nLab definite description




In the context of philosophy, definite description concerns the use of the definite article, ‘the’, to denote an individual, as with ‘the cat currently sitting in this basket’ or ‘the 24th President of the United States’.

A closely related use of ‘the’ occurs in mathematics when specifying an entity up to coherent isomorphism, or more generally equivalence, such as when speaking of ‘the Monster group’. This is treated at generalized the.

Treatment in philosophy

Bertrand Russell took an important step for analytic philosophy in 1905 when he gave his famous analysis of the statement

  • The present King of France is bald,

as asserting the unique existence of someone who is currently king of France and who is bald. This means that the statement uttered now is false, since there is no such person. Other philosophers, such as Peter Strawson, have taken this sentence to be meaningless due to its reliance on a false presupposition.


Formal treatments employ the uniqueness quantifier to specify unique existence. The use of homotopy type theory allows extension to mathematical cases of definite description (Corfield 20, Chap. 3).


For a treatment of definite description using the resources of homotopy type theory, which allows also for the use of generalized the, see

Last revised on January 9, 2023 at 09:27:10. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.