Philosophy:Singular term

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A singular term is a paradigmatic referring device in a language. Singular terms are defined as expressions that purport to denote or designate particular individual people, places, or other objects. They contrast with general terms (such as "car" or "chair") which can apply to more than one thing.[1] Singular terms are of philosophical importance for philosophers of language, because they refer to things in the world, and the ability of words to refer calls for scrutiny.[citation needed]


There are various kinds of singular terms: proper names (e.g. "Matthew"), definite descriptions (e.g. "the second fisherman in the boat"), singular personal pronouns (e.g. "she"), demonstrative pronouns (e.g. "this"), etc.

Historically, various definitions for "singular term" have been offered:

  1. A term that tells us which individual is being talked about. (John Stuart Mill, Arthur Prior, P. F. Strawson) [2]
  2. A term that is grammatically singular, i.e. a proper name (proprium nomen), a demonstrative pronoun (pronomen demonstrativum) or a demonstrative pronoun with a common name (cum termino communi). (William of Ockham)[3]
  3. A term that is inherently about the object to which it applies or refers. (Gottlob Frege) [4]
  4. A term that is true "in the same sense" of only one object. (Peter of Spain)[5]


  1. William Lycan, Philosophy of Language, 2nd edition, Routledge, 2008
  2. Strawson 1950, Prior 1976, Mill 1908
  3. Ockham, Summa Logicae
  4. Frege 1892
  5. Peter of Spain 1947

Works cited

  • Frege, G. (1892) "On Sense and Reference", originally published as " Über Sinn und Bedeutung" in Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik, vol. 100, pp. 25–50. Transl. Geach & Black 56–78.
  • Mill, J. S., A System of Logic, London 1908 (8th edition).
  • Peter of Spain Summulae Logicales, ed. I. M. Bochenski (Turin, 1947) – also quoted in Prior 1976.
  • Prior, A. N. The Doctrine of Propositions & Terms, London 1976.
  • Strawson, P. F. "On Referring", Mind 1950 pp. 320–44.
  • William of Ockham, Summa logicae, Paris 1448, Bologna 1498, Venice 1508, Oxford 1675.