Russell's Theory of Descriptions and Its Critics

Topics: Bertrand Russell, Analytic philosophy, Philosophy of language Pages: 5 (1673 words) Published: April 20, 2006
The introduction to the "theory of descriptions" was written by Bertrand Russell in an article titled "On Denoting" in 1905 and is one of the most studied chapters in analytic philosophy. It is said, "...the choice of whether to accept or reject Russell's theory has had profound consequences for our philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics." One of Russell's motivations for developing the "theory of descriptions" was his abandonment of his "theory of denoting concepts," which is simply put as "the way of accommodating indirect aboutness." The "theory of denoting concepts" works such that where you are given a definite or indefinite description inside of a sentence, the sentence is made to state not the objects that it corresponds to, but instead, states a concept which contains those objects. Russell devoted a large amount of time trying to work out the details of this theory. The point where Russell changed direction from his "theory of denoting concepts" to his "theory of descriptions," was when he started to accept the views of the Meinongian argument. It was not until later when Russell realized in the years between the "theory of denoting concepts" and his discovery of "the theory of descriptions" that he did not fully commit to the Meinongian argument and that there were reasons he should not believe in it at all. We see this to be true in Russell's work, My Philosophical Development, when he admits that before his discovery of the theory of descriptions, Meinong had him convinced that if a person were to say that something such as unicorn did not exist that it ultimately had to exist in some realm or else your statement would be absolutely meaningless. Hylton's text explains that despite the accusations delivered to Russell about adopting the "theory of descriptions" merely to avoid the Meinongian argument, there are four other reasons that may better serve to explain Russell's intentions. Russell explained, "the theory of descriptions gives us an analysis of definite descriptions…which is well integrated with the needs of logic." This meant that the ability to reason from factual knowledge, which involves definite descriptions, is a matter of "ordinary knowledge." Russell sought to do so in hopes of keeping the lines of logic as uncomplicated as possible. Second, Russell realized that his former theory, the "theory of concepts" was open to many internal difficulties such as a proposition that is about any given denoting concept cannot contain that denoting concept. This means that it would be about its denotation. Russell says that for this to happen, a proposition that is about a denoting concept can only be indirectly about it. This in itself causes an "infinite hierarchy" that Hylton explains is too lengthy to be covered. Third, Hylton says that Russell's own "theory of denoting concepts" was not up to Russell's standards. The theory explains generalities such as the proposition that "all prime numbers are odd." Russell says that this proposition contains the denoting concept all prime numbers, which is the mechanism for explaining that if a number is odd it is a prime number. Hylton says that this concept works for simple ideas such as this, but when we come to more complex ideas, such as a sentence with two or more variables, we cannot go forward with the connection unless certain assumptions are to be made. Fourth, Hylton says that Russell's theory contradicted direct realism, which is what Russell's entire view on Philosophy was based on. The "theory of denoting concepts" gave no explanation to the exceptions that were made to direct realism. The theory is setup to describe singular descriptions such as phrases that begin with the word "the", where a specific subject is the object. An example of this would be, "the man is white." This is a definite description and Russell shortens the term to merely ‘descriptions'. We would deduce from this sentence that there is exactly one...

Bibliography: Hylton, Peter. "The Theory Of Descriptions." The Cambridge Companion To Bertrand Russell. Ed. Nicholas Griffin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2003.
Lycan, William. Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. London: Routledge, 1999.
Russell, Bertrand. The Problems Of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997.
"Descriptions" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005.
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