Sentences like “I noticed the dark-haired girl I had met the other night” drive me to frustration. I read fiction in a slapdash way, and have a poor memory for detail. So I leaf through the pages, trying to find when ‘the other night’ was, and when I have, try to find the dark-haired girl. But who or what am I really trying to find here? It’s a piece of fiction, there was no such girl. And what do I mean ‘no such girl’? There are billions of dark-haired girls, and thousands of ‘other nights’.
However, frustration aside, the example throws light on an idea I have discussed earlier, namely that the semantics of a definite description are ‘external’ to the proposition that contains it. According to the classic theory of descriptions, the semantics of the description is ‘internal’ to the proposition. We understand the meaning of ‘the first dog born at sea’ by understanding the dictionary meanings of ‘first’, ‘dog’, ‘sea’ etc. But we don’t understand ‘the dark-haired girl I had met the other night’ simply by understanding a dictionary. I have to locate a passage from a previous part of the narrative in order to understand it. The description is incomplete, and we require information external to its proposition in order to understand its meaning.
It also illuminates the conception of reference that I have defended in many posts here, the conception of reference as essentially embedded in a narrative. When the author used that description, he or she was doing so in the knowledge that information provided earlier would be available to me. They knew that because they had written the narrative that included the information, and they knew it would be available in a text presented (either in print or in hypertext) in an ordered sequence. They knew that I would be reading ‘the dark-haired girl’ on p. 46 after I had read ‘a dark-haired girl’ on p.15.
I would argue that all descriptions are presented to us in essentially the same way. The author of the description uses it with the expectation that the background information necessary to understand it are available to his audience. A work of history, for example, is no different from a work of fiction. Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall is written as a single work covering more than a thousand years of history. But if he wrote it correctly, i.e. such that his intended meaning was available to any diligent person reading it, recurring descriptions, even when incomplete in the sense above, should be intelligible to the reader. In writing his history, Gibbon knew, or intended, that the persons reading it would have the whole work available, and that proper understanding of it requires reading it in the intended order.
It may seem to be different in the case of narratives which do not have a definite order, but I will discuss these cases later.