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3 - Russell on definite descriptions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Michael Morris
Affiliation:
University of Sussex
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Summary

Key text

Bertrand Russell, ‘On Denoting’, Mind, 14 (1905), pp. 479–93.

Introduction

‘Alexandra’, ‘Rasputin’, and ‘Felix Youssoupoff’ are all proper names: they're names of the wife of the last Tsar of Russia, the monk she admired, and the man who shot that monk, respectively. We use these names to refer to those people: that seems to be what the names are for.

But what about those other phrases I've just used: the phrases ‘the wife of the last Tsar’, ‘the monk she admired’, and ‘the man who shot that monk’? Phrases like these are known as definite descriptions. What do they do? How do they work? Do they refer to the people in question? Do they work like names? It might seem just common sense to suppose they do work like names; that's certainly what Frege seems to have thought. This chapter focuses on a famous article by Bertrand Russell which argued that definite descriptions work quite differently, despite initial appearances. Although it's apparently concerned with something very minor – the meaning of the word ‘the’ – Russell's article was part of a revolution in the philosophy of language.

What is Frege's view, precisely? As we saw in chapter 2, he's committed to these two claims:

  1. (F3) Ordinary proper names and definite descriptions are singular terms;

  2. (F4) Ordinary proper names and definite descriptions all have Sense (as well, perhaps, as reference).

And the crucial things about the notion of a ‘singular term’ used in (F3) are these:

  1. (ST1) The business of a singular term is to refer to an object;

  2. (ST2) A sentence containing a singular term has no truth-value if there is no object corresponding to that singular term.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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