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Russell's “Proof”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Avrum Stroll*
University of California, San Diego


In this paper, I wish to revisit some familiar terrain, namely an argument that occurs in many of Russell's writings on the theory of descriptions and which he repeatedly describes as a “proof.” For the past two decades this argument has been the subject of considerable philosophical controversy. The prevailing view has been that it is invalid. Leonard Linsky, for instance, maintains that it is (viciously) circular, while Peter Geach, W.V.O. Quine, and Alan White have argued that it equivocates on two different senses of the word “means” and is therefore fallacious. Yet the argument has also had its defenders. In an acute and persuasive paper, R.K. Perkins has recently contended that some of these critics fail to understand that Russell is employing the term “means” in a special and technical sense, where it is equivalent to “naming”, and that when so understood, the argument does in fact go through.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1975

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1. Linsky, L. Referring, Humanities Press, New York, 1967, p. 53.Google Scholar

2. Perkins, R.K.On Russell's Alleged Confusion of Sense and Reference,Analysis, 32.2. (Dec. 1971), pp. 4551CrossRefGoogle Scholar. An excellent summary of the literature on the question is to be found in this paper.

3. op. cit., p. 46.

4. op. cit., pp. 46–47.

5. I should add that the argument in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism also differs from that in Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy since it raises questions about the substitutivity of identicals in non-extensional contexts. Because of the complexity of the issue, we shall refrain from detailed discussion of this argument in this paper. For a recent extensive and lucid analysis of the argument see “In Defense of a Simple Solution,” by Reeves, Alan Australasian journal of Philosophy, May 1973, pp. 1738.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6. In a note, “Descriptions Again,” Analysis, Oct. 1973, I point out that his claim is either false or misleading. Russell suggests that somehow “the author of Waverley” contributes a kind of meaning in context which it does not possess in isolation. What he means is that this phrase is not a proper name and therefore possesses no meaning (i.e., names nothing) in context either. Then how can it contribute any meaning to the context in which it occurs? Russell's answer amounts to an equivocation on the notion of “meaning.” In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, p. 244, he specifically points out that there is a sense in which every descriptive phrase has meaning; namely that it is composed of lexical items which do have meaning. Its meaning, in this sense, is a function of the meanings of these lexical items, and it is a meaning which it possesses whether in context or outside of any context. It is just this meaning, and no other, which it contributes to the whole sentence of which it is a part. There is thus no change in the status of its meaning whether it occurs in a sentential context or not. The celebrated “central point’ of the theory of descriptions is thus false if it suggests the contrary, or at least misleading in its subtle suggestion that descriptions take on a meaning in context which they do not possess out of it.

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