Tag Archive for: Bertrand Russell

On Denoting and Describing

According to Russell’s theory of descriptions, the word “the” contains two conceptual elements: existence and uniqueness. It implies that there is a certain something, and that there is only one such thing. The indefinite article “a” contains only the first element; the definite article contributes the second. So the short word “the” is conceptually quite rich; it carries demanding implications. Through error these implications can fail, as when someone says, “The unicorn ate the grass” or “The teacher thinks he’s funny”: for there are no unicorns and there are many teachers. It is easy to make false statements (or neither true nor false statements) using definite descriptions because we can make errors of existence and also fail to specify a uniquely identifying predicate. You have to be on your toes with “the”. This insight of Russell’s is a point about the meaning of “the”, its semantics not its pragmatics. We can put it by saying that “the” is analyzable into “exists” and “unique”: “the F is G” means “an existent and uniquely F thing is G”. Strictly speaking, this claim about the meaning of “the” is limited to its conceptual composition and does not entail the standard conjunctive analysis deriving from Russell. You could agree with Russell about the meaning of “the” but dissent from his analysis of the logical form of sentences containing this word as comprising a threefold conjunction in first-order predicate logic. That analysis makes the definite description, apparently a referring expression, dissolve into quantifiers, and detects a hidden repeated occurrence of “and”. You might find that objectionable without disagreeing about the essential meaning of “the”: you might prefer not to express the semantic point in such conjunctive terms (you might favor a part-whole conception of semantic complexity). Similarly, you might be sympathetic to the idea that the meaning of “know” includes truth, belief, and justification without accepting that the logical form of sentences containing “know” is literally a conjunction—though that is certainly one way to express the semantic point. Thus we can divide Russell’s theory into two separate ideas, usually run together: the idea that the meaning of “the” involves existence and uniqueness, and the idea that the logical form of sentences containing “the” is a conjunction of quantified propositions. In either case, however, the word carries quite demanding and specific conditions as a matter of semantic analysis. It is certainly not redundant or dispensable.

The reason I am emphasizing what should be obvious is that Russell’s theory has a bearing on the question of the semantics of names and demonstratives. Suppose we conjoin Russell’s analysis with the description theory of names (or demonstratives)—and how could we not, given the cogency of that analysis? Then we have it that the meaning of a name is equivalent to a description having the analysis in question. Thus a name logically implies the existence and uniqueness of something satisfying a certain condition: for example, “London” implies that England has a capital and that it has only one capital, given that “London” means “the capital of England.” A speaker who uses the name “London” is asserting these two things, just as a speaker who explicitly uses the phrase “the capital of England” is asserting these two things. If he doesn’t think England has a capital, or thinks that it has more than one, then he has no business using the name “London”—for he doesn’t accept its logical implications. If you use the phrase “the capital of England”, you are committed to two propositions: that there exists something that is a capital of England, and that there is only one such. Your speech act fails if either condition fails to be met. But then, if this phrase gives the meaning of “London”, you make exactly the same commitments when you use “London”. There is, admittedly, no use of “the” in the employment of the name—no overt use, that is—but the theory is that this word lurks in the underlying meaning. The meaning of a name is a combination of the meaning of “the” and the meaning of a predicate attached to it. The question then is whether this is true: is that what names mean?

Critics of the description theory make much of the point that the speaker might be wrong about the predicates she ascribes to the bearer of a name she uses. You might, for example, be wrong to suppose that Godel proved the incompleteness of arithmetic, but you would still refer to Godel with “Godel”.[1] But you might also be wrong about existence and uniqueness: you might think a certain something exists when it doesn’t, or that there is only one thing of a certain kind and there isn’t. Suppose you believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real detective and bandy his name about under that misguided impression: you don’t hesitate to speak of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, living at 10 Baker Street. However, other members of your speech community correctly believe the description “the fictional detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle” to be true of Holmes. Don’t you still refer to the fictional character despite your false existence belief? The speech community’s reference carries the day. You might also be wrong about uniqueness in the case of Godel (maybe several people proved the incompleteness theorem, including him), but it wouldn’t affect your ability to refer using the name “Godel”. These beliefs are extraneous to your use of the name to refer to a certain individual. But they are not extraneous to the use of the associated description: you can’t use a description to successfully refer if its existence and uniqueness conditions fail. You can’t use “the aristocrat of France” to refer if there are no aristocrats in France or if there are many—you won’t succeed in referring to anything. This suggests the following thesis: names do not have the semantic implications of descriptions with respect to existence and uniqueness, and hence they cannot be analyzed by means of descriptions. We are accustomed to the idea that names lack connotation, i.e. they carry no descriptive or predicative content; the thesis to be considered is that they also lack the semantic content carried by “the”, as that word is analyzed by Russell.

It will help if I introduce some terminology: I will call a designator loaded if it expresses the kind of content attributed by Russell to definite descriptions; and I will call a designator desiccated if it does not express such content. Then my thesis is that only definite descriptions are loaded; names and demonstratives are not–they are desiccated. The intuitive point is that descriptions carry a rich and demanding semantic content—the existence and uniqueness of something of a certain kind—while names and demonstratives carry no such commitments (we could also call them “non-committal designators”). Consider uniqueness first. Suppose I point to a dog at the park and say, “that dog is lively”: I make no claims of uniqueness at all with respect to the predicate I use—and indeed there are many dogs milling around in front of me. I simply single out a particular dog by using the apparatus of demonstrative reference, in which context plays a vital role. I make no attempt to describe the dog in question uniquely. It is no objection to my speech act to say, “But there are lots of dogs in the park!” It is otherwise with “the dog whose owner is Bill Smith”—here we take on the burden of supplying individuating conditions. Similarly with names: if I say, “Bill Smith has a lively dog”, I don’t purport to provide individuating descriptive conditions for the bearer of the name I use—I may have no idea of such conditions. It is quite otherwise with “the inventor of bifocals” where I do purport to provide a uniquely identifying description (if more than one person, or no one at all, invented bifocals, I have misspoken). This designator is loaded, fully committed—while demonstratives and names are desiccated, non-committal about the properties of the designated object.

The question of existence is trickier because we normally do assume existence for the things we refer to in a desiccated manner. But it is noteworthy that there are many contexts in which this assumption is suspended. If I am under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, I might remark, “That pink elephant is looking thoughtful”, knowing quite well that I am hallucinating said elephant. But I can’t say, “The pink elephant is looking thoughtful” without implying that it exists: for, according to Russell’s analysis, that would entail “There exists a pink elephant”. A brain in a vat could use demonstratives to refer to non-existent objects, but if it were to switch to definite descriptions it would incur the charge of making false statements (or neither true nor false). This is simply because demonstratives don’t literally say that they refer to existing entities, so semantically there is no contradiction between them and statements of non-existence. But descriptions do literally say that their reference exists, so there is a contradiction if we add, “However, there is no such thing as a pink elephant”.[2] Therefore it is not possible to analyze demonstratives by means of descriptions, as construed by Russell. They are too desiccated for that, too neutral, too non-committal. They don’t logically imply existence or uniqueness—not as a matter of their semantic content. But descriptions do, as is revealed in their explicitly containing the word “the”. That word is a quantifier, according to Russell, but there is no trace of it in names and demonstratives. This is why we are happy to use proper names for fictional characters—there is no logical implication of existence deriving from the semantics of the name. There is nothing that needs to be canceled in order not to be accused of error. But using descriptions for fictional entities invites criticism because it carries an implication of existence: you can’t just say “the detective who lives at 10 Baker Street” and expect to be taken to refer to a fictional entity. The word “the” actively quantifies, and so needs to have this implication canceled in some way, whereas the name “Sherlock Holmes” tells us nothing about the existential status of its bearer. Thus names can’t be analyzed by means of descriptions.

The intuition behind non-descriptive theories of names is that names are simply labels or tags with no internal semantic structure. Once we take on board Russell’s analysis of descriptions we see more clearly the kind of semantic structure that descriptions possess; in particular, we see that descriptions are not themselves name-like, i.e. labels or tags. They are loaded not desiccated. Descriptions contain a predicate, a quantifier, and a uniqueness operator. They are semantically intricate and referentially demanding. Names are not like this, which is why they can be used in the absence of an existence claim and without providing any individuating concept (ditto demonstratives). The description theory overstates their semantic commitments (or ambitions). It would be different if descriptions were simply denoting devices without significant internal semantic structure, but Russell’s theory shows us just how complex they really are—the word “the” packs a semantic punch. Thus it is not possible to analyze names and demonstratives by means of descriptions. This is an ironic result given that Russell himself held both a description theory of (ordinary) proper names and his three-clause analysis of descriptions, not seeing that the latter rules out the former. A natural alternative theory would anchor names in demonstratives not descriptions and reject a description theory of demonstratives (which looks pretty hopeless anyway). It is certainly very clear that a demonstrative doesn’t embed a uniquely identifying descriptive condition, relying instead on context to select a unique reference. We might indeed say that the whole point of demonstratives is to circumvent the need for individuating descriptions—instead we just point and say “that” (coupled with a suitable noun). And the reason a description must be loaded is that it can’t rely on context in this way: it needs to contain within itself the means and mechanism of reference.

The point I am making is distinct from the kind of point made by Kripke against the description theory: it is not a point about the rigidity of names or about the fallibility of our beliefs concerning the properties of the things we name. It is a point that only emerges once Russell’s theory of descriptions is properly absorbed: names would have to be equivalent to descriptions as so understood. According to that theory, a name would have to imply existence and uniqueness under a concept, but it is doubtful that this is the case with names—they make no such ambitious claims. The word “the”, as explicated by Russell, does not appear in their analysis. It is not just that names are not descriptive, i.e. predicative; they are also not in the business of asserting existence and uniqueness.[3]


[1] The example is from Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, the locus classicus of anti-descriptivism about names.

[2] Quine’s doctrine of ontological commitment can be stated as the principle that only what you say there is do you say there is. Applied to the present question, this tells us that descriptions say that something exists (according to Russell) but names and demonstratives don’t say any such thing—though their use may conversationally imply or otherwise assume it. Descriptions are quantifiers, but names and demonstratives are not: hence the description theory is false.

[3] This is, of course, true of nearly all expressions: hardly any words contain an assertion of existence and uniqueness—predicates, connectives, prepositions, adverbs, etc. In fact, it looks as if only definite descriptions work this way. So it is not surprising that names and demonstratives (as well as indexical expressions generally) also fail to have this kind of semantic content. Descriptions are special.