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Russell's Theory of Descriptions

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RUSSELL'S THEORY OF DESCRIPTIONS In this essay I shall deal with definite descriptions, and how they function in logical language, with reference to Russell's Theory of Descriptions and key objections to it. I shall argue that Russell's theory, while imperfect, highlights a number of important puzzles that arise when treating definite descriptions as singular terms, and that his theory should be considered significant to our understanding of definite descriptions What is a definite description? Definite descriptions are usually phrases of the form 'the so-and-so', where 'so-and-so' is a singular noun1. Examples include; 'the student', 'the cat' and '"the present King of France"'2. There are numerous phrases that do not begin with the definite article 'the', but are still encompassed by the term 'definite description'. These would include phrases such as 'Elizabeth's cat', and can be rephrased into the form 'the so-and-so'. However, some 'the so-and-so' phrases are not definite descriptions. These are phrases such as, 'the stereotypical housewife', 'the tiger is a rare beast' or 'the sand on this beach'. These are phrases that either fail to allude to an individual, or directly refer to a plural or even a mass. What is Russell's Theory of (Definite) Descriptions? Definite descriptions are often treated as singular terms. A singular term introduces a specific object into the truth conditions of the sentence in which it is being mentioned3. Whether a particular phrase is a singular term can be determined by three 'tests'4. In the summary of these tests, 'x' functions as a placeholder for any phrase, and if that phrase is a singular term, the arguments posed in the three tests will be valid. ...read more.


a) There is such a thing, x, as x is the present King of France, only x is the present King of France and x is bald. 2) a) There is not such a thing x, as x is the present King of France, only x is the present King of France and x is not bald b) There is such a thing x, as x is the present King of France, only x is the present King of France and x is not bald. It is clear that 1) is currently false, as France is not a monarchy. However, there is an ambiguity with "The present King of France is not bald"17, and this stems from how the phrase can be written in logical language. 2)a) is clearly true, as the whole concept of there being a 'PKF' at all is being negated, whereas in 2)b) it is only the baldness that is being negated, and so the case is false according to Russell as it requires there to be a "present King of France"18. So it seems that while "The present King of France is bald" is not true, whether "The present King of France is not bald" is true or false is unknown, due to the ambiguity of exactly what is being negated in that phrase. Using the 'law of excluded middle' to name this puzzle is therefore somewhat inaccurate, as strictly the law concerns a phrase ('the A is B') and a full negation of that phrase (~(the A is B)), and it can be seen that one of 'the PKF is B' and '~(the PKF is not B)' ...read more.


If one said 'the owner of the horse', it would clearly mean 'there is x, such that x owns the horse and only x owns the horse, and x loves the horse. The phrase "the owner of a horse" acts like an ambiguous description, and "there is someone particular, who owns a horse and loves that horse most of the time" is a fairly unnatural reading. It would be interesting to see how Russell might deal with this challenge, but it does not seem manifest as an important objection. A second objection is that of definite descriptions where a particular, but not unique item is being talked about, and it is not clear which particular item this is. For example, 'the tea towel needs washing'. This usage definite descriptions can be clarified by some unspoken knowledge, such as if the speaker knows of a particular tea towel that is particularly dirty, he has mentally tagged that item as unique, and can refer to it as 'the tea towel'. However, an outsider would have trouble working out which tea-towel he was talking about. Again, this is not a considerable objection to the fundamentals of theory, but it would be interesting to see how Russell might respond to it. I feel that, in general, Russell's Theory of Descriptions is comprehensive and detailed, effectively taking into account the normal behavior of definite descriptions. It provides a robust hypothesis for the functioning of definite descriptions, despite some need for clarification in the cases highlighted here. These irregularities can be seen as a challenge, rather than a refutation of the core of the theory. ...read more.

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