Strawson on Referring

Russell’s Theory of Descriptions: an exposition

Strawson recounts the arguments for the existence or (if you will) subsistences of the Present King of France and other residents of the Meinongian ontological slum. He notes that Russell’s solution to the prob_lem invokes the distinction between what we shall call the surface grammar and logical form of sentences like “The present king of France is wise.” While the surface grammar of such sentences suggest that they are of the subject-predicate form, their logical form, the structure which figures for inferential purposes, is existential and general.

Sentences don’t mean: people do.

On Strawson’s account, sentences are, in effect, instruments that people use to make statements therefore we need to distinguish between between sentences, uses of sentences and utterances of sentences. To understand what is going on here let us introduce the following terminology:

Sentence (sentence type)  this is an abstract object[1] that has specific inscriptions and utterances as its in_stances thus the following two inscriptions are two instances of the same sentence type

The cat is on the mat.

The cat is on the mat.

Utterance of a sentence (sentence token)  a particular instance of a sentence. Each of the inscriptions in the box is a different sentence token.

Use of a sentence  what a sentence does, e.g. being used to assert something true or false. Note: assertion presupposes reference so if reference fails nothing true or false is asserted.

Different tokens of the same sentence may be used to make different assertions.

Expressions don’t refer: people do

By the same token, some expressions that occur within sentences are devices that people use to do the job of referring or picking out. Once again, what (of who) an expression refers to may be different de_pending on features of its context of utterance, including where, when, and by whom it is uttered. Within some contexts expressions which otherwise pick out objects may fail to refer altogether, that is, there may by some circumstances in which a person fails to refer by means of certain expressions.

Attribution presupposes reference

Attributing a property to an object presupposes that one has already succeed in referring to that ob_ject. It is only if I have succeeded in referring to an object that I can say anything about it--whether truly or falsely. If I fail to refer, the question of truth or falsity cannot even arise.  Since there is no king of France now, when I use that expression now I fail to refer, thus when it comes to the sentence, “The present king of France is wise” the question cannot arise: any utterence of this sentence at a time when there is no king of France lacks truth value.

[1]This is just a convenient way of speaking--it's disputed whether there really are any abstract objects rather than different ways of counting ordinary spatio-temporal objects so that, e.g. when we count the inscriptions in the box by sentence type we get 1 but when we count by sentence token we get 2.