Thursday, 6 December 2012

Bertrand Russell: Names and descriptions

(From my book The Great Philosophers)

Our focus is on Russell’s theory of descriptions, and his view on how ordinary proper names function. Russell considered his theory of descriptions to be one of his most important contributions to philosophy.

A puzzle about existence

Let’s begin by sketching out an ancient and infernal puzzle: how do proper names – such as John, Paris or Jupiter – function? What role do they play in those sentences within which they appear? An obvious suggestion would be that they refer. Take the sentence:

John is tall.

We use ‘John’ to refer to a particular individual. We then assert something about this individual – namely, he is tall. The claim is true if the individual to whom we refer is tall, and false if he isn’t. Another apparent use of a referring expression is:

The tallest building is in Kuala Lumpur.

Here, it’s tempting to suppose we use the description ‘the tallest building’ to refer to a particular building. We then claim that the building in question is in Kuala Lumpur. Our claim is true if, and only if, the building referred to is in Kuala Lumpur.

This is a natural way of understanding how both names and descriptions function, but it famously generates the baffling puzzle of empty reference, with which philosophers continue to grapple: If names and descriptions are referring expressions, how can we succeed in using them to say something true, when they do not in fact succeed in referring to anything?

To illustrate, look at these examples:

        The golden mountain does not exist,


        Pegasus does not exist.

Both sentences are true. However, if the job of a name or description within each sentence is to refer, how can they be true? In each case there is nothing for the name or description to refer to. But then the name or description cannot do its linguistic job. With no reference, surely the sentence might as well contain a gap where the name or description appears, like so:

...does not exist,

which is obviously not a sentence, let alone a true one.

An attractive feature of Russell’s theory of descriptions is its success in explaining how the sentence, ‘The golden mountain does not exist’, can be true (it solves a number of other puzzles too, which we won’t explore here).

Russell’s analysis of descriptions

According to Russell, when we use a description, ‘the F’, in a sentence like so:

The F is G,

we are actually making three distinct claims. We are, in effect,

• At least one thing is F;
• At most one thing is F; and
• Whatever is F is G.

To illustrate, suppose I say, ‘The queen of Denmark is in Brazil.’ According to Russell, I make three distinct claims. First, I claim there is a queen of Denmark. I assert that at least one thing is queen of Denmark. However, I don’t just claim that there exists a queen of Denmark – use of ‘the’ indicates that whoever is queen of Denmark is uniquely queen of Denmark. So, I am also claiming that, at most, one thing is queen of Denmark. Finally, I claim that whoever is queen of Denmark is in Brazil.

Russell here offers us an analysis of a sentence containing a description. The surface appearance of the sentence suggests it is used to make a single claim. According to Russell, appearances are deceptive – the surface appearance disguises the sentence’s true ‘logical form’. We are actually dealing with a conjunction of three distinct claims. A little analysis reveals this hidden logical structure.

An interesting feature of Russell’s analysis of sentences containing descriptions is that it entails descriptions are not referring expressions. To see why, let’s take a brief look at another sort of expression – the quantifier. Consider this expression:

…is happy.

Obviously this is not a sentence. However, we can turn it into a declarative sentence by inserting a referring expression into the gap. So, if I refer to a particular person as John, I can slot ‘John’ into the space, thus:

John is happy.

This sentence will be true if and only if the individual I refer to is happy. Another kind of expression could also be slotted in to produce a declarative sentence. Consider these quantifiers:

No one

Instead of referring to a specific individual, they talk about quantities. The sentence:

Someone is happy,

for example, says that the number of individuals who are happy is at least one.

No one is happy,

on the other hand, says that the number of individuals who are happy is zero.

It’s worth emphasizing that quantifiers are not referring expressions. To say, ‘No one is happy’ is obviously not to refer to anyone at all. Nor do I refer to anyone using, ‘Someone is happy’. For the latter to be true, it doesn’t matter which individual is happy, so long as someone is. There is an obvious contrast here with, ‘John is happy’. If ‘John’ refers to a specific individual, then what I say will be true only if that individual –
the one referred to – is happy. Whether anyone else happens to be happy is irrelevant.

Russell’s solution

You may have noticed that Russell’s analysis of ‘The F is G’ involves quantifiers (‘at least one thing’ and ‘at most one thing’ are obviously quantifiers). For the three claims to be true, all that is required is that something be uniquely F, and that whatever is F also be G. It doesn’t matter what is uniquely F and also G, so long as something is. In other words, no reference is made to any specific individual. So according to Russell, descriptions such as ‘the queen of Denmark’ and ‘the tallest building’ are not, after all, referring expressions. The surface appearance of language deceived us into supposing that they were.

Now let’s return to the puzzle of explaining how ‘The golden mountain does not exist’ can be true. How do we apply Russell’s theory here?

Well, that sentence is just the negation of:

The golden mountain exists,

which, according to Russell, says:

1. At least one thing is a golden mountain; and
2. At most one thing is a golden mountain.

(Note that we do not add, ‘Whatever is a golden mountain exists’, as (1) and (2) together already assert that there exists exactly one such mountain.)

Russell’s analysis of ‘The golden mountain does not exist’, therefore, is:

It is not the case that:
1. At least one thing is a golden mountain; and
2. At most one thing is a golden mountain.

Because (1) is false (there are no golden mountains), so the original sentence comes out as true. Our puzzle was to explain how, ‘The golden mountain does not exist’ could be true. Russell’s theory allows us to solve that puzzle.

Russell on meaning

Russell’s theory of descriptions allows him to solve a second puzzle generated by a further assumption concerning sentences such as, ‘The golden mountain does not exist’.

The meaning of a referring expression is just the thing to which it refers.

For example, if ‘John’ refers to a person, then that person is the meaning of ‘John’. Russell accepts this, supposing that, for referring expressions, meaning equals reference.

Of course, if this simple theory of meaning is correct, and if the description ‘the golden mountain’ is indeed a referring expression, then not only is it puzzling how the sentence,

The golden mountain does not exist,

can be true, it is equally puzzling how it can succeed in saying something meaningful – for it contains a meaningless expression.

By applying his theory of descriptions, Russell shows how the sentence could still be meaningful even if there are no golden mountains. Russell retains the theory that meaning equals reference, but abandons the theory that descriptions are referring expressions.

However, the theory that meaning is reference is dubious. Many contemporary philosophers of language reject it. One of the most important critics of the theory is Ludwig Wittgenstein (see page 156), who suggests that, rather than thinking of meaning as reference, it is usually more helpful to think of meaning as use . Clearly, a name or description might still have a use even if it lacks any reference (‘Santa Claus’, for example, has a clear use, despite the fact that we don’t use it to refer to anyone). Notice that, if meaning equals use, then we don’t need Russell’s theory of descriptions to explain how, ‘The golden mountain does not exist’ can be meaningful (though perhaps we still need it to explain how the sentence can be true).

Ordinary proper names

A puzzle remains. We have explained how, ‘The golden mountain
does not exist’ can be true, but we have not yet explained how, ‘Pegasus does not exist’ can be true. ‘Pegasus’ is not a definite description, but a proper name. So Russell’s theory cannot directly be applied. How does Russell solve the puzzle here?

As commonly interpreted (not every philosopher interprets Russell in this way), Russell solves this puzzle by suggesting that ordinary proper names are, in effect, definite descriptions in disguise.

Suppose that ‘Pegasus’ is synonymous with the description, ‘the winged horse’. Then the sentence, ‘Pegasus does not exist’, has the same meaning as, ‘The winged horse does not exist.’ So we can now apply Russell’s theory of descriptions.

Of course, the suggestion that ordinary proper names are not referring expressions is counter-intuitive. In fact, while Russell’s theory of descriptions is still widely accepted, many contemporary philosophers of language believe Russell was wrong to claim that proper names are synonymous with definite descriptions. The chapter on Saul Kripke (see page 199) says more on this.

If proper names are not synonymous with definite descriptions, then we cannot apply Russell’s theory of descriptions to explain how, ‘Pegasus does not exist’ can be true. That puzzle remains.

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