Presuppositions and Modal Operators

May 13, 2008

Ok, so I don’t know anything about presupposition failure, so I’m going to keep this short and simple and hope someone can set me straight.

Suppose the Strawsonian view of definite descriptions. Now read the following giving the description narrower scope than necessity.

  1. Necessarily the Queen of England is a queen.

I want to know what happens to this sentence on the Strawsonian view. My first thought is that 1. is truthvalueless because there are worlds in which the embedded sentence is truthvalueless because there is no queen of England (the intuition is that 1. is like the conjunction “at w, the Queen of England is a queen and at w’ the Queen of England is a queen and …”, and a conjunction is truthvalueless if one of its conjuncts is.)

But this doesn’t sound right to me at all. 1. doesn’t seem like a presupposition failure – I’ve just ascribed necessity to a perfectly well behaved proposition (all of its parts exist.) I admit, it may be controversial whether 1) is true or false (depending on whether we consider worlds where England has no queen), but to my mind it certainly isn’t a presupposition failure – it only represents a possible presupposition failure.

Maybe you could say that p is necessary iff its true or truthvalueless in every world. But then

  1. Necessarily the Queen of England exists

comes out true. This is bad, especially on it’s narrow scope reading (so bad independently of your views on fixed/variable domain Kripke semantics.)

I considered a couple of other ways of treating 1. but they don’t seem to work either, so I think I’ll leave it there. Can anyone tell me how this is supposed to work?



  1. Hey,

    Hope you don’t mind me commenting.

    I cannot see the uniqueness of the problem here. On Strawson’s view, at least in ‘On Referring’, definite descriptions function in the same way as names; that is as expressions to pick some thing out as the subject of a sentence. With this, of course, we also get the idea that the existence of a subject is presumed in an ordinary use of a referring expression, not explicitly part of the expression (like Russell), but part of its use.

    But on this view the appearance of a description is to be treated as a name. So any problem arising for the one also arises for the other. The predication of ‘is a queen’ seems beside the point on this view.

    Also, i suppose Strawson would want to relativise modal utterances to a world of utterance, i.e. the world of the utterance (this world), and then its truth value would depend upon the success of reference in that world. When we then range over possible worlds we already have the reference secured, and the expression would then act much like a rigid designator for those possible worlds.

    Don’t know if this helps (or is right).

    If i haven’t understood the problem, would love to, as it seems very interesting.

    sam ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Hi Sam.

    Commenting is encouraged! And thanks for yours.

    I guess there is a parallel problem you can run for names. But I think that is more controversial – and is not a problem specifically for Strawsonian views. In fact it turns out many of the solutions for the names case doesn’t carry over to the definite description case. (e.g. even if you go for a Williamson view, and say all objects exist necessarily, you still don’t want to say that ‘necessarily the queen of England exists’ (giving the DD narrow scope.) There may be worlds where England isn’t a monarchy. Same applies to the Donellan solution, etc… ) So I think there really is a problem that is unique to Strawson here.

    I’m not so keen on your proposal either. Consider

    1) Necessarily, the tallest man is taller than every man.

    If ‘the tallest man’ works out its referent in this world, and then acts rigidly under the modal operator, (1) would come out false – there could have been taller people. But giving the DD narrow scope it should come out as necessary.

    (P.S. There wasn’t supposed to be anything significant about using ‘is a queen’. Any predicate would have done so long as it didn’t introduce a presupposition failure.)

  3. Hey,

    Thanks for replying ๐Ÿ™‚

    I was under the impression that Strawson does treat descriptions as names, and that these kinds of problems which are specific to unique satisfiers would not arise. But presumably, as with Donnellan and your example, there are contexts in which we do wish to use descriptions as uniquely picking out whoever fits the description. It seems that on this view, the problem arises, but i fail to see how it arises for the view on which descriptions function simply as names (in a context of utterance), which seems to be Strawson’s view.

    If, for instance, by ‘the queen of england’ we mean on a particular occasion of utterance ‘Elizabeth II’ then it would be false that ‘necessarily the queen of england is a queen’, which seems perfectly fine on this view. It would only seem to be truth valueless if relative to that utterance, there was no one to which it referred. But this is no different to names, broadly construed. It would be the same for ‘the tallest man’ if on an occasion we used to mean a particular man and not just whoever satisfies the description.

    If we do consider the ‘whoever satisfies’ uses then, sure, there is a problem, but i can’t see how it is specific to strawson. What do you take his view of definite descriptions to be?

    thanks again

  4. Sorry,

    Do you think it makes sense to mix a presupposition of existence with a use of a description which is ‘whoever satisfies’? This seems to be what is needed for there to be a problem and it just seems to me that there is some kind of agnosticism built into the ‘whoever satisfies’ use of descriptions, which in a sense does away with prepositions for those uses.

    Just by having that presupposition you seem to be bringing in too much for there to be a clear case of the ‘whoever satisfies’ use. Without that use, (i.e. ‘necessarily the queen of england (i.e. elizabeth 2) is a queen’), you would get a false statement (or if there were no person to which you referred by using the description, then truth valueless).

    On the other hand if we take the presupposition out and get ‘necessarily whoever is QE is Q’ then we get a true statement.

    It seems dubious whether we can mix the two….

    sorry for taking up so much space

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