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Essays on Russell's theory of descriptions


To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Russell's theory of descriptions
Date: 11th March 2009 12:04

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 26 February, with the second version of your University of London Logic essay, 'Could the statement, 'The present Prime Minister might not have been the present Prime Minister,' be true? Explain your answer,' and your email of 2 March, with your Logic essays, 'One can understand the claim, 'The baby has been sick all day', without supposing there is one and only one baby in the world. So Russell's theory of definite descriptions is wrong.' Discuss,' and 'Can the sentence 'The man over there drinking Martini is a philosopher' be true even though nothing satisfies the definite description? Justify your answer.'

The question of the analysis of definite descriptions is obviously a problem which grips you!

The present Prime Minister

I can't remember what I said about the first version of this essay. If you had brought in Donnellan I would definitely have objected. The question how one analyses statements like, 'The present Prime Minister might not have been the present Prime Minister has got nothing to do with Donnellan's distinction between referential and attributive uses of descriptions (whereas this is very much the topic of the other two essay questions).

As I am writing this in ascii, I am unable to duplicate your first-order predicate calculus notation. However, I trust that you will readily recognize my version of, 'There is one and only one present Prime Minister':

(Ex)(Px & (y)(Py -> y=x)),

or, in English, 'There is an x such that x is the present PM and for all y, if y is the present PM then y=x.'

In 'On Denoting' Russell quotes the example of the man invited to his friend's marina who comments, 'I thought your yacht was larger than it is', to which his friend angrily retorts, 'Of course my yacht is not larger than it is!' This is an example of scope distinctions which analysis in terms of definite descriptions makes possible.

So, 'The present PM might not have been the present PM,' would be:

(Ex)(Px & (y)(Py -> y=x) & DIAMOND(not-Px))

While the self-contradictory reading would be:

DIAMOND(Ex)(Px & (y)(Py -> y=x) & not-Px)).

Your remarks on determinism seem to be a bit of a red herring. Assuming that determinism holds, we can still hypothesise that (e.g.) the Big Bang might have banged differently (the universe starts in a different state from the state it actually started in) so this would be fully consistent with the existence of other possible worlds. However, there is a view which is not entailed by determinism which holds that this world is the only possible world, because (e.g.) the Big Bang could only have banged in the way it did and in no other way.

Sick baby

As you state, the Russellian view would be that we can make the 'improper' description, 'the baby' proper by adding contextual factors.

However, there is a problem which you don't address, concerning Russell's belief that at least some definite descriptions are proper, or that improper definite descriptions can made proper. Who is 'the baby'? She is Mr and Mrs Brown's baby. Who are Mr and Mrs Brown? They are the couple who live at number 24 Garden Road, Sheffield. Their older child, Jill, writes the address, '24 Garden Rd, Sheffield, S Yorkshire, UK, The World, The Solar System, The Galaxy, The Universe.' Clearly Jill has never heard of Nietzsche's theory of the Eternal Recurrence (and why should she?). But the point is that no description, however full, can secure reference without some non-descriptive element. All definite descriptions are contextual, to a greater or lesser degree.

This raises a serious objection to the project of inserting the necessary contextual elements in order to make the description 'proper'. However, there is an alternative approach which is to do your contextualising first. In the temporary universe of discourse which defines the conversation between Mr and Mrs Brown, there is, in fact one and only one baby.

The philosopher with the Martini

You give a good explanation of how the Grice/ Donnellan approach would allow us to say that 'The man over there drinking a Martini is a philosopher' can be (kind of) true, even if, as it turns out, the philosopher to whom you have successfully drawn your audience's attention is not, in fact, drinking a Martini but some other drink.

However, there is a problem with relying on the intention of the speaker. Let's say that you wanted to call your audience's attention to the fact that there is a philosopher at the party. How interesting is that! However, your audience is far more interested in the fact that a philosopher would drink a Martini. Aren't all philosophers teetotal? (They've obviously never heard of Plato's Symposium).

The problem is clear: when we evaluate the truth or falsity of uttered statements, we are not concerned merely with the information which the utterer intended to convey. A statement is a statement. Once stated, it is out there in the world. You are not the only judge on how your words should be taken (which is not to say you don't have a say in the matter).

In everyday communicative practice, we are very good in picking out relevant interpretations and deciding, on a given interpretation, whether what was said is true. However, this would seem to point to a distinction between the semantics of a statement, as something 'out there in the world', and the 'pragmatics' of how language is used to communicate information -- sometimes successfully, and sometimes not.

All the best,