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Russell's theory of descriptions


To: Chris H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Russell's theory of descriptions
Date: 6 May 2004 12:36

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 26 April, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question, 'Explain Russell's Theory of Descriptions and discuss the claim that the sense of a proper name is equivalent to a description of the object which the name picks out.'

I am going to concentrate on two main points of interest: Meinong's theory and Russell's criticism of it, and the alleged inadequacies of the claim that the sense of a proper name is equivalent to a description.


It is worth asking: how could Meinong have believed that distinguishing between 'existence' and 'subsistence' would solve the problem of negative existentials?

Contrary to what one might gather from reading Russell, there is no logical difficulty with construing existence as a first level predicate, E which belongs to all and only those objects which exist.

Here's what I say in the Metaphysics program (unit 3):

'From Kant onwards, philosophers have objected to the interpretation of existence as a predicate, or first-level concept applied to objects. (Frege analysed the notion of existence as a second-level concept: President Clinton exists , becomes the rather unwieldy sentence, The concept President Clinton is uniquely exemplified .) The objections to existence as a predicate are largely spurious. But care is needed in order not to talk nonsense or fall into logical fallacies. Objects do not mysteriously acquire or lose the property of existing, when, in ordinary language, we talk of them coming into or going out of existence. For example, in the statement, Golders Green Bowling Alley no longer exists, I am not referring to a mental bowling alley that lives on in the childhood memories of those who frequented it, an object which was once solid and real all glass and plush red carpets and bright lights but is now but a ghostly version of its former self. I am referring to an actual physical building that existed in the past and saying that there is no physical object existing now identical with that.'

Golders Green Bowling Alley is an object which exists, in the timeless sense. That is sufficient to secure reference. What about an object which never existed, or which people wrongly believed to exist?

Consider Bertie, who lives in the basement, likes punk rock and practices yoga. Bertie does not exist. I just made him up. No-one lives in the basement, it is far too cold and damp.

You can wrongly think that a fictional character is real (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) or vice versa. We shouldn't baulk at including fictional or mythical characters in our ontology. But Bertie is no more a fictional character than a real person.

Here's one possible solution: let's take all the things - characters, persons, objects, places - that are *wrongly believed* to exist by someone at some time, whether as physical entities, or fictional characters or whatever - and make a new class of abstract objects, alongside objects of myth or fiction. Call them 'nonexistents'. Now we can make statements about them. They exist! Meanwhile, the falsity of the existence beliefs is preserved. Although 'Bertie exists' is literally true (because, on the existence as a predicate view no existence statement can be false), we can unpack the content of the statement, made by someone who believes in Bertie's flesh and blood existence as, e.g. 'Bertie lives in the basement'. This is false, for the same reason that 'Sherlock Holmes once lived in this flat' is false. To actually live in a place, you need to have a physical body etc.

That's the best I can do for Meinong.

Names and descriptions

I don't think that the objections you give here (the Wittgenstein example) are very convincing.

The classic discussion to look at here is the Appendix to Ch 5 of Dummett's 'Frege Philosophy of Language', 'Note on an attempted refutation of Frege'. (Kripke's 'Naming and Necessity' appeared shortly before 'Frege' was due to go into print.)

1. On the theory of descriptions, if I say, 'Wittgenstein was born in Vienna', and you understand by the name 'Wittgenstein', 'The person who was born in Vienna and attacked Popper with a poker', then I don't tell you anything which you didn't already know. So what? I have made a statement with which you associate the content, 'There is one and only one x such that x was born in Vienna and attacked Popper with a poker.' I have failed to get across the thought I intended to express, that, 'There is one and only one x such that x was the author of the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations and x was born in Vienna.' This isn't enough to deter the diehard description theorist.

2. The solution here is note the scope ambiguities. If I understand by 'Wittgenstein', 'The person who was born in Vienna and attacked Popper with a poker', I can still say, 'The person who was born in Vienna and attacked Popper with a poker might not have attacked Popper with a poker.' Admittedly, on the strict equivalence of a name and description this does leave us with the implication that 'Wittgenstein might not have been Wittgenstein.' The solution is to move to a bundle of descriptions theory. Only a very small number of weird cases (names associated with only one description, like Homer or St Anne) will give anomalous results.

All the best,