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Distinguish Between Sense Reference Denotation Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2125 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1974) suggests that meaning of linguistic expressions derives from the language they are part of and the world they account for. Words are directly linked to our mental representation of the world and as such, give us the possibility to infer and comment about the world. In a phrase like ‘Paul kissed the blue eyed girl’, the nominals ‘Paul’ and ‘the blue eyed girl’ refer to two particular individuals in the world. Nonetheless, the significance of words also derives from their arrangement within the language system.

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Reference deals with how language relates to the world. Basically, the reference of an expression is the object in the world that the sentence refers to. This entails that reference is context bound. In the sentence ‘this house is blue’, the speaker is referring to a house which is painted in blue and is in a specific location. Sense, on the other hand, is concerned with the meaningful connections that exist between the linguistic categories within the vocabulary system. It only considers the intra-linguistic relations in semantic structures. Nouns like cow/bull, pig/piglet, mother/daughter and adjectives like narrow/wide indicate the sense relation that exists between words.

Frege (1892) suggests that the same specific unit may be suitably referred to on diverse occasions using varying expressions. In his famous example ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’, Frege indicates how the same referent, planet Venus, can be referred to using two unrelated senses; when seen in the morning and in the evening. Phrases like ‘my uncle’ and ‘the professor’ have unrelated senses but they can infer information about the same referent (my uncle is the professor).

Several linguists believe that term reference and the term denotation describe the same concept. Denotation is used to imply the category of persons and things normally signified by an expression or the number of objects in the world for which a specific language can be used for. Unlike reference, denotation does not point to the actual entity being referred to in a specific situation. The word cow always denotes a certain amount of information attributed to it or its category, while the phrase my cow refers to a particular cow.

While sense involves relations that exist between linguistic expressions (words), denotation relates utterances to categories of entities in the world. John Lyons suggests that “sense and denotation are, in general, interdependent and inversely related in terms of size”. These terms are interdependent since knowing the denotation of the concept [HOUSE] entails having also some basic knowledge of the sense that the concept has. This inverse relationship can be expressed as: the smaller the denotation, the larger is the sense and vice versa. The sense of ‘house’ is more definite than that of ‘building’, but the denotation of ‘building’ is larger than that of the word ‘house’.

We have to face the dilemma of how we know the sense of words, such as ‘unicorn’, which have no denotation. It seems that ‘unicorn’ and ‘dog’ are related in sense, whereas ‘unicorn’ and ‘house’ are not. As Goodman (1952) suggests, although ‘unicorn’ has no primary denotation, it has a secondary denotation; we can identity a picture of a ‘unicorn’.

In having explained these terms, it seems that a clear distinction exists between one term and another. While it is true that each term encompasses to an extent a distinctive meaning, it is also true that the terms are related and no rigid boundary exists between them, and a speaker comes to understand words by relating them to other linguistic categories and to entities in the world.

Consider the following case study: An architect designs and builds an electronic lift in the ditch of the city of Valletta. It is made of glass, and therefore people begin to refer to it as “the glass lift”. Over the years, this acquires the status of a proper name, that is, people now refer to it as “The Glass Lift” (with capital letters). Now, imagine that fifty years after its construction, due to damage in a storm, the lift structure is changed and most of the glass is replaced with reinforced steel. However, people still refer to it as “The Glass Lift”. Would you say this is incorrect?

Linguists such as Russell, Kripke and Strawson have devoted particular attention to the attributed meaning of definite descriptions and proper nouns. An investigation of the relationship between the definite description ‘the glass lift’ and the proper name ‘The Glass Lift’ along with their respective function, will supply enough information needed for answering this question.

Definite descriptions are expressions which refer to some specific entity, classifying it, partially, by means of the linguistic and descriptive capacity of the expression. As the definition of ‘definite description’ suggests, all such phrases may be grouped, semantically if not always syntactically and lexically, into two categories. In the definite description ‘the glass lift’, ‘glass lift’ is the descriptive component of the expression while ‘the’ is the referential component.

Russell (1905) suggests that in definite descriptions the entity in subject is specifically identified. According to Russell’s theory, the phrase ‘the glass lift’ is true only if the definite description denotes a particular entity in the world and that the entity is unique. Thus, the usage of definite descriptions can be linked directly with presuppositions and reference, that is, if a speaker uses the phrase ‘the glass lift’, he is bound to the presupposition that the object exists and is of specific kind and class. In this regard, definite descriptions must also take into account sentence-based truth conditional semantics, that is, the description must contain the necessary and contextual information that is needed to identify the referent without misunderstanding, contributing to the truth value of the expression.

On the other hand, proper nouns or names seem to be simply referential, in the sense that, they identify a particular object or entity in the world and appear as carrying little meaning. Strawson suggests that definite descriptions can become proper nouns by the process of capitalisation or by setting aside the meaning of words from an utterance. Thus, it seems that the entire convention of naming is arbitrary. As in the case study presented above, the definite description ‘the glass lift’ acquired the status of a proper name ‘The Glass Lift’. As Strawson (1971) states:

“While the descriptive meaning of the words which follow the definite article is still relevant to their referring role, the capital letters are a sign of that extra-logical selectivity in their referring use, which is characteristic of pure names.”

Kripke (1972) claims that a name is often given to an entity by means of descriptions and once the proper noun’s reference has been initiated following this approach, the attributed name given to the entity, remains applicable to the same entity even if the original description undergoes a transformation. Thus, what matters are the conditions which result in the naming, the ‘initial baptism’, not the definite description itself. In this regard, ‘the glass lift’ was named as ‘The Glass lift’ following an attributed set of characteristics that the lift had originally.

Since definite descriptions are context-dependent and meaningful, the description ‘the glass lift’ would have been fallacious and inappropriate when referring to the same lift but this time made of steel. On the other hand, the assigned name ‘The Glass Lift’ is arbitrary and context-independent. Thus, even if the lift was changed in structure to steel due to damage, it is still correct to refer to it as ‘The Glass Lift’.

Outline the main features of Prototype Theory and show how it differs from the classical view of concepts as necessary and sufficient conditions. Give examples to support your answer.

Ages-old philosophical debates about the existence, nature, and form of biologically endowed human knowledge have characterised the studies of philosophers, linguists and cognitive scientists. Researchers have studied the process by which concepts are constructed and understood. In fact, throughout history the leading theory was the Classical View.

Smith & Medin (1981) suggest that the Classical View sees concepts as comprising a set of definitions, and as such, entities will be classified as an example of a concept if and only they hold the defining characteristics of the concept. The key idea is that the characteristics belonging to a concept are individually necessary and mutually sufficient to identify that concept.

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The concept [WIDOW] has three crucial properties; (a) female, (b) married and (c) dead husband. An individual can’t be a widow if these conditions are not satisfied. Therefore, for X to be an X, there are a set of conditions such that not only must an object satisfy the conditions for it to be an X, but it also entails that if an object suffices the conditions, then it must be an X. For instance, an object must have a four-sided regular form to be a square, and if an object has a four-sided regular shape, then it must be a square.

Thus, according to the classical view, an object is either a member or not a member of a concept. Boundaries are rigid and clear-cut, there is no overlapping of categories and each property of a concept has equal weight.

There are a number of problems with the classical theory. The Classical view cannot explain typicality features of a concept. The concept [TABLE] can be better understood in relation to a classical table rather than a modern table. Another criticism is that a speaker often uses words where the precise definition of the concept is not known to him. Does a speaker have to known the atomic structure and compositional elements of the concept [BRONZE] to be able to use the word? And when a bird doesn’t fly can it still represent the concept [BIRD]?

Following this criticism, Rosch (1975, 1978) proposed the Prototype Theory based on a model that includes the average features for a category. In this theory, one constituent of a prototype category may include all the prototype characteristics; another only partially while another could possibly have some characteristics not incorporated in the prototype. Thus, concepts according to this view have unclear boundaries. Laurence and Margolis (1991) state that concepts can be best described as “satisfying a sufficient number of features, where some may be weighted more significantly than others” and thus, unlike the defining and fundamental aspects of the classical view, the prototype theory fits in the typical characteristics of a concept X. The concept [SHARK] entails both the typical carnivorous sharks and atypical plankton eating sharks. Taking as an example the concept [BIRD], this is how a prototypical diagram would look like:


The arrow indicates the theoretical movement of prototypes in a category. The more central the prototypes are, the more features it has belonging to a concept.





In the Prototype theory, several classes are acknowledged to be more ‘basic’ than others. These basic-level categories are set in theory centrally and have a subordinate higher level and superordinate lower level. ANIMAL is a superordinate, BIRD is a basic-level, and DOVE is a subordinate example. These are fundamental for the classification of concept boundaries and for the categorisation of meaning.

While the Prototype Theory seems to clarify most of the missing elaborations of the Classical View, still, it can be criticised for the inability to take into account many abstract concepts and can’t deal effectively with contextualization. Nevertheless, it’s logical and extensive representation of concepts has helped researchers in understanding better the processes of the mind.


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