which fall into  
the directly referring camp, Donnellan is, in a way, claiming that Russell 
was  more right than even he knew.
And Grice KNEW.


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