Doctoral Thesis

  • ‘Ordering Semantics for Incomplete Descriptions’

My thesis is about incomplete descriptions, expressions such as ‘the monkey’ or ‘the mango’. Incomplete descriptions are definite descriptions that can be used to pick out single objects even though their semantic content applies to more than one object. A challenge to theories of definite descriptions is to explain how this is – how can I use ‘the mango’ to pick out a single mango even though there are a lot of mangoes in the world? David Lewis has made a promising proposal on which an incomplete description ‘the F‘ denotes the most salient F to the speaker. Thus, I can use ‘the mango’ to pick out a single mango even if there are many mangoes around in case one of them is highly salient to me in a way the others are not. But Lewis’s work on his proposal is sparse and underdeveloped. The aim of my thesis is to develop his theory further. I provide a precise outline of his ‘ordering semantics’ for incomplete descriptions, generalise it, motivate it, discuss its central notion of salience, and defend it from potential objections.


A challenge for theories of incomplete descriptions is to capture the consistency of ‘Sobel sequences’ and to account for an asymmetry in the acceptability of utterances of Sobel sequences and ‘reverse Sobel sequences’. David Lewis’s theory of incomplete descriptions answers, unlike many other theories, the challenge from Sobel sequences, but it does not answer the challenge from reverse Sobel sequences. This article presents another asymmetry in the availability of anaphoric readings of Sobel sequences and reverse Sobel sequences, and proposes an explanation of the original asymmetry on its grounds. This provides an answer to the challenge for Lewis’s theory.

  • Holst, Mirja (2015): ‘Kennzeichnungen’ (translation: ‘Definite Descriptions’), in: N. Kompa (ed.): Handbuch Sprachphilosophie, Stuttgart: Verlag J. B. Metzler.

This is an overview article on definite descriptions. It describes what definite descriptions are and what their function in language is, presents the central questions that arise in connection with definite descriptions, and delineates the philosophical debate on definite descriptions.

Works in Progress

  • ‘Incomplete Descriptions in Counterfactual Contexts’. (under submission)
  • ‘Incomplete Descriptions and Salience in Guises’. (under submission)
  • ‘Incomplete Descriptions and Modality’. (in preparation)

Selected Talks

  • ‘Incomplete Descriptions in Counterfactual Contexts’, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, April 2016.
  • ‘Incomplete Descriptions in Counterfactual Contexts’. University of Nottingham, UK, February 2015.
  • ‘Incomplete Descriptions in Counterfactual Contexts’. University of L’Aquila, Italy: 11th National Conference of the Italian Society for Analytic Philosophy (SIFA 11). September 2014.
  • ‘Incomplete Descriptions in Counterfactual Contexts’. University of Bucharest, Romania: Eighth European Congress of Analytic Philosophy (ECAP 8). August 2014.
  • ‘Counterfactuals, Counterfactuals De Re, and Incomplete Descriptions’. University of Hamburg: Conditionals Workshop. April 2014.
  • ‘Lewis on Incomplete Descriptions’, University of Aachen: Philosophy Colloquium. July 2013.
  • ‘The Problem of Ordering’. Humboldt University Berlin: Phlox in Flux Workshop. March 2011.