Classical vs. Modern Description Theory
British philosopher Bertrand Russell and German mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege were of great influence in 20th-century philosophy. Their development of the classical description theory was later modified by English philosopher Peter Strawson and American philosopher John Searle into the modern description theory. These description theories had far-reaching implications in linguistics. The descriptive theory of names claims that the meaning of a name is identical to the description associated with it by speakers, while the referent of a name is whatever object satisfies the description.
In Language and Reality, Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny compare and contrast the modern and classical description theories. According to the classical description theory, “. . . the sense of a name is given by a definite description associated with the name; its sense is the sense of that description.” In effect, names can then be treated as abbreviated descriptions. “Sense” is something that a term shares with all of us; everyone grasps the same sense of a sentence. Given what is commonly believed about George Washington, we might suppose that the definite description associated with “Washington” is “the first President of the United States.” If this is so, this description expresses the sense of “Washington.” Because the “sense” of a term determines what its reference is, this theory of sense also supplies a theory of reference.
Russell desired an analysis of language without puzzles and thus used logic to make what we say clear. Consider a name a which has a sense expressed by the description ‘the F’ and which designates x. The classical description theory formally states that, “‘a’ designates x in virtue of ‘the F’ denoting x.” Our original problem of explaining reference for names is now reduced to the simpler one of explaining reference for definite descriptions. In collaboration with Russell’s famous...