Strawson’s big break into the field of philosophy came about with the publication of his 1950 essay ‘On Referring’; itself a critique of Russell’s essay ‘On Denoting.’ His critique revolves around what Russell (according to Strawson) believed to be a comprehensive account of the function of definite descriptions in the English language(Snowdon, 2009). Strawson not only rejects Russell’s particular account of the role and function of the definite description in the English language, but denies that such a thing can be captured in any single account on account of the phenomenon’s complexity(Snowdon, 2009).
According to Russell, a sentence of the form ‘The F is G’ means ‘There is one and only one F and it is G.’ Such a sentence is distinct from a similar yet indefinite description (for example, ‘An F is G’) is that the latter lacks the implicit claim of uniqueness because of its lack of a definite article. While both the definite and indefinite descriptions make existential claims, it is part of the unique role of the definite article ‘the’ to function as an existential quantifier(Snowdon, 2009). According to Strawson, Russell’s main support for this claim was that the sentence “The king of France is bald” is meaningful even if there is no such thing. It is the definite article that gives it is meaning rather than its having a referent(Snowdon, 2009).
For Strawson, formal statements such as “The F is G” should not be seen as meaningful utterances in and of themselves but rather formal modals which set forth the preconditions for meaningful utterances:
the meaningfulness of ‘The F is G’ should be thought of as, roughly, there being rules as to what a use of the sentence in different circumstances will amount to. If the circumstances are right then it can be used in a referring way, if they are not then the use might not succeed as an act of reference(Snowdon, 2009).
Indeed, if there is no “F” that is “G”, then such a sentence is not simply false but involves reference failure such that it cannot be said to be meaningful. One of the functions of the definite article “the” in “The F” is to presuppose the existence of such an F. Such an instance
exhibits what came to be called a ‘truth-value gap’. In subsequent discussion it became clear, not that this criticism is definitely mistaken, but that it is difficutl to determine what the truth value of sentences involving referential failure actually is. Strawson’s main objection to Russell’s account is, though, that it is simply obvious that sometimes we use ‘The F’ to refer to or pick out an object, and we do not then use it to say that there is an F(Snowdon, 2009).
Strawson’s critique of Russell’s purportedly comprehensive account of the use of the definite description in English therefore demonstrated that Russell’s account, whatever other merits or insights it may have had, could not purport to be such a comprehensive account on the grounds that we oftentimes use the definite article in a way Russell’s account could not encompass(Snowdon, 2009).
Strawson likewise notes the importance of making a distinction between asserting that there is one and only F and using a definite description in a concrete context. For example, if I say that the oven is broken, I am not asserting the existence of an oven. I am presupposing the existence of an oven whose existence I assume my audience is aware of. This is known as “identifying reference”, according to which
the definite description is sometimes chosen to enable the audience to fix on or pick out as the subject matter of the claim an item of which they already know. In this role it cannot be that ‘the F’ tells them of the existence of such an F, since its role rests on the prior existence of such knowledge(Snowdon, 2009)
Strawson develops this insight in his elaboration of the concept of a “presupposition”, according to which “the use of a definite description standardly presupposes the existence of an object fitting the description even though it does not say, nor therefore entail, that there is such an object”(Snowdon, 2009).
Snowdon, Paul, “Peter Frederick Strawson”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/strawson/>.