Theory of descriptions  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The theory of descriptions is the philosopher Bertrand Russell's most significant contribution to the philosophy of language. It is also known as Russell's Theory of Descriptions (commonly abbreviated as RTD). In short, Russell argued that the syntactic form of descriptions (phrases that took the form of "The aardvark" and "An aardvark") is misleading, as it does not correlate their logical and/or semantic architecture. While descriptions may seem fairly uncontroversial phrases, Russell argued that providing a satisfactory analysis of the linguistic and logical properties of a description is vital to clarity in important philosophical debates, particularly in semantic arguments, epistemology and metaphysics. It has been argued, for example, that RTD largely underpinned Russell's theory of sense-data.

Since the first development of the theory in Russell's 1905 paper "On Denoting", RTD has been hugely influential and well-received within the philosophy of language. However, it has not been without its critics. In particular, the philosophers P. F. Strawson and Keith Donnellan have given notable, well known criticisms of the theory. Most recently, RTD has been defended by various philosophers and even developed in promising ways to bring it into harmony with generative grammar in Noam Chomsky's sense, particularly by Stephen Neale. Such developments have themselves been criticized, and debate continues.

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