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4 Russell Notes

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What is Russell's theory of descriptions? What problems is it intended to solve?
Introduction Russell's theory of descriptions involves an analysis of what he claims is the underlying logical structure of sentences containing definite and indefinite descriptions (phrases usually of the form 'the x' and 'an x'). The most famous and controversial part of his theory is his analysis of singular definite descriptions: phrases of the form 'the so-and-so', in the singular, where 'the' is used to imply uniqueness. Therefore this is usually what people mean when they talk about 'Russell's theory of descriptions'. Russell argued that the superficial syntactic form of sentences involving descriptions is misleading, as it does not match their logical or semantic structure. By exposing the real properties of descriptionsentences Russell hoped to relieve us of various philosophical worries concerning language that arise from confusion over how such sentences work. Moreover, he claimed that the theory is the correct analysis of description-sentences - perhaps going so far as to claim that his analyses are synonymous with the English description-sentences they analyse, and at the very least claiming that they are necessarily equivalent. Definite descriptions include phrases which denote one definite object, for example 'the Queen of England'. Such phrases need not refer to something whose identity is known: 'the tallest spy' denotes a unique individual even though his or her actual identity may be unknown. Definite descriptions also include phrases which do not succeed in denoting anything, for example, 'the present king of France'. The core claim of Russell's theory is that definite descriptions do not work like names, as Frege and many others had thought. Frege believed that ordinary proper names and definite descriptions were singular terms: the business of a singular term is to refer to an object, and a sentence containing a singular term has no truth-value if there is no object corresponding to the singular term. Russell denies that definite descriptions are singular terms; that is, he does not think that they refer to objects. Furthermore Russell rejects Frege's doctrine of sense and reference: the idea that there are two parts to the meaning of some denoting expressions (a term's reference is the object it refers to and its sense is the 'cognitive significance' or 'mode of presentation' of that object). Russell's rejection of the Fregean view is a sticky area, as many believe that his did not really understand Frege's theory, and that what he was actually rejecting is therefore not interesting or relevant. Mainly Russell adopts his own theory on independent grounds that it is correct and solves problems, so I will talk about how he addresses the philosophical puzzles that Frege had attempted to solve with his notion of sense, solving them instead with his theory of descriptions. First, a brief sketch of Russell's analysis: Russell's analysis of definite descriptions In defining definite descriptions (phrases of the form 'the so-and-so'), Russell does not seek a definition of the phrase itself in isolation, but of the propositions in which this phrase occurs. Seeking to define definite descriptions as phrases in isolation would be to be misled by the surface form of the sentence, and was what caused all the problems in the first place which Russell's analysis now seeks to solve. Thus, take 'the present king of France is bald'. Russell analyzes this sentence into the following component parts:

1. 'x is the present king of France' is not always false.

2. 'if x and y are the present king of France, x and y are identical' is always true (i.e., x is the only king of France).

3. 'if x is the present king of France, x is bald' is always true. Thus, a definite description of the general subject-predicate form 'the F is G' becomes the following existentially quantified sentence:

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