Keith Donnellan

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Keith Donnellan
Born(1931-06-25)June 25, 1931
Died(2015-02-20)February 20, 2015
Alma materCornell University
Notable work
"Reference and Definite Descriptions", "Proper Names and Identifying Descriptions", "Speaking of Nothing"
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy
Main interests
Philosophy of language
Notable ideas
Causal-historical theory of reference[1]
The "referential" and "attributive use" distinction

Keith Sedgwick Donnellan (/ˈdɒnələn/; 25 June 1931 – 20 February 2015) was an American philosopher and Professor Emeritus of the UCLA department of Philosophy. He spent most of his career at UCLA but taught, before that, at Cornell, where he also earned his PhD. Donnellan contributed to the philosophy of language, most notably to the analysis of proper names and definite descriptions. For instance, Donnellan criticized Bertrand Russell's theory of definite descriptions for overlooking the distinction between referential and attributive use of definite descriptions.[2][3]

Philosophical work[edit]

Proper names[edit]

By 1970, analytic philosophers widely accepted a view regarding the reference-relation that holds of proper names and that which they name which is known as descriptivism and attributed to Bertrand Russell. Descriptivism holds that ordinary proper names (e.g., 'Socrates', 'Richard Feynman', and 'Madagascar') may be paraphrased by definite descriptions (e.g., 'Plato's favorite philosopher', 'the man who devised the theory of quantum electrodynamics', and 'the largest island off the southeastern coast of Africa'). Saul Kripke gave a series of three lectures at Princeton University in 1970, later published as Naming and Necessity,[4] in which he argued against descriptivism and sketched the causal-historical theory of reference according to which each proper name necessarily designates a particular object and that the identity of the object so designated is determined by the history of the name's use. These lectures were highly influential and marked the decline of Descriptivism's popularity.[5] Kripke's alternative view was, by his own account, not fully developed in his lectures.[4] Donnellan's work on proper names is among the earliest and most influential developments of the causal-historical theory of reference.[6]


"Reference and Definite Descriptions" has been one of Donnellan's most influential essays. Written in response to the work of Bertrand Russell and P. F. Strawson in the area of definite descriptions, the essay develops a distinction between the "referential use" and the "attributive use" of a definite description. The attributive use most nearly reflects Russell's understanding of descriptions. When a person uses a description such as "Smith's murderer" attributively, they mean to pick out the individual that fits that description, whoever or whatever it is. The referential use, on the other hand, functions to pick out who or what a speaker is talking about, so that something can be said about that person or thing.[7][8]


  • Donnellan, Keith S. (July 1966). "Reference and Definite Descriptions". The Philosophical Review. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 75, No. 3. 75 (3): 281–304. doi:10.2307/2183143. JSTOR 2183143.
  • Donnellan, Keith S. (1972). "Proper Names and Identifying Descriptions". In Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman (ed.). Semantics of Natural Language. Dordrecht: D. Reidel. pp. 356–379.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link)
  • Donnellan, Keith S. (1974). "Speaking of Nothing". Philosophical Review (1): 3–31.
  • Donnellan, Keith S. (1977). "The Contingent A Priori and Rigid Designators". Midwest Studies in Philosophy (2): 12–27.
  • Donnellan, Keith S. (1978). "Speaker Reference, Descriptions, and Anaphora". In Peter Cole (ed.). Syntax and Semantics 9: Pragmatics. New York: Academic Press. pp. 47–68.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link)
  • Donnellan, Keith S. (2012). Joseph Almog, Paolo Leonardi, ed. Essays on Reference, Language, and Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Names (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. ^ Lycan, William G., Philosophy of Language - a contemporary introduction (2000), pp. 26-30
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Kripke, Saul (1980). Naming and Necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  5. ^ Cumming, Sam. "The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Names.
  6. ^ Ludlow, Peter (1997). Peter Ludlow, ed. Readings in the Philosophy of Language. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-62114-2.
  7. ^ Martinich, A.P. (1985). "Reference and Descriptions". In A.P. Martinich. The Philosophy of Language. New York, New York. pp. 209–216. |access-date= requires |url= (help)CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
  8. ^ Donnellan, Keith (1966). "Reference and Definite Descriptions". In A.P. Martinich. The Philosophy of Language. New York, New York. pp. 265–277.