|Born||Bertrand Arthur William Russell|
(1872-05-18)18 May 1872
Trellech, Monmouthshire, United Kingdom
|Died||2 February 1970(1970-02-02) (aged 97)|
Penrhyndeudraeth, Caernarfonshire, Wales, United Kingdom
|Education||Trinity College, Cambridge|
|Spouse(s)||Alys Pearsall Smith|
(m. 1894; div. 1921)
(m. 1921; div. 1935)
Marjorie "Patricia" Spence
(m. 1936; div. 1952)
|Awards||De Morgan Medal(1932)|
Nobel Prize in Literature(1950)
|Institutions||Trinity College, Cambridge, London School of Economics|
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (; 18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. At various points in his life, Russell considered himself a liberal, a socialist and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had "never been any of these things, in any profound sense". Russell was born in Monmouthshire into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in the United Kingdom.
In the early 20th century, Russell led the British "revolt against idealism". He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege, colleague G. E. Moore and protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. He is widely held to be one of the 20th century's premier logicians. With A. N. Whitehead he wrote Principia Mathematica, an attempt to create a logical basis for mathematics. His philosophical essay "On Denoting" has been considered a "paradigm of philosophy". His work has had a considerable influence on mathematics, logic, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science (see type theory and type system) and philosophy, especially the philosophy of language, epistemology and metaphysics.
Russell was a prominent anti-war activist and he championed anti-imperialism. Occasionally, he advocated preventive nuclear war, before the opportunity provided by the atomic monopoly had passed and "welcomed with enthusiasm" world government. He went to prison for his pacifism during World War I. Later, Russell concluded war against Adolf Hitler was a necessary "lesser of two evils" and criticized Stalinisttotalitarianism, attacked the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War and was an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament. In 1950, Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought".
Early life and background
Bertrand Russell was born on 18 May 1872 at Ravenscroft, Trellech, Monmouthshire, into an influential and liberal family of the British aristocracy. His parents, Viscount and Viscountess Amberley, were radical for their times. Lord Amberley consented to his wife's affair with their children's tutor, the biologist Douglas Spalding. Both were early advocates of birth control at a time when this was considered scandalous. Lord Amberley was an atheist and his atheism was evident when he asked the philosopher John Stuart Mill to act as Russell's secular godfather. Mill died the year after Russell's birth, but his writings had a great effect on Russell's life.
His paternal grandfather, the Earl Russell, had been asked twice by Queen Victoria to form a government, serving her as Prime Minister in the 1840s and 1860s. The Russells had been prominent in England for several centuries before this, coming to power and the peerage with the rise of the Tudor dynasty (see: Duke of Bedford). They established themselves as one of the leading British Whig families, and participated in every great political event from the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536–40 to the Glorious Revolution in 1688–89 and the Great Reform Act in 1832.
Lady Amberley was the daughter of Lord and Lady Stanley of Alderley. Russell often feared the ridicule of his maternal grandmother, one of the campaigners for education of women.
Childhood and adolescence
Russell had two siblings: brother Frank (nearly seven years older than Bertrand), and sister Rachel (four years older). In June 1874 Russell's mother died of diphtheria, followed shortly by Rachel's death. In January 1876, his father died of bronchitis following a long period of depression. Frank and Bertrand were placed in the care of their staunchly Victorian paternal grandparents, who lived at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park. His grandfather, former Prime Minister Earl Russell, died in 1878, and was remembered by Russell as a kindly old man in a wheelchair. His grandmother, the Countess Russell (née Lady Frances Elliot), was the dominant family figure for the rest of Russell's childhood and youth.
The countess was from a Scottish Presbyterian family, and successfully petitioned the Court of Chancery to set aside a provision in Amberley's will requiring the children to be raised as agnostics. Despite her religious conservatism, she held progressive views in other areas (accepting Darwinism and supporting Irish Home Rule), and her influence on Bertrand Russell's outlook on social justice and standing up for principle remained with him throughout his life. (One could challenge the view that Bertrand stood up for his principles, based on his own well-known quotation: "I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong".) Her favourite Bible verse, 'Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil' (Exodus 23:2), became his motto. The atmosphere at Pembroke Lodge was one of frequent prayer, emotional repression, and formality; Frank reacted to this with open rebellion, but the young Bertrand learned to hide his feelings.
Russell's adolescence was very lonely, and he often contemplated suicide. He remarked in his autobiography that his keenest interests were in religion and mathematics, and that only his wish to know more mathematics kept him from suicide. He was educated at home by a series of tutors. When Russell was eleven years old, his brother Frank introduced him to the work of Euclid, which transformed his life.
During these formative years he also discovered the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. In his autobiography, he writes: "I spent all my spare time reading him, and learning him by heart, knowing no one to whom I could speak of what I thought or felt, I used to reflect how wonderful it would have been to know Shelley, and to wonder whether I should meet any live human being with whom I should feel so much sympathy". Russell claimed that beginning at age 15, he spent considerable time thinking about the validity of Christian religious dogma, which he found very unconvincing. At this age, he came to the conclusion that there is no free will and, two years later, that there is no life after death. Finally, at the age of 18, after reading Mill's "Autobiography", he abandoned the "First Cause" argument and became an atheist.
University and first marriage
Russell won a scholarship to read for the Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge, and commenced his studies there in 1890, taking as coach Robert Rumsey Webb. He became acquainted with the younger George Edward Moore and came under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead, who recommended him to the Cambridge Apostles. He quickly distinguished himself in mathematics and philosophy, graduating as seventh Wrangler in the former in 1893 and becoming a Fellow in the latter in 1895.
Russell first met the American QuakerAlys Pearsall Smith when he was 17 years old. He became a friend of the Pearsall Smith family – they knew him primarily as "Lord John’s grandson" and enjoyed showing him off. He traveled with them to the continent; it was in their company that Russell visited the Paris Exhibition of 1889 and was able to climb the Eiffel Tower soon after it was completed.
He soon fell in love with the puritanical, high-minded Alys, who was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, and, contrary to his grandmother's wishes, married her on 13 December 1894. Their marriage began to fall apart in 1901 when it occurred to Russell, while he was cycling, that he no longer loved her. She asked him if he loved her and he replied that he did not. Russell also disliked Alys's mother, finding her controlling and cruel. It was to be a hollow shell of a marriage and they finally divorced in 1921, after a lengthy period of separation. During this period, Russell had passionate (and often simultaneous) affairs with a number of women, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and the actress Lady Constance Malleson. Some have suggested that at this point he had an affair with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the English governess and writer, and first wife of T. S. Eliot.
Russell began his published work in 1896 with German Social Democracy, a study in politics that was an early indication of a lifelong interest in political and social theory. In 1896 he taught German social democracy at the London School of Economics. He was a member of the Coefficients dining club of social reformers set up in 1902 by the Fabian campaigners Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
He now started an intensive study of the foundations of mathematics at Trinity. In 1898 he wrote An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry which discussed the Cayley–Klein metrics used for non-Euclidean geometry. He attended the International Congress of Philosophy in Paris in 1900 where he met Giuseppe Peano and Alessandro Padoa. The Italians had responded to Georg Cantor, making a science of set theory; they gave Russell their literature including the Formulario mathematico. Russell was impressed by the precision of Peano's arguments at the Congress, read the literature upon returning to England, and came upon Russell's paradox. In 1903 he published The Principles of Mathematics, a work on foundations of mathematics. It advanced a thesis of logicism, that mathematics and logic are one and the same.
At the age of 29, in February 1901, Russell underwent what he called a "sort of mystic illumination", after witnessing Whitehead's wife's acute suffering in an angina attack. "I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty ... and with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable", Russell would later recall. "At the end of those five minutes, I had become a completely different person."
In 1905 he wrote the essay "On Denoting", which was published in the philosophical journal Mind. Russell was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1908. The three-volume Principia Mathematica, written with Whitehead, was published between 1910 and 1913. This, along with the earlier The Principles of Mathematics, soon made Russell world-famous in his field.
In 1910 he became a University of Cambridge lecturer at Trinity college where he studied. He was considered for a Fellowship, which would give him a vote in the college government and protect him from being fired for his opinions, but was passed over because he was "anti-clerical", essentially because he was agnostic. He was approached by the Austrian engineering student Ludwig Wittgenstein, who became his PhD student. Russell viewed Wittgenstein as a genius and a successor who would continue his work on logic. He spent hours dealing with Wittgenstein's various phobias and his frequent bouts of despair. This was often a drain on Russell's energy, but Russell continued to be fascinated by him and encouraged his academic development, including the publication of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in 1922. Russell delivered his lectures on Logical Atomism, his version of these ideas, in 1918, before the end of World War I. Wittgenstein was, at that time, serving in the Austrian Army and subsequently spent nine months in an Italian prisoner of war camp at the end of the conflict.
First World War
During World War I, Russell was one of the few people to engage in active pacifist activities and in 1916, because of his lack of a Fellowship, he was dismissed from Trinity College following his conviction under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914. He later described this as an illegitimate means the state used to violate freedom of expression, in Free Thought and Official Propaganda. Russell played a significant part in the Leeds Convention in June 1917, a historic event which saw well over a thousand "anti-war socialists" gather; many being delegates from the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist Party, united in their pacifist beliefs and advocating a peace settlement. The international press reported that Russell appeared with a number of Labour MPs, including Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden, as well as former Liberal MP and anti-conscription campaigner, Professor Arnold Lupton. After the event, Russell told Lady Ottoline Morrell that, "to my surprise, when I got up to speak, I was given the greatest ovation that was possible to give anybody".
The Trinity incident resulted in Russell being fined £100, which he refused to pay in hope that he would be sent to prison, but his books were sold at auction to raise the money. The books were bought by friends; he later treasured his copy of the King James Bible that was stamped "Confiscated by Cambridge Police".
A later conviction for publicly lecturing against inviting the US to enter the war on the United Kingdom's side resulted in six months' imprisonment in Brixton prison (see Bertrand Russell's views on society) in 1918. He later said of his imprisonment:
I found prison in many ways quite agreeable. I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, "Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy"... and began the work for "Analysis of Mind"
— The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell
Russell was reinstated to Trinity in 1919, resigned in 1920, was Tarner Lecturer 1926 and became a Fellow again in 1944 until 1949.
In 1924, Bertrand again gained press attention when attending a "banquet" in the House of Commons with well-known campaigners, including Arnold Lupton, who had been a Member of Parliament and had also endured imprisonment for "passive resistance to military or naval service".
G. H. Hardy on the Trinity controversy and Russell's personal life
In 1941, G. H. Hardy wrote a 61-page pamphlet titled Bertrand Russell and Trinity – published later as a book by Cambridge University Press with a foreword by C. D. Broad – in which he gave an authoritative account about Russell's 1916 dismissal from Trinity College, explaining that a reconciliation between the college and Russell had later taken place and gave details about Russell's personal life. Hardy writes that Russell's dismissal had created a scandal since the vast majority of the Fellows of the College opposed the decision. The ensuing pressure from the Fellows induced the Council to reinstate Russell. In January 1920, it was announced that Russell had accepted the reinstatement offer from Trinity and would begin lecturing from October. In July 1920, Russell applied for a one year leave of absence; this was approved. He spent the year giving lectures in China and Japan. In January 1921, it was announced by Trinity that Russell had resigned and his resignation had been accepted. This resignation, Hardy explains, was completely voluntary and was not the result of another altercation.
The reason for the resignation, according to Hardy, was that Russell was going through a tumultuous time in his personal life with a divorce and subsequent remarriage. Russell contemplated asking Trinity for another one-year leave of absence but decided against it, since this would have been an "unusual application" and the situation had the potential to snowball into another controversy. Although Russell did the right thing, in Hardy's opinion, the reputation of the College suffered due to Russell's resignation since the ‘world of learning’ knew about Russell's altercation with Trinity but not that the rift had healed. In 1925, Russell was asked by the Council of Trinity College to give the Tarner Lectures on the Philosophy of the Sciences; these would later be the basis for one of Russell's best received books according to Hardy: The Analysis of Matter, published in 1927. In the preface to this pamphlet, Hardy wrote:
I wish to make it plain that Russell himself is not responsible, directly or indirectly, for the writing of the pamphlet ... I wrote it without his knowledge and, when I sent him the typescript and asked for his permission to print it, I suggested that, unless it contained misstatement of fact, he should make no comment on it. He agreed to this ... no word has been changed as the result of any suggestion from him.
Between the wars
In August 1920, Russell travelled to Russia as part of an official delegation sent by the British government to investigate the effects of the Russian Revolution. He wrote a four-part series of articles, titled "Soviet Russia—1920", for the US magazine The Nation. He met Vladimir Lenin and had an hour-long conversation with him. In his autobiography, he mentions that he found Lenin disappointing, sensing an "impish cruelty" in him and comparing him to "an opinionated professor". He cruised down the Volga on a steamship. His experiences destroyed his previous tentative support for the revolution. He wrote a book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism about his experiences on this trip, taken with a group of 24 others from the UK, all of whom came home thinking well of the régime, despite Russell's attempts to change their minds. For example, he told them that he heard shots fired in the middle of the night and was sure these were clandestine executions, but the others maintained that it was only cars backfiring.
Russell's lover Dora Black, a British author, feminist and socialist campaigner, visited Russia independently at the same time; in contrast to his reaction, she was enthusiastic about the revolution.
The following autumn Russell, accompanied by Dora, visited Peking (as it was then known in the West) to lecture on philosophy for a year. He went with optimism and hope, seeing China as then being on a new path. Other scholars present in China at the time included John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel-laureate poet. Before leaving China, Russell became gravely ill with pneumonia, and incorrect reports of his death were published in the Japanese press. When the couple visited Japan on their return journey, Dora took on the role of spurning the local press by handing out notices reading "Mr. Bertrand Russell, having died according to the Japanese press, is unable to give interviews to Japanese journalists". Apparently they found this harsh and reacted resentfully.
Dora was six months pregnant when the couple returned to England on 26 August 1921. Russell arranged a hasty divorce from Alys, marrying Dora six days after the divorce was finalised, on 27 September 1921. Russell's children with Dora were John Conrad Russell, 4th Earl Russell, born on 16 November 1921, and Katharine Jane Russell (now Lady Katharine Tait), born on 29 December 1923. Russell supported his family during this time by writing popular books explaining matters of physics, ethics, and education to the layman.
From 1922 to 1927 the Russells divided their time between London and Cornwall, spending summers in Porthcurno. In the 1922 and 1923 general elections Russell stood as a Labour Party candidate in the Chelsea constituency, but only on the basis that he knew he was extremely unlikely to be elected in such a safe Conservative seat, and he was not on either occasion.
Together with Dora, Russell founded the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927. The school was run from a succession of different locations, including its original premises at the Russells' residence, Telegraph House, near Harting, West Sussex. On 8 July 1930 Dora gave birth to her third child Harriet Ruth. After he left the school in 1932, Dora continued it until 1943.
On a tour through the US in 1927 Russell met Barry Fox (later Barry Stevens) who became a well-known Gestalt therapist and writer in later years. Russell and Fox developed an intensive relationship. In Fox's words: "... for three years we were very close." Fox sent her daughter Judith to Beacon Hill School for some time. From 1927 to 1932 Russell wrote 34 letters to Fox.
Upon the death of his elder brother Frank, in 1931, Russell became the 3rd Earl Russell.
Russell's marriage to Dora grew increasingly tenuous, and it reached a breaking point over her having two children with an American journalist, Griffin Barry. They separated in 1932 and finally divorced. On 18 January 1936, Russell married his third wife, an Oxford undergraduate named Patricia ("Peter") Spence, who had been his children's governess since 1930. Russell and Peter had one son, Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, 5th Earl Russell, who became a prominent historian and one of the leading figures in the Liberal Democrat party.
Russell returned to the London School of Economics to lecture on the science of power in 1937.
During the 1930s, Russell became a close friend and collaborator of V. K. Krishna Menon, then secretary of the India League, the foremost lobby in the United Kingdom for Indian self-rule.[vague]
Second World War
Russell opposed rearmament against Nazi Germany. In 1937 he wrote in a personal letter: "If the Germans succeed in sending an invading army to England we should do best to treat them as visitors, give them quarters and invite the commander and chief to dine with the prime minister." In 1940, he changed his view that avoiding a full-scale world war was more important than defeating Hitler. He concluded that Adolf Hitler taking over all of Europe would be a permanent threat to democracy. In 1943, he adopted a stance toward large-scale warfare: "War was always a great evil, but in some particularly extreme circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils."
Before World War II, Russell taught at the University of Chicago, later moving on to Los Angeles to lecture at the UCLA Department of Philosophy. He was appointed professor at the City College of New York (CCNY) in 1940, but after a public outcry the appointment was annulled by a court judgment that pronounced him "morally unfit" to teach at the college due to his opinions, especially those relating to sexual morality, detailed in Marriage and Morals (1929). The matter was however taken to the New York Supreme Court by Jean Kay who was afraid that her daughter would be harmed by the appointment, though her daughter was not a student at CCNY. Many intellectuals, led by John Dewey, protested at his treatment.Albert Einstein's oft-quoted aphorism that "great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds" originated in his open letter, dated 19 March 1940, to Morris Raphael Cohen, a professor emeritus at CCNY, supporting Russell's appointment. Dewey and Horace M. Kallen edited a collection of articles on the CCNY affair in The Bertrand Russell Case. Russell soon joined the Barnes Foundation, lecturing to a varied audience on the history of philosophy; these lectures formed the basis of A History of Western Philosophy. His relationship with the eccentric Albert C. Barnes soon soured, and he returned to the UK in 1944 to rejoin the faculty of Trinity College.
Russell participated in many broadcasts over the BBC, particularly The Brains Trust and the Third Programme, on various topical and philosophical subjects. By this time Russell was world-famous outside academic circles, frequently the subject or author of magazine and newspaper articles, and was called upon to offer opinions on a wide variety of subjects, even mundane ones. En route to one of his lectures in Trondheim, Russell was one of 24 survivors (among a total of 43 passengers) of an aeroplane crash in Hommelvik in October 1948. He said he owed his life to smoking since the people who drowned were in the non-smoking part of the plane.A History of Western Philosophy (1945) became a best-seller and provided Russell with a steady income for the remainder of his life.
In 1942 Russell argued in favour of a moderate socialism, capable of overcoming its metaphysical principles, in an inquiry on Dialectical Materialism, launched by the Austrian artist and philosopher Wolfgang Paalen in his journal DYN, saying, "I think the metaphysics of both Hegel and Marx plain nonsense – Marx's claim to be 'science' is no more justified than Mary Baker Eddy's. This does not mean that I am opposed to socialism." In 1943, Russell expressed support for Zionism: "I have come gradually to see that, in a dangerous and largely hostile world, it is essential to Jews to have some country which is theirs, some region where they are not suspected aliens, some state which embodies what is distinctive in their culture".
In a speech in 1948, Russell said that if the USSR's aggression continued, it would be morally worse to go to war after the USSR possessed an atomic bomb than before it possessed one, because if the USSR had no bomb the West's victory would come more swiftly and with fewer casualties than if there were atom bombs on both sides. At that time, only the United States possessed an atomic bomb, and the USSR was pursuing an extremely aggressive policy towards the countries in Eastern Europe which were being absorbed into the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. Many understood Russell's comments to mean that Russell approved of a first strike in a war with the USSR, including Nigel Lawson, who was present when Russell spoke of such matters. Others, including Griffin, who obtained a transcript of the speech, have argued that he was merely explaining the usefulness of America's atomic arsenal in deterring the USSR from continuing its domination of Eastern Europe. However, just after the atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russell wrote letters, and published articles in newspapers from 1945 to 1948, stating clearly that it was morally justified and better to go to war against the USSR using atomic bombs while the United States possessed them and before the USSR did. In September 1949, one week after the USSR tested its first A-bomb, but before this became known, Russell wrote that USSR would be unable to develop nuclear weapons because following Stalin's purges only science based on Marxist principles would be practiced in the Soviet Union. After it became known that the USSR carried out its nuclear bomb tests, Russell declared his position advocating for the total abolition of atomic weapons.
In 1948, Russell was invited by the BBC to deliver the inaugural Reith Lectures—what was to become an annual series of lectures, still broadcast by the BBC. His series of six broadcasts, titled Authority and the Individual, explored themes such as the role of individual initiative in the development of a community and the role of state control in a progressive society. Russell continued to write about philosophy. He wrote a foreword to Words and Things by Ernest Gellner, which was highly critical of the later thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and of ordinary language philosophy. Gilbert Ryle refused to have the book reviewed in the philosophical journal Mind, which caused Russell to respond via The Times. The result was a month-long correspondence in The Times between the supporters and detractors of ordinary language philosophy, which was only ended when the paper published an editorial critical of both sides but agreeing with the opponents of ordinary language philosophy.
In the King's Birthday Honours of 9 June 1949, Russell was awarded the Order of Merit, and the following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. When he was given the Order of Merit, George VI was affable but slightly embarrassed at decorating a former jailbird, saying, "You have sometimes behaved in a manner that would not do if generally adopted". Russell merely smiled, but afterwards claimed that the reply "That's right, just like your brother" immediately came to mind. In 1952 Russell was divorced by Spence, with whom he had been very unhappy. Conrad, Russell's son by Spence, did not see his father between the time of the divorce and 1968 (at which time his decision to meet his father caused a permanent breach with his mother).
Russell married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, soon after the divorce, on 15 December 1952. They had known each other since 1925, and Edith had taught English at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, sharing a house for 20 years with Russell's old friend Lucy Donnelly. Edith remained with him until his death, and, by all accounts, their marriage was a happy, close, and loving one. Russell's eldest son John suffered from serious mental illness, which was the source of ongoing disputes between Russell and his former wife Dora.
In September 1961, at the age of 89, Russell was jailed for seven days in Brixton Prison for "breach of peace" after taking part in an anti-nuclear demonstration in London. The magistrate offered to exempt him from jail if he pledged himself to "good behaviour", to which Russell replied: "No, I won't."
In 1962 Russell played a public role in the Cuban Missile Crisis: in an exchange of telegrams with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev assured him that the Soviet government would not be reckless. Russell sent this telegram to President Kennedy:
YOUR ACTION DESPERATE. THREAT TO HUMAN SURVIVAL. NO CONCEIVABLE JUSTIFICATION. CIVILIZED MAN CONDEMNS IT. WE WILL NOT HAVE MASS MURDER. ULTIMATUM MEANS WAR... END THIS MADNESS.
According to historian Peter Knight, after JFK's assassination, Russell, "prompted by the emerging work of the lawyer Mark Lane in the US ... rallied support from other noteworthy and left-leaning compatriots to form a Who Killed Kennedy Committee in June 1964, members of which included Michael Foot MP, Caroline Benn, the publisher Victor Gollancz, the writers John Arden and J. B. Priestley, and the Oxford history professor Hugh Trevor-Roper." Russell published a highly critical article weeks before the Warren Commission Report was published, setting forth 16 Questions on the Assassination and equating the Oswald case with the Dreyfus affair of late 19th-century France, in which the state wrongly convicted an innocent man. Russell also criticised the American press for failing to heed any voices critical of the official version.
Bertrand Russell was opposed to war from early on, his opposition to World War I being used as grounds for his dismissal from Trinity College at Cambridge. This incident fused two of his most controversial causes, as he'd failed to be granted Fellow status, which would have protected him from firing, because he was not willing to either pretend to be a devout Christian, or at least avoid admitting he was agnostic.
He later described the resolution of these issues as essential to freedom of thought and expression, citing the incident in Free Thought and Official Propaganda, where he explained that the expression of any idea, even the most obviously "bad", must be protected not only from direct State intervention, but also economic leveraging and other means of being silenced:
The opinions which are still persecuted strike the majority as so monstrous and immoral that the general principle of toleration cannot be held to apply to them.
But this is exactly the same view as that which made possible the tortures of the Inquisition.
Russell spent the 1950s and 1960s engaged in political causes primarily related to nuclear disarmament and opposing the Vietnam War. The 1955 Russell–Einstein Manifesto was a document calling for nuclear disarmament and was signed by eleven of the most prominent nuclear physicists and intellectuals of the time. In 1966–67, Russell worked with Jean-Paul Sartre and many other intellectual figures to form the Russell Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal to investigate the conduct of the United States in Vietnam. He wrote a great many letters to world leaders during this period.
In 1956, immediately before and during the Suez Crisis, Russell expressed his opposition to European imperialism in the Middle East. He viewed the crisis as another reminder of the pressing need for a more effective mechanism for international governance, and to restrict national sovereignty to places such as the Suez Canal area "where general interest is involved". At the same time the Suez Crisis was taking place, the world was also captivated by the Hungarian Revolution and the subsequent crushing of the revolt by intervening Soviet forces. Russell attracted criticism for speaking out fervently against the Suez war while ignoring Soviet repression in Hungary, to which he responded that he did not criticise the Soviets "because there was no need. Most of the so-called Western World was fulminating". Although he later feigned a lack of concern, at the time he was disgusted by the brutal Soviet response, and on 16 November 1956, he expressed approval for a declaration of support for Hungarian scholars which
1. What are Descriptions?
Ordinarily, when philosophers talk about descriptions, they have two kinds of expressions in mind: definite descriptions—understood to be phrases of the form ‘the F’ (and their equivalents in other languages), and indefinite descriptions—understood to be phrases of the form ‘an F’ (and their equivalents in other languages). As we will see, this way of carving up the kinds of descriptions is far too blunt. First, there are many kinds of expressions that appear to have this form but that are often argued not to be descriptions. For example, in the expression ‘John is a lawyer’ it is often claimed that ‘a lawyer’ is not a genuine description, but is rather something different—a predicate for example.
Second, it is arguable that there are many expressions having surface forms quite different from ‘the F’ or ‘an F’ that could count as being descriptions. For example, it seems quite plausible that possessives like ‘my father’ are descriptions (as in ‘the father of me’). Russell also proposed that ordinary proper names could be construed as definite descriptions in disguise. Thus a name like ‘Aristotle’ might be taken as shorthand for ‘the student of Plato who taught Alexander, wrote The Nichomachean Ethics etc.’. Furthermore, as we will see, it has been argued that pronouns like ‘it’ might “stand proxy” for descriptions. So, for example, the pronoun in (1) might be taken to stand proxy for the corresponding definite description (indicated by square brackets) in (1′).
(1) A man came in the room. He turned on the TV.
(1′) A man came in the room. [The man who came in the room] turned on the TV.
Correlatively, it has been suggested that temporal anaphors like ‘then’ and modal anaphors like ‘that’ (in ‘that would have been unfortunate’) are kinds of descriptions.
Finally, as noted above, some recent analyses of descriptions have converged on the view that what contributions the determiners ‘the’ and ‘a’ make are not semantical, but rather pragmatic or even syntactic in nature. All of these possibilities will be discussed in due course, but for now we will begin with the analysis of ‘the F’ and ‘an F’ first taken up in Russell (1905, 1919).
2. Russell's Theory of Descriptions
The key idea of Russell's proposal is that a sentence like (2) containing an indefinite description, is understood to have the logical form in (2′),
(2) An F is G.
(2′) ∃x(Fx & Gx)
and a sentence like (3) containing a definite description is understood to have the logical form in (3′).
(3) The F is G.
(3′) ∃x(Fx & ∀y(Fy → x=y) & Gx)
Boiled down to its simplest non-technical form, the idea is that an expression of the form in (3) is shorthand for three claims:
- There is an F.
- At most one thing is F.
- Something that is F is G.
Following Neale (1990) we will find it useful to substitute (3a) for (3), which retains Russell's truth conditions and allows us to extend the theory to plural descriptions in a natural way.
(3a) Everything that is F is G.
Thus tweaked, Russell's analysis is that the use of a definite description in a sentence involves an existence claim, a uniqueness claim, and a maximality claim.
3. Motivations for Russell's Theory of Descriptions
There are three main motivations for the theory of descriptions; the first is metaphysical, the second involves semantical concerns in the philosophy of language, and the third is epistemological.
3.1 Metaphysical motivations for Russell's theory of descriptions
Let's start with the metaphysical motivations.
Consider a negative existential sentence like (4).
(4) The present King of France does not exist.
Because definite descriptions are devices of quantification on Russell's view they can enter into scope relations with other operators—in this case, for example, negation. Accordingly, there is a kind of ambiguity in (4), between the following two logical forms.
(5a) not ([the x: x is a present King of France] x exists)
(5b) [the x: x is a present King of France] not (x exists)
Here we are using the restricted quantifier notation adopted in Neale (1990). So for example, we read:
[the x: Fx](Gx)
as saying “the x such that x is F is G”. The material in the square brackets gives the restriction on the quantifier, and the formula in parentheses after the bracket constitutes the scope of the restricted quantifier. (We sometimes drop the outer parentheses when it is clear what the scope of the restricted quantifier is, and we sometimes add parentheses around the entire formula for disambiguation.) Thus, (5a) captures the fact that the negation has wide scope: it is not the case that the x such that x is the present King of France exists. Whereas (5b) gives the restricted quantifier wide scope: the x such that x is the present King of France fails to exist.
If one wants to avoid the ontological entanglements of nonexistent objects, then one is free to say that (5b) is false (since it involves quantifying over things that don't exist) but that (5a) is true (since it is not the case that there is a present King of France). What is negated in (5a) is not a claim about some particular individual, but rather a general claim about the world—in effect a claim that the world contains exactly one individual that is presently the King of France and that whoever is presently the King of France exists.
3.2 Semantical motivations for Russell's theory of descriptions
Russell also had a number of concerns that today we might call “semantical”. Consider the expressions ‘the Morning Star’ and ‘the Evening Star’. Both refer to (or at least denote) the planet Venus, but there are contexts in which it seems incorrect to say that they have the same meaning. For example, it was an astronomical discovery that the Morning Star was identical to the Evening Star, so it would be odd to treat an expression like ‘The Morning Star is the Evening Star’ as merely asserting some object to be self-identical. In a similar vein, if we utter (6),
(6) George wondered whether the Morning Star is the Evening Star.
we are most likely not saying that George was curious about whether Venus was identical to itself.
Frege proposed that that the solution to this puzzle involved the introduction of senses—abstract objects that fix the referents of these expressions, each having a different cognitive significance. In the case of (6), the Fregean solution would be to say that there are different senses attached to ‘the Morning Star and ‘the Evening Star’. If we take the names in (6) as standing proxy for definite descriptions, then (6) can be unpacked as in (6′).
(6′) George wondered whether the star that appears in the morning is identical to the star that appears in the evening.
Russell saw that scope relations are relevant here. So, for example, sentences like (6) evince what are sometimes called de dicto/de re ambiguities. There are circumstances under which George has some object in particular in mind and is wondering, of that object, whether it is the star that appears in the evening. We can use (6) to report this fact as well; In this case we may think of the description as taking wide scope relative to the propositional attitude verb ‘wondered’ yielding a logical form like (7).
(7) the star x that appears in the morning is such that George wondered whether x is identical to the star that appears in the evening
And of course if George has gone mad and is in fact wondering about the law of identity, this may be represented as in (8), where both descriptions have wide scope.
(8) the star x that appears in the morning is such that the star y that appears in the evening is such that George wondered whether x is identical to y.
3.3 Epistemological motivations for Russell's theory of descriptions
Metaphysical and semantical concerns were important to Russell in his 1905 paper, but epistemological concerns were no less significant. This became particularly clear when he authored his (1910–11) paper “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description.” In that paper, Russell distinguished between objects that we are directly acquainted with and objects that we only know under a description. So, for example, I might know myself by acquaintance, but I know the tallest man in Iowa only under a description.
If Ludlow (2002b) is right, the Cartesianism in Russell's psychology led him into difficulties here. The problem is that error is always a possibility, and this concern propelled Russell to minimize the class of cases where we have acquaintance and thus to extending the theory of descriptions to almost all uses of names. Ludlow maintained that Russell could have saved himself from some of the more troubling consequences of his view if he had jettisoned the Cartesianism and opted for a more externalist psychology and hence more liberal notion of acquaintance. But if Hawthorne and Manley (2012) are correct, the linking of acquaintance and reference was problematic from the start and really does not stand up to scrutiny. In their view a case can be made that reference comes much cheaper than Russell imagined.
4. Extensions of the Theory of Descriptions
The analysis of descriptions has been extended from canonical examples of descriptions (expressions of the form ‘the F’ and ‘an F’) to expressions that don't have this surface form. As we noted in section 3, one of the key motivations for Russell's theory of descriptions was the idea that it could ameliorate the problem of non-denoting expressions—expressions like ‘the Golden Mountain’, and ‘the Present King of France’. But the account has been extended to other constructions as well, including proper names, pronouns, and temporal anaphors, all with mixed results.
4.1 Descriptive theories of proper names
If the theory of descriptions can unburden us metaphysically in the case of nondenoting expressions like ‘the Present King of France’ can it do the same for us with nondenoting names like ‘Pegasus’?
It is now widely believed that the descriptive theory of names is not a satisfactory proposal in the case of fictions (like Pegasus), and that it is problematic in cases when we embed the descriptions in a certain class of intensional constructions. In the case of fictions, one problem has to do with the fact that there is often no single shared description for certain fictions. Even a simple case like ‘Santa Claus’ presents difficulties here. Many people will associate many different descriptions with the name ‘Santa Claus’. Which, if any of those descriptions is the correct one, and in what sense can we say that all the people deploying the name ‘Santa Claus’ and associating different descriptions with the term are talking about the same thing? Complicating the matter further, others might not use the term ‘Santa Claus’ but a name like ‘Saint Nick’ or ‘Babbo Natale’, and associate those terms with descriptions that converge to some degree with typical Santa descriptions.
At best the Russellian can argue that others are in the same boat here. Consider the option of non-existent objects. If such objects are individuated by their properties then we can again ask which properties the non-existent object Santa Claus is supposed to have. And is the Italian who deploys the term ‘Babbo Natale’ talking about the same nonexistent object as a child that deploys the name ‘Santa Claus’? (See Everett and Hofweber (2000) and French and Wettstein (2001) for papers on these general issues, and see Zalta (1983, 1988) for a robust defense of the nonexistent object strategy).
On the face of it then, a naïve application of the descriptive theory of names faces some serious difficulties. Devitt and Sterelney (1998, 48 ff.) catalogue them as follows:
The principled basis objection. There are a number of different descriptions that people might associate with a name like ‘Aristotle’. An historian might favor the description of ‘the teacher of Alexander the Great’, a Catholic Church historian might know him under the description of ‘the leading influence on Saint Aquinas’, some philosophers might know him under the description of ‘the pupil of Plato and author of The Metaphysics and The Nichomachean Ethics’, Plato himself might have known him under the description ‘the obnoxious student of mine.’ Which of these descriptions is the correct one, what is the principled basis that determines which description is correct?
The unwanted ambiguity objection. Suppose that we respond to the principled basis objection by letting many flowers bloom. That is, suppose we argue that there is no single correct description associated with the name but there are many. We now run into the teeth of the problem of unwanted ambiguity. Are there really that many different names, each corresponding to an different description? If so, why does ‘Aristotle was Aristotle’ seem so much less informative than ‘the teacher of Alexander the Great was the leading influence on Saint Aquinas’?
The unwanted necessity objection. Consider a sentence like ‘Aristotle taught Alexander the Great’. This seems to be a contingent claim—one that is true but matters could have gone otherwise. Aristotle could have decided it was immoral to take the position, or Phillip of Macedonia could have decided that Aristotle was not the best tutor for his young Alexander. We can imagine numerous possible worlds in which the sentence turns out to be false (unlike necessary claims like ‘5+7=12’ which appear to be true in every possible world). But now consider this sentence with the description unpacked. We get something like ‘The pupil of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great taught Alexander the Great’, and it seems that this would have to be true in every world in which someone satisfies the relevant description. The problem is that the Russellian analysis seems to turn a contingent proposition into a necessary proposition.
Searle (1958, 1969; 162 ff.) offers some modifications designed to overcome these difficulties with the descriptive theory of names. Consider a name like ‘Socrates’. Is it really part of the meaning of that name that it's bearer drank hemlock, taught Plato and did all of the other things that we are told that he did when we study the history of philosophy? Searle suggests that we needn't associate the meaning of a name with a description that contains all of these elements—it might be enough that most of them hold, or that a suitably weighted bundle of them hold. (Other versions of this idea were proposed in Strawson (1959; 180 ff.) and Wilson (1959).)
How does Searle's proposal help with the objections just listed? The unwanted necessity objection collapses immediately because the use of a name does not commit the speaker to the object in question having all the properties in the bundle. When I say Aristotle authored the Nichomachean Ethics it is as though I uttered the following:
(9) The individual who is associated with some significant number of these properties (taught by Plato, taught Alexander, wrote the Nichomachean Ethics, etc.) wrote the Nichomachean Ethics.
Someone might be associated with this bundle of properties and not written the Nichomachean Ethics (so long as they had enough of the other properties).
The principled basis objection is supposed to collapse because there is now no issue of choosing which description is the correct one—if the theologian, the historian, and the philosopher all associate different descriptions and hence different properties with Aristotle, all of those properties will make it into the bundle of properties for the name ‘Aristotle’. We don't need to worry about the principled basis for choosing the relevant properties because we don't have to choose period. We take them all.
The unwanted ambiguity objection is supposed to collapse because every use of the name ‘Aristotle’ is now associated with the same bundle of properties. ‘Aristotle is Aristotle’ is uninformative because it is shorthand for (10).
(10) The individual who is associated with some significant number of these properties (taught by Plato, taught Alexander, wrote the Nichomachean Ethics, etc.) is the individual who is associated with some significant number of these properties (taught by Plato, taught Alexander, wrote the Nichomachean Ethics, etc.).
As compelling as Searle's proposal may seem at first blush, it soon runs into problems of its own. As Devitt and Sterelny observe, the three objections to the traditional descriptive theory of names come creeping back. For starters, one presumably doesn't want every single fact about Aristotle to make it into the bundle of properties that we associate with his name (that would lead us down the path to an extreme holism in which every fact that we acquire changes the meaning of the name), so what is the principled basis for deciding what goes into the bundle? Worse, what is the principled basis by which we weight the importance of the properties in the bundle?
The unwanted ambiguity objection returns as well if we allow that different people will associate different bundles of properties with a name or at least weight those properties differently. One might be tempted to dodge this problem by arguing that the relevant bundle of properties for a name is socially fixed and does not vary between individuals, but then it is hard to see how names like ‘Scott’ and ‘Sir Walter’ could be associated with different bundles of properties since the community as a whole is likely to attribute the same bundle of properties (with the same weights) to these names. This is a problem, because different bundles of properties are needed to distinguish the differences in cognitive significance between ‘Scott’ and ‘Sir Walter’. There is a dilemma then: one can avoid the problem of unwanted ambiguity only at the expense of the problem of accounting for the cognitive significance of names.
Finally, as Kripke (1980) argued, Searle's solution really doesn't help with the problem of unwanted necessity. Aristotle might have had none of the properties that we ordinarily associate with his name. Searle certainly didn't think this was possible—for him, if nothing had the properties in question (or enough of them) then Aristotle did not exist. But Kripke (ch. 2) enlisted a number of arguments to show that the behavior of names in modal environments suggests otherwise. For example even if we concede that Aristotle did all the things he was supposed to have done, it is still the case that Aristotle could have refrained from doing any of the things he did. He could have forsaken philosophy for other pursuits. He could have been run over by a chariot at age two. But then how do we make sense of a descriptive name in a sentence like (11)?
(11) It could have happened that Aristotle was run over by a chariot at age two.
If the description is unpacked, we get something like (11′).
(11′) It could have happened that the philosopher who was taught by Plato, taught Alexander, etc. was run over by a chariot at age two.
This looks like a claim that is false—there is no nearby world where Aristotle did all those things by age two.
Kripke held that the behavior of names in these environments could only be explained if we think of the names as being rigid designators—i.e., as devices that rigidly pick out an individual across possible worlds. Kripke also stressed that this is not really a point about conditional or modal sentences—the same point can be made for simple declarative sentences evaluated in a counterfactual situation. So, for example, take a simple sentence like (12).
(12) Aristotle was run over by a chariot at age two.
We can evaluate this sentence in other possible worlds. We can say that it might have been true under certain circumstances. But it does not seem plausible that there is a nearby possible world where the following is true.
(13) The philosopher who taught was taught by Plato, taught Alexander, etc. was run over by a chariot at age two.
Finally, Donnellan (1972) and Kripke (1980) both argued that the Descriptive Theory of Names suffers from an important epistemological defect. The descriptions that we associate with names routinely do not describe the individuals that we intend to refer to. Asked to come up with a description to substitute for the name ‘Einstein’, many people would write ‘The inventor of the atom bomb’ (which of course he was not). Others might write ‘the inventor of the theory of relativity’, but then asked what the theory of relativity was would respond ‘the theory that Einstein invented’. The descriptive information that we associate with names just is not sufficient to pick out the intended referent.
Kripke's positive proposal—suggestion really—was that names are associated with a causal chain; there is an initial baptism of an individual (e.g., Albert Einstein as ‘Albert Einstein’) and that referent is passed along to other users of the name. Likewise the referent of ‘Aristotle’ is not fixed by some description, but by a causal chain linking our use of ‘Aristotle’ with some historical individual. (This is not the place for an extended discussion of this proposal, but see Devitt 1981 and Salmon 1991 for development of this idea and Evans (1973, 1980) for criticism.)
In spite of the great force of Kripke's criticism of the descriptive theory of names, there have been some significant attempts to answer them. One idea (explored by Loar (1976), McDowell (1977), and Schiffer (1978)) would have the description be something like ‘the individual designated by the name ‘Aristotle’. For Kripke (1980), and Devitt (1981) this sort of approach was hopelessly circular. Indeed, Devitt and Sterelny disparagingly referred to the position as “circular descriptivism” (but see Kroon (1989) for an attempt to disarm the circularity charge). Another idea (taken up in Kroon (1987) and Jackson (1998)) was to build reference to the causal chain into the description itself. Thus, ‘Aristotle’ might stand proxy for ‘the individual linked by a causal chain to ‘Aristotle’’ (this view was dubbed “causal descriptivism” by Lewis (1984)). Whatever the merits of these views, they clearly abandon some of the key motivations for the descriptive theories of names—in particular the idea that the description could do the work of providing the sense of the name.
Still, from a linguistic point of view, we should note that there are features of names in natural language that make them appear to be similar to descriptions. Names can take determiners like ‘a’ and ‘the’ (indeed in some languages they routinely do so), which suggests that they are behaving more like nouns than like saturated referring expression. Indeed it is a widespread linguistic analysis of names that they have possibly empty determiner positions, so that a name like Aristotle has at a minimum the following structure, which represents a syntactic structure for a determiner phrase having an empty determiner and the noun ‘Aristotle’ as constituents:
[DP [Det ∅ ] [N Aristotle]].
In addition, Burge (1973) offered a number of arguments in support of the idea that names really are predicates, and further support has come from Hornsby (1976), Larson and Segal (1995) and Eluguardo (2002). (But see Boer (1975), Bach (1987), and Higginbotham (1988) for criticism.)
The Burge story had the determiner as something like a bare demonstrative. It is not a long step to the supposition that the default interpretation of the null element is to treat it as the definite determiner ‘the’. This is in effect the proposal offered in Larson and Segal (1995); ‘Aristotle’ stands in for an incomplete definite description of the form ‘the Aristotle’. In both cases, the predicate in question would be something like being named ‘Aristotle’, so again it is difficult to see how this general approach (without emendation) can satisfy Russell's desiderata that the description play the role of senses.
An alternative riff on these ideas which has been widely discussed, but not, so far as I know, published, would be to suppose that there is a rigid property of being Aristotle—one that only Aristotle could have in any possible world (this property would be completely independent of being named ‘Aristotle’). The idea is that the content of the description could consist solely of that property. For example, when we say that ‘Aristotle might have been run over by a chariot’ we would in effect be saying there is a possible world in which the unique individual who has the property of being Aristotle was run over by a chariot. It seems that charges of circularity are not so easily advanced here, although the view does raise questions about the nature of these rigid properties and our epistemic access to them. (See Parsons (1982) for an account of the logic of rigid properties.)
Another class of responses has attempted to retain the standard descriptive content of names but moved to circumvent Kripke's modal worries. Dummett (1973; 111–135, 1981) and Sosa (1996; ch. 3, 2001) proposed that the behavior of names in modal contexts can be accounted for if we take names to be descriptions with mandatory wide scope. So, for example, (11) could be taken to have the following logical form.
(11″) [The x: x taught Alexander etc.] possibly (it was the case that x was run over by a chariot at age two)
Kripke discussed this possibility briefly in the Preface to (1980), holding that the move overlooks the fact that we can simply evaluate (12) in other possible worlds, hence no embedding within modal operators is really necessary. For that matter, consider a sentence like ‘(12) might have been true’. How does a wide scope story help us in this case? More recently, Soames (2002; ch. 2) has expanded on Kripke's points and marshaled a number of additional arguments against the wide scope thesis, including the observation that if one embeds a name within a propositional attitude environment and in turn embeds the propositional attitude in a modal environment then one is in the peculiar position of needing the description to escape the modal environment (to honor the rigidity facts) but not escape the propositional attitude environment (to honor the ‘Scott’/‘Sir Walter’ cases that Russell (1905) employed to motivate the descriptive theory of names). In other words, the description theorists need to have their cake and eat it too.
Another possibility (considered in Nelson (2002)) would be to argue that names are “rigidified descriptions” (i.e., descriptions like ‘The individual who actually was a student of Plato, taught Alexander, etc.’ or perhaps rigidified causal descriptions. This general strategy is criticized by Soames (2002; ch. 2), who argues that ‘the actual F is G’ and ‘n is G’, where n is a name, do not express the same proposition. The argument for this turns on cases where these expressions are embedded in propositional attitude environments, as in (14).
(14a) Smith believes that n is G
(14b) Smith believes that the actual F is G
According to Soames, there are contexts of utterance and worlds of evaluation where (14a) is true but (14b) is false. Accordingly, ‘the actual F is G’ and ‘n is G’ cannot express the same proposition. Hence names cannot be rigidified descriptions. (But see Nelson (2002) for a response to this argument.)
Yet another approach to defending descriptions would be to employ a “2-dimensionalist” semantics (in the sense of Stalnaker (1978, 1990), Davies and Humberstone (1980)) to account for the behavior of descriptive names in modal environments. Some form of this idea has been offered by Evans (1982), Stanley (1997a, 1997b), Chalmers (2000, 2002), and Jackson (1998). Here the basic idea is that the content of a description picks out different contents in different possible worlds. Accordingly, if we want to evaluate the descriptive content of ‘Aristotle’ in another possible world, we do not take the description ‘student of Plato…’, since that is only the appropriate description for this world. In other worlds there will be other descriptive contents. As Jackson (1998, 112) puts the idea:
If speakers can say what refers to what when various possible worlds are described to them, description theorists can identify the property associated in their [the speaker's] minds with, for example, the word ‘water’: it is the disjunction of the properties that guide the speaker in each particular possible world when the say which stuff, if any, in each world counts as water. This disjunction is in their minds in the sense that they can deliver the answer for each possible world when it is described in sufficient detail, but it is implicit in the sense that the pattern that brings the various disjuncts together as part of the, possibly highly complex, disjunction may be one they cannot state.
Soames (2003) has responded that this particular 2-dimensionalist approaches is “tantamount to the claim that descriptive theories of reference determination are priori irrefutable, since any refutation would require a clear, uncontroversial description of a possible scenario in which a name n referred to something o not satisfying the description associated with n by speakers like us, whereas our very judgment that n does refer to o in this scenario would be taken…to demonstrate the existence of an implicit description in out minds that does successfully determine reference, whether or not we can successfully state it.” Further criticism can be found in Block and Stalnaker (1998), Byrne and Pryor (2006), and Soames (2005).
This has been only a very cursory look at various descriptive theories of proper names. Suffice it to say for now that the theory of descriptive names is yet another topic area that remains contentious and a source of lively debate.
4.2 Descriptive theories of pronominal anaphora
Consider sentence (1) again.
(1) A man came in the room. He turned on the TV.
One of the arguments that Strawson (1952) enlisted on behalf of the referential theory of descriptions was the following. Since the pronoun in (1) gets its content from the description that it is anaphoric on, and because the pronoun refers, it must be the case that the description also refers. Strawson's idea was that descriptions refer because their anaphoric pronouns do.
There are obviously two responses to Strawson here. One may either reject the idea that the content of the pronoun is in some sense dependent upon the description (for example, one might claim it independently picks out some object raised to salience (Lewis 1979), one might claim that it is a bound variable (Geach 1962)), or one can argue that the pronoun is a kind of definite description in disguise. This third idea has been explored by Parsons (1978), Cooper (1979), Davies (1981), Neale (1990, ch. 6), Heim (1990), Ludlow (1994), and van Rooy (2001) (the view is sometimes attributed to Evans (1977), but it is more accurate to say that he thought the pronouns had their references fixed rigidly by descriptive content). As noted above, the basic idea is that the pronoun in (1) may stand proxy for the square-bracketed definite description in (1′).
(1′) A man came in. [The man who came in the room] turned on the TV.
The philosophical attraction of this view should be obvious. What it allows us to do is to make sense of cases where we employ nondenoting pronouns in negative existentials, belief reports, and fictional contexts. Examples would be the following:
(15) The present King of France doesn't clean my pool. He doesn't exist, either.
(16) Mary believes that the present King of France exists and that he cleans my pool.
Clearly if these pronouns are referring expressions then any victories won through the theory of descriptions are going to be fleeting. In effect, all the unwelcome metaphysical commitments that we banished by using descriptions would re-enter via the back door as soon as we employ anaphoric pronouns in our discourse. But if we treat anaphors as standing proxy for descriptions, the back door is blocked as well.
Consider an example like (16), with the descriptive material spelled out.
(16′) Mary believes that ([the x: x is a present King of France](x exists) and [the x: x is a present King of France & x exists](x cleans my pool))
Mary's belief is strange, but general for all that, so we can report it without being committed to the existence of the Present King of France.
Nor is this strategy necessarily limited to pronominal anaphora. Ludlow (1999, 2000) has argued that temporal and modal anaphora can be handled in a similar manner. In effect, one can take a temporal anaphor as standing proxy for a when-clause and a modal anaphor like ‘that’ in ‘that would have hurt’ as standing proxy for the antecedent of a conditional.
To illustrate, consider an example like (17), due to Partee (1972).
(17) I turned the stove off.
Now clearly this does not mean that I turned the stove off once in my life, but rather there is intuitively some relevant time when I turned it off—for example, when I left the house this morning. The standard analysis would have it that I refer to a past time or past time interval here, but such an analysis does not go down well with presentists like Prior and others who think there is something epistemologically troubling about referring to past times and their ilk. An alternative would be to suppose that the implicit temporal anaphora here can be accounted for by the introduction of descriptive material—an explicit temporal when-clause—as in (18), for example.
(18) I turned the stove off [when I left the house this morning].
The presentist can then treat ‘when’ as a primitive tense that holds between propositions. (See Ludlow (1999) for details.)
As in the pronominal anaphora case, descriptive material does the work that reference does in most other accounts of the semantics of temporal and modal discourse. Again, the goal is metaphysical austerity and faithfulness to our epistemic position.
Clearly descriptive anaphora represents a powerful extension of Russell's theory of descriptions and a useful tool for presentists and modal antirealists. For all of that, the theory has encountered a number of objections, many of them related to the problem of incomplete descriptions discussed in section 4.3. One issue that comes in from the start is the principled basis objection discussed earlier. Precisely where does the descriptive material for these anaphors come from? Is it material that the agent has in mind? Is it extracted from previous discourse? The difficulties here are obvious, and if anything they are accentuated in the extension of the theory to temporal anaphora in cases like (16). But the difficulties do not stop here. We also have to struggle with the uniqueness implications that are carried by definite descriptions.
Consider (19), for example, and a paraphrase (20) in which the pronoun is rendered as a description.
(19) If a man enters the room, he will turn the switch.
(20) If a man enters the room, the man who enters will turn the switch.
Heim (1982) held that (20) (unlike (19)) implies that a unique man entered the room and that (20) will therefore be false if two men enter the room. The question is, is there some way to answer this objection and retain the descriptive analysis of anaphora? Davies (1981), Lappin (1989), Neale (1990, chapter 6), Krifka (1996), and Yoon (1996) explored the possibility that the descriptive pronouns are in fact numberless—that is, the pronoun in (20) might in fact be proxy for something like ‘the man or men who enter’. (See Kanazawa (2001) for a literature review and criticism of this idea.)
Another idea, considered in Heim (1990) and Ludlow (1994) is to see how descriptive theories of pronouns fare when embedded within an event-based theory of conditionals like that articulated by Kratzer (1989), and Lycan (1984). On an event-based analysis of conditionals, we would expect a treatment of (19) along the lines of (21).
(21) [All e: e is an event] ([an x: x is a man] e is an entering by x → [the y: y is a man & e is an entering by y] ([an e*: e* is an event & e* is related to e](e* is a turning of the switch by y)))
We might understand this as saying that for all atomic events e, if e is an entering by a man then there is an event e* “related to” e which is a turning of the switch by the man. The nature of the relation will depend upon the kind of conditional. In some cases, the relation will be epistemic. In other cases the relation might be causal. (Here we are ignoring some very serious complications that arise with examples like ‘most men who entered turned the switch’.)
Sentence (21) seems to accurately reflect the truth conditions of ‘He will turn the switch’, even in the case where two men turn the switch simultaneously. To see this we need merely recognize that even though two men (say Ralph and Norton) may turn the switch simultaneously, it is still the case that we can recognize two independent atomic events; one where Ralph turns the switch and one where Norton turns the switch. The strategy is to show that the supposed loss of uniqueness is an epiphenomenon, and is due to the fact that the descriptive pronoun's denotation is relativized to events.
Unfortunately, there are more sophisticated versions of these cases where simple relativization to events will not do. These include the sage plant examples discussed in Heim (1982, 1990) and Kadmon (1990).
(22) If a man buys a plant he buys nine others along with it.
The problem is that when one fleshes out the descriptive content of the pronoun as in (23) it appears that the sentence is necessarily false.
(23) If a man buys a sage plant he buys nine others along with the sage plants he bought.
If nine plants are bought in addition to the plants purchased then there are eighteen plants purchased, but there must be nine plants purchased in addition to those, etc.
Finally, there is a version of example (24). (Heim (1990) attributes the example to Hans Kamp and Jan van Eijk).
(24) If a bishop meets another bishop, he blesses him.
The interesting feature of this example is that the uniqueness implications of the definite descriptions remain problematic, for they imply that there is a unique satisfier of the description in each event. But notice that because the bishops bless each other, it appears there is no unique individual that satisfies either description in the consequent of (24).
What is to be done about these cases? One idea that has received currency of late is to treat the pronoun in these cases as semantically akin to an indefinite description rather than a definite description. (See Groendijk and Stokhof (1991), Chierchia (1996), van der Does (1994), and also see van Rooy (2001) for criticism. The proposal in King (1978) has a similar effect.) If we make this move, then (24) might be glossed as in (24′).
(24′) If a bishop meets another bishop, a bishop that meets another bishop blesses a bishop that is met by another bishop.
Similarly, the sage plant example in (23) would receive the gloss in (23′).
(23′) If a man buys a sage plant he buys nine others along with a sage plant he bought.
Obviously, this has to be handled with some delicacy. In the bishops case we need to be sure that the domain of quantification is restricted (cf. section 4.3 above) so that there are no stray bishops on the scene and we also want to block cases in which one bishop blesses himself while the other blesses no one.
Of course, as Kadmon (1990) stressed, pronouns typically do have uniqueness implications, as an example like (25) shows.
(25) Leif has a chair. It is in the kitchen
Notice that the first sentence doesn't have this implication, so the pronoun has a uniqueness implication that indefinites do not. What this means is that whatever account we give of pronouns—through dynamic semantics or whatever—we will want to account for this variation in interpretation in a principled way. We want to know precisely why a pronoun looks like a definite description here, but an indefinite description there. Whether extant accounts are satisfactory in this respect is subject to debate.
Of course, none of this is to say that solving this problem will close the book on the analysis of descriptive pronouns. A number of other puzzles remain, including the problem of pronominal contradiction, which has been discussed by Strawson (1952), Davies (1981), Ludlow and Neale (1991), and van Rooy (2001) among many others. Consider the following brief dialogue.
A: A man fell in front of the train
B: He didn't fall, he was pushed.
The problem is that if the pronoun is to have its descriptive content recovered from previous discourse, the pronoun ‘He’ is going to stand proxy for a description like ‘the man who fell in front of the train’ or ‘a man who fell in front of the train’. Here, considerations about uniqueness implications are of little help. One possibility, advocated by Davies (1981) and Ludlow and Neale (1991) is to say that speaker B is engaged in a kind of pretense—playing along with speaker A, as if saying with scare quotes something like B′.
B′: The “man who fell in front of the train” didn't fall, he was pushed
Other strategies are also in play, for example one might ignore the descriptive content of the antecedent and build the content out of thematic roles like agent and theme (Ludlow 1994), or perhaps metalinguistic material (“the person you spoke of”). Whatever the ultimate disposition of these cases, it is fair to say that there are more issues here than whether pronouns are to be treated as standing proxy for definite descriptions or indefinite descriptions.
Given the difficulties with descriptive theories of pronominal anaphora it is not surprising that there are alternatives that are widely preferred. Key among these theories are a class of approaches to anaphora in which anaphors are free variables which are bound by discourse operators of some form—i.e., operators that have scope over the entire discourse—or perhaps are interpreted by the model theory in such a way that the same effect ensues. These theories, which include Discourse Representation Theory (DRT) are also motivated by considerations about the proper treatment of indefinite descriptions, so we will discuss them in more detail in the next section.
4.3 Indefinite descriptions
Most of the action in the philosophy of language has been with definite descriptions, but indefinite descriptions have also generated a fair bit of attention—some of it mirroring the debates about definite descriptions. For example Chastain (1975), Donnellan (1978), Wilson (1978), and Fodor and Sag (1982), held that indefinite descriptions are ambiguous between referential and quantificational interpretations. That is to say, there are referential and quantificational uses of indefinite descriptions and these are a reflex of a genuine semantical ambiguity. The basic structure of their argument was the following. Referential uses of indefinites must be either a function of quantifier scope or a semantically referential indefinite determiner. Since indefinites with the relevant scopal properties would violate standard syntactic constraints, indefinites must in some cases be semantically referential.
Examples of the kinds of syntactic considerations they had in mind include island constraints like the following. Quantified expressions are ordinarily considered to be clause bound. So, for example, a sentence like (26) is not supposed to have the interpretation in (26′), where the quantified expression takes wide scope.
(26) Someone believes that every man I know is angry
(26′) *[every y: man(y) and know(I,y)]([Some x: person(x)](x believes that y is angry))
On the other hand, it seems more natural to say that (27) can have the interpretation corresponding to the structure in (27′).
(27) Everyone believes that a man I know is angry
(27′) [An x: man(x) and know(I,x)]([every y: person(y)](y believes that x is angry))
A more compelling example of an island constraint would be the antecedent of a conditional, as in (28), which is not supposed to have the interpretation in (28′).
(28) If every man I know is happy then I will be happy
(28′) *[every x: man(x) and know(I,x)](if x is happy then I will be happy)
But a “wide understanding” of (29) does seem to be possible.
(29) If a man I know is happy then I will be happy
(29′) [An x: man(x) and know(I,x)](if x is happy then I will be happy)
The moral was supposed to be that these “wide” readings are not the reflex of wide scope quantification (that would be to make indefinite descriptions syntactically special), but rather due to the fact that the indefinites in these examples are referring expressions.
The Fodor and Sag argumentation was taken up in the philosophical literature by King (1988) and Ludlow and Neale (1991), who argued that there is a confusion in the Fodor and Sag discussion. Kripke's claim, of course, was that referential uses of a description are a function of pragmatics, not quantifier scope. Nor, of course, could a referential use be associated with wide scope, as Kripke (1977) argued forcefully—they simply are not the same phenomenon. The problem is that the Fodor and Sag arguments do not seem to address the pragmatic account of referential uses, which of course was the alternative advanced by Kripke.
In addition, there do appear to be more quantifier scope possibilities than the Fodor and Sag proposal seems to allow. Consider (30), from Ludlow and Neale and (31) from Kripke.
(30) Each teacher overheard many exclamations that a student of mine cheated.
(31) Hoover charged that the Berrigans plotted to kidnap a high American official
In the case of (30) ‘a student of mine’ can have narrow scope with respect to ‘every teacher’ but wide scope with respect to ‘many exclamations’. Similarly, as Kripke (1977) observed, intermediate scope is possible in (31) (as when the Berrigans have someone in mind, but Hoover does not know who). Similar observations about the possibility of intermediate scope have been made by Farkas (1981), Rooth and Partee (1982), King (1988), Ruys (1992) and Abusch (1994). How are Fodor and Sag supposed to generate readings like that, given only a referential/quantificational ambiguity and no relative scope relations? As Kripke put the point, “no two-fold distinction can replace Russell's notion of scope.” While this tells against referential analysis of indefinites, it opens a can of worms for the other approaches as well; for example, if indefinite descriptions are ordinary quantified expressions, then why do they have such extraordinary island-escaping properties (or at least appear to)?
One attractive possibility that has emerged from the literature in Discourse Representation Theory—in particular in work by Heim (1982), Kamp (1984), Deising (1992), Kamp and Reyle (1993)—has been that the appearance of a determiner in an indefinite description is chimeral—‘a man’ in fact comes to an expression containing a predicate and a free variable, as in ‘manx’. This free variable might then be picked up by some sort of discourse operator as discussed in the previous section.
Accordingly, a sentence like (1) might have a logical form, or better, a discourse representation structure akin to (1*) (abstracting from details).
(1*) [[man(x) came in the room] [x turned on the TV]]
This general strategy gives us some explanation for why indefinites sometimes appear to have island escaping properties as in cases like conditionals. The answer is that they don't escape at all, but are free variables that are bound by operators outside of the island. This describes the DRT strategy only in the most general of terms, but we can already see that the questions that plague the Russellian story have their reflex here as well. Everyone now recognizes that intermediate scope is a possibility in cases like (30) and (31), but the question is just what mechanisms make it possible? The Russellian has to opt for operators with unusual island escaping properties. What is the DRT theorist to do?
One option, explored by Reinhart (1996), Kratzer (1995), and Winter (1997), employs the device of choice functions. As Winter informally characterizes the doctrine, the idea is as follows.
(A1) Indefinites lack quantificational force of their own
(A2) An indefinite NP in an argument position, however, ends up denoting an individual, because the semantics involves a free function variable that assigns an individual to the restriction predicate.
(A3) This function variable is existentially closed, together with the restriction that it is a choice function: a function that chooses a member from any non-empty predicate it gets.
How does this help in the case of intermediate scope? For Reinhart (1996), choice functions by themselves cannot account for the extant phenomena (in particular cases of intermediate scope), so the theory must be supplemented with standard quantifier raising accounts as well. Winter (1997) has offered a more general account employing choice functions (also extending the account to plural indefinites) that purport to make do without the additional resource of quantifier raising.
The interesting conceptual issue that arises, whether we opt for standard DRT accounts or such accounts supplemented with choice functions, is whether this departs from the Russellian analysis of indefinite descriptions in important ways. In one respect, of course, the accounts are very different—Russell takes indefinite descriptions to be existential quantifiers, while the DRT accounts take them to be akin to free variables. On the other hand, once the free variables are interpreted the effect comes to very much the same thing: in both cases the accounts are fundamentally quantificational.
Not everyone has seen DRT theory and choice functions in this light. Kratzer (1995) maintained that the choice function provided something like a referential interpretation of an indefinite, here understood as a “pointing gesture within the mind of the speaker,” but as Winter points out this raises some difficult methodological issues, and in the view of Ludlow and Neale (1991) this amounts to a conflation of the notions of referentiality and specificity, and a further confusion about the nature of specificity. On their view, using an expression with a particular individual in mind is not the same thing as referring to that individual. For example, according to Ludlow and Neale, there are a number of possible uses to which we can put indefinite descriptions, including referential uses, specific uses, definite uses, and purely existential uses. To understand this distinction, consider the following cases.
Referential use. A teacher announces the following to the class, with a single red haired student in the front row. “I'm not going to name names, but I have good reason to believe that red haired student in the front row cheated on yesterday's exam.” In this case the teacher has singular grounds for the utterance, and is communicating directly to the audience the identity of the individual that serves as the grounds for the utterance.
Specific use. In this case the teacher has singular grounds, and wishes to communicate that fact to the audience, but does not wish to communicate the identity of the cheater to the class. “I'm sorry to announce that yesterday I witnessed a student cheating on the exam.”
Definite use: In this case the teacher knows that there must have been a unique cheater, but does not know the identity of the cheater and hence does not have singular grounds for the utterance and accordingly is not in a position to communicate the identity of the cheater except under extraordinary circumstances. “I have statistical evidence that a student cheated on the exam. Fortunately there only appears to be one cheater.”
Purely quantificational use: In this instance not only does the teacher fail to know the identity of the cheater, but also fails to know whether or not there was a unique cheater (perhaps there were several). “I have evidence that a student cheater on the exam. The answer sheet was stolen from my office. Hopefully, there was only one student involved. We will know more pending an investigation.”
According to Ludlow and Neale, it is implausible to think that all of these uses can be chalked up to semantic facts. In each case, the proposition expressed is argued to be that which would be expressed if the indefinite determiner were replaced by the existential quantifier. The different uses of descriptions then stem from the application of Gricean principles of conversational implicature to what was literally said.
4.4 Plural, mass, and generic descriptions
So far we have discussed singular definite and indefinite descriptions (and the possibility that names are descriptions) but as it turns out these types of descriptions are probably not the most commonly occurring descriptions in English. Ultimately we also want to take into account plural descriptions (as in ‘the dogs are barking’), mass noun descriptions (as in ‘the water is cold’), and generics (as in ‘the dog is a loyal friend’). The question is whether each of these constructions must be treated in a different way, or whether it is possible to unify their treatment with the analysis of definite descriptions discussed above. Sharvy (1980) suggested that a unified treatment is indeed possible (this is also a possibility that Chomsky (1975) saw).
Sharvy's idea was that we could generalize Russell's theory of descriptions by ‘the F (or Fs) is (are) G’ to be equivalent to the following,
(32) ∃x(Fx & ∀y(Fy → y ≤ x) & Gx)
where F can be either a singular count noun (like ‘dog’), a plural count noun (like ‘dogs’) or a mass noun (like ‘water’), and the symbol ‘≤’ indicates a parthood relation. Following Brogaard (2007) we can take this as saying ‘an F that every F is part of satisfies “G”’. It follows then, that a definite description ‘the F’ (‘the Fs’) denotes the maximal sum or mass in the extension of F. So, for example, when we utter ‘The dogs’ we are denoting the maximal set of dogs in the domain of discourse. When we utter ‘the water’, we are denoting the maximal mass of water in the discourse. In the case of singular definite descriptions (like ‘the dog’) we are still denoting the maximal set of dogs in the domain of discourse (since in this case there is only one dog). In effect, singular definite descriptions are just special cases of Sharvy's generalized theory of descriptions.
Fara (2001) notes that the same strategy can be extended to generics as well.
(33) The dog is related to the wolf.
If natural kinds like species and sub-species can bear the parthood relation to one another, then one can extend the Sharvy parthood operator to these cases as well. I don't mean to suggest that Sharvy's analysis of these constructions has no competitors, but the fact that he was able to give a unified treatment of these constructions suggests that competitors will have to do the same. It really does seem as though singular, plural, mass, and generic descriptions are not so different in kind. A unified Russellian treatment of the constructions seems possible. In section 7 we will return to the question of whether the maximality claim should be part of the analysis or whether it represents a weakness in the analysis.
5. Objections to the Theory of Descriptions
The theory of descriptions has encountered its fair share of criticism. This criticism has ranged from contentions that Russell simply got the truth conditions wrong in important cases to nagging worries about the details of the proposal—in particular worries relating to the nature of the descriptive content. As we will see, none of these concerns have been completely ameliorated.
5.1 The challenge to Russell's truth conditions
Strawson (1950) objected that Russell's theory is simply incorrect about the truth conditions of sentences like ‘The present King of France is bald’. According to Russell's analysis, this sentence is false (since it contains an existence claim to the effect that there is a present King of France), but according to Strawson, this does not conform to our intuitions about the truth of an utterance of that sentence. In Strawson's view, an utterance of the sentence in a world where there is no present King of France is neither true nor false; perhaps the sentence has a truth value gap, or perhaps it fails to express a determinate proposition (Strawson vacillated on this), but either way it does not appear to be false. Strawson held that this fact supported a referential interpretation of expressions like ‘The present King of France’.
If there is no present King of France, then an utterance containing such an expression is somehow defective. It is as if I looked into my desk drawer, not allowing you to see what I was looking at, and said ‘that is a fine green one.’ Strawson held that utterances like these do not entail the existence of a fine green one or the present King of France, but rather presuppose their existence. If the expressions fail to refer, then there is a presupposition failure and the utterance fails to have a determinate truth value. (Notice that this sort of failure is not supposed to undermine the meaningfulness of the sentences that we utter; for Strawson, sentences are meaningful in and of themselves, independently of the utterance situation. Utterances of meaningful sentences may be true or false or, if here is a presupposition failure, they may be neither.)
For his part, Russell (1957) argued that, despite Strawson's protestations, the sentence was in fact false:
Suppose, for example, that in some country there was a law that no person could hold public office if he considered it false that the Ruler of the Universe is wise. I think an avowed atheist who took advantage of Mr. Strawson's doctrine to say that he did not hold this proposition false would be regarded as a somewhat shifty character.
Does this whole debate come down to a case of intuition swapping? Thomason (1990; 327) and Soames (1976; 169) seemed to think so, and Strawson himself (1964) also came to doubt whether the entailment vs. presupposition debate could be settled by “brisk little formal argument[s]”. However, Neale (1990) maintained that the matter could be settled in Russell's favor, and supported the claim by collecting a number of previously observed cases in which intuitions about truth conditions clearly do not support Strawson's view. For example, ‘My mother is dating the present King of France’ seems clearly false, as does ‘The present King of France cleans my swimming pool’, and he concluded that these are clearly cases where the Strawsonian truth conditions have gone awry.
But truth value judgments for cases like this are extremely sensitive. Lasersohn (1993), von Fintel (2004), Yablo (2006, 2009) and Schoubye (2009, 2011) have collected a number of examples where subtle changes to the example give rise to different judgments of truth value. Consider the following minimal pairs, where the examples marked with ‘#’ indicate ambivalence about assigning a truth value, and ‘F’ indicates it is more plausible to assign a value of falsehood.
(34) a. # The King of France is bald b. F The King of France is a bald Nazi (35) a. # The King of France is sitting in a chair b. F The King of France is sitting that chair (36) a. # The King of France read Anna Karenina b. F The King of France wrote Anna Karenina (37) a. # The King of France heard about Goldbach's conjecture b. F The King of France proved Goldbach's conjecture
Von Fintel and Yablo offer an explanation for these minimal pairs that draws upon the nature of belief revision. Their idea is that the false presupposition is added to the evaluator's set of beliefs and is tested against that set of beliefs. So, if we test ‘The King of France read Anna Karenina’ against a typical set of beliefs, there is no clash with existing beliefs. But if we test ‘The King of France wrote Anna Karenina’ against this set of beliefs, we get a clash. These are the cases where we judge the sentence false.
Schoubye (2009, 2011) has argued that the von Fintel/Yablo story fails in key places, in particular with cases where there is no previously existing conflicting belief. We typically believe that Anna Karenina was written by Tolstoy, who was not and is not the King of France, but do we really have a belief in which the King of France was not a bald Nazi? Where would that belief come from? A general belief that royals can't be Nazis? That seems implausible.
More significantly, Schoubye observes that with some modest contextual framing the truth value judgments on these examples can flip. In other words, we don't even need to change the example sentences. Suppose, for example, that someone says that all the royalty at a party are standing and someone utters ‘The King of France is sitting in a chair’. Here Schoubye suggests that our truth value judgments firm up and flip from being indeterminate to being clear judgments of falsity.
Schoubye's positive proposal is that the divergent judgments about truth conditions key off of whether a speaker's utterance can be interpreted as being cooperative. Here Schoubye draws on Robert's (1998, 2004) idea of the “topic under discussion.” In the example just given, where we are talking about who is sitting at a particular party, someone who utters (2a) is being an uncooperative discourse partner, in that they are not addressing the topic under discussion. The proposal is thus a vindication of Strawson's view, in that the judgment of falsehood keys off of a pragmatic notion—one of being a cooperative discourse partner. But is this right? Surely we can construct scenarios in which an utterance is uncooperative yet does not yield judgments of falsity—for example any of (1a)–(4a) uttered as non sequiturs.
While I don't believe the matter of truth value judgments has been nailed down, it does seem to me that we are making progress in understanding the nature of those judgments, where those judgments issue from, and how they bear on the Russell/Strawson dispute. Clearly, however, the topic remains open.
5.2 Donnellan's distinction and the argument from misdescription
Donnellan (1966) observed that there is a sense in which Strawson and Russell are both right (and both wrong) about the proper analysis of descriptions. He argued that definite descriptions can be used in (at least) two different ways. On a so-called attributive use, a sentence of the form ‘The F is G’ is used to express a proposition equivalent to ‘Whatever is uniquely F is G’. For example, on seeing murder victim Smith's badly mutilated corpse, Detective Brown might say “The murderer of Smith is insane” thereby communicating the thought that some unique individual murdered Smith and that whoever that individual is, he/she is insane. Alternatively, on a referential use, a sentence of the form ‘The F is G’ is used to pick out a specific individual, x, and say of x that x is G. For example, suppose Jones is on trial for Smith's murder and is behaving quite strangely at the defense table. I point at Jones and say, “The murderer of Smith is insane”, thereby communicating the thought that Jones is insane (whether or not Jones is the actual murderer).
Donnellan suggested that Russell's quantificational account of definite descriptions might capture attributive uses, but that it does not work for referential uses. In effect, we might take Donnellan as saying that in some cases descriptions are Russellian and in some cases they are Strawsonian. Perhaps we could even say that the definite determiner ‘the’ is ambiguous between these two cases (it is not clear whether Donnellan himself intended to endorse a lexical ambiguity of this sort).
Kripke (1977) responded to Donnellan by arguing that the Russellian account of definite descriptions could, by itself, account for both referential and attributive uses; the difference between the two cases could be entirely a matter of pragmatics. Here is the idea: Grice showed us that there is an important distinction to be made between what one literally says by an utterance and what one intends to communicate (what one means) by that utterance. To take a famous example of Grice's, I might write a letter of recommendation for a student saying that he is very punctual and has excellent handwriting. Now what I have said is something about the student's punctuality and handwriting, but what I meant was that this is a very weak student.
In a similar vein, we could say that when I use a description referentially—say in Donnellan's courtroom case—I am literally making a general claim to the effect that there is a murderer of Smith and that he is insane, but what I mean by that utterance is that Jones is insane. That is, when I say ‘The murderer of Smith insane’ what I literally say is that exactly one person, x, is such that x murdered Smith and x is insane, but in that context I would succeed in communicating the singular proposition (about Jones) that Jones is insane. Kripke gave several reasons for thinking that this Gricean solution was preferable to an ambiguity thesis. One reason was a general methodological point that one should not introduce ambiguities blithely—doing so is a kind of philosophical cheat.
Also, Kripke observed that these two uses of definite descriptions are really just subspecies of the general distinction between what is meant (speaker's reference in Kripke's terminology) and what is literally said (semantic reference) and not at all unique to descriptions. Kripke noted that the distinction even applies to uses of proper names. So, for example, consider the case where I see a man in the distance raking leaves. I take the man to be Jones but it is actually Johnson. I say ‘Jones is really working up a sweat today’. Now what I have literally said is that Jones is working up a sweat, but what I have communicated (what I meant) is something about Johnson. Clearly no one would argue that the name ‘Jones’ is ambiguous between referring to Jones and referring to Johnson, so why opt for an ambiguity thesis when descriptions are involved? It appears to be exactly the same phenomenon.
One of the advantages of employing the Gricean distinction between the proposition literally communicated and the proposition meant is that it offers an account for our being ambivalent about Donnellan's (1966) misdescription cases. In the courtroom case discussed above, I might say “Smith's murderer is insane,” and still say something true even if the crazy man at the defense table is entirely innocent of the charges and the actual murderer, who is miles from the courtroom, is quite sane. At the same time there is some pull to say that in such a case one is saying something false too. We can say that this is a case where what we literally said was false, but that what we intended to communicate—the proposition meant—was true. The two-level theory thus accounts for our conflicting intuitions.
Similarly, Hornsby (1977) gave the case of my observing the man ranting at the defense table and (me) saying, “The murderer of Smith is insane” not realizing that the man at the table is both innocent and quite sane, while the actual murderer is at large and quite insane. Again we are ambivalent about the truth of what I say, and as Neale (1990; 91–93) observed, the distinction between the proposition literally expressed and the proposition meant allows us to understand why. In this case, the proposition literally expressed is true, but what I intend to communicate is mistaken.
Unfortunately, there are cases where the two-stage theory doesn't appear to be sufficient. For example, there remains a difficulty that Ludlow and Segal (2004) have called the residue of the problem of misdescription. Consider a case where we are at the crime scene, and unbeknownst to Detective Brown there is not one murderer but several—suppose there were several perpetrators and they were all mad members of an evil cult. When Brown utters the sentence ‘The murderer of Smith is insane’ has he said something true or false? Again we are in two minds about the matter but this time the distinction between what is literally said and what is meant is no help.
5.3 The argument from incompleteness
Another persistent problem for the classical Russellian theory of descriptions has been the charge that it fails to account for the problem of “incomplete descriptions” (for discussion see Donnellan (1968), Hornsby (1977), Devitt (1981, chapter 2; 2004), Wettstein (1981), Recanati (1986), Salmon (1982), Soames (1986), Neale (1990; chapter 2), and Reimer (1992)). In addition, Kripke (1977), while defending Russell's theory of description against the problem of misdescription, allows that the argument from incomplete descriptions might be enough of a problem to force us to accept referential interpretations of descriptions. The worry, initially raised in Strawson (1950), is that if I say ‘the table is covered with books’, I do not mean to be suggesting that there is only one table in the world. Unfortunately, that seems to be precisely what the Russellian theory of descriptions is committed to. (Recall that on the Russellian analysis my utterance is shorthand for ‘there is a table and only one table and every table is covered with books’.)
One strategy for dealing with this problem is that the context may provide us the means to flesh out the description. For example, perhaps descriptions can be fleshed out appropriately if we allow implicit spatiotemporal locating expressions to be inserted into the description. The suggestion is that when we speak of the table we are implicitly specifying a spatial coordinate—in effect, we are saying ‘the table over there’. One problem with strategies of this nature is that there fails to be a principled basis (in the terminology of Devitt and Sterelny (1999)) for determining what the content of these descriptions is to be. Is it to be a description that the speaker has in mind? Is this description really sufficient to uniquely identify the object in question? Is it always clear that the speaker has a description in mind?
Neale (1990) has argued that whatever we may want to say about the problem of incompleteness, it is not very effective as an argument for the referential analysis of descriptions. For example, at the crime scene Detective Brown may simply utter ‘The murderer is insane’ failing to specify exactly which murderer he is talking about (is it the murderer of Smith or Jones or …?). But by hypothesis this case is a canonical example of an attributive use of a definite description. No reference is possible, so how can appeal to reference bail us out? How can any of this be an argument for definite descriptions being semantically referential?
Even stronger, it appears that there are numerous examples involving quantified expressions that suffer the same fate as incomplete descriptions. I can say ‘Everyone came to the party’, not intending to mean everyone in the world. Or I might say, as Yogi Berra once did, ‘Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded’. It certainly appears that what is going on in these cases is similar to the cases of incomplete definite descriptions and that there should be a single strategy for accounting for these different cases of “incompleteness.”
Devitt (2004, 2007) and Reimer (1998) have argued that these cases are genuinely different in kind. Their idea is that since definite descriptions are regularly used to express singular thoughts, it stands to reason that the standard meaning of the definite description must be referential.
Schoubye (2011, ch. 3) has responded to this claim arguing that it rests on mistaken assumptions about semantic processing and that in any case the line of reasoning would generalize so as to force a referential interpretation of most (possibly all) the other determiners (e.g. ‘every’ and ‘no’).
Alternatively, some writers have argued that that the problem of incomplete definite descriptions can be accounted for if we pursue an appropriate theory of quantifier domain restriction. Stanley and Szabó (2000), for example, take this approach, suggesting that context can restrict the domain of quantification. On their proposal, context can even shift within a sentence, allowing us to make sense of an utterance like ‘The dogs barked at the dogs’, where I mean to say that one group of dogs barked while the other group perhaps suffered in silence. (As their proposal is applicable to all quantified expressions and not just the theory of descriptions, I cannot focus on it here, except to note that it has spawned a great deal of discussion, including Bach (2000), Neale (2000b), and Lepore (2004).)
It is important to note (following Szabó (2000) and Ludlow and Segal (2004) that even with a fully functional account of quantifier domain restriction there is a lingering problem here too. Let's call it the residue of the incompleteness problem. Consider cases like (38)
(38) Put the book on the book
Now clearly, the first use of ‘the book’ cannot have the same domain of quantification as the second use, since that would put two books in the domain of quantification and it would mean that both descriptions in the sentence are incomplete. But one wonders how kosher a domain-shift analysis is here. Is there really a shift in the domain of quantification between the first utterance of ‘the book’ and the second utterance of that noun phrase? What would count as independent evidence either for, or against, a domain-shift taking place?
The problem can be given more teeth if we embed cases like (38) in conditionals as in example (39), discussed in Heim (1990).
(39) If a bishop meets another bishop, the bishop blesses the other bishop
Here it is especially difficult to see how a domain-shift can help. The options are fairly limited too. One can make a meta-linguistic move and use paraphrases like ‘the bishop mentioned first’ and the ‘bishop mentioned second’, but precisely which bishop was mentioned first?
Is there an alternative to the quantifier domain restriction story? Neale (2004) has shifted gears from his (1990) proposal and argued for a mixed or hybrid story according to which descriptions are referential by virtue of containing devices of direct reference within them. For example, ‘The man drinking champagne in the corner’ might be analyzed as
(40) [the x: man(x) and x=a and x is drinking champagne in the corner]
where a picks out an individual—presumably the individual being thought of or salient to the discourse participants. Neale thus contends that it is by virtue of having this semantics that descriptions come to have their referential uses. As Neale (2005; 849) puts it:
On such an account, the ‘the’ used referentially would (perhaps as a matter of implicit convention) amount to a Gödelian description (℩x)(fx & x=a). If this is a plausible story, then the debate between the Russellian and the ambiguity theorist grinds to a compromise: when ‘the’ is used referentially, ‘C(the f)’ is used to express a proposition that is both Russellian and object-dependent in the relevant way. (p. 849).
Devitt (2007; 29) has argued that this approach effectively collapses into a standard referentialist story.
But is the Gödelian completion really Russellian? Note that it yields a proposition that is equivalent to a conjunction of singular propositions:
So it is hard to see how the Gödelian completion yields something that is in any interesting sense a general proposition and hence Russellian. We might say that it is syntactically Russellian but not semantically so; it is only “pseudo-Russellian”.
It is worth noting that if the Neale proposal collapses into a referential story, it can still be developed in interesting, if radical ways. One idea, keying off of proposals in Hawthorne and Manley (2012) would be that the predicational content of a description – the noun phrase minus the determiner ‘the’ (the N-bar in linguistic terminology)—is not part of the semantics proper, but is rather an expression of material that is presupposed. Such an account would invert the usual assumption according to which the predicational content of a description is thought to identify the individual in question. From the point of view of the semantics, the N-bar in a definite description would then not be used to identify some individual but would be material that is presupposed in the discourse. Perhaps the utterance could be a kind of checking mechanism, or an “error correction code” deployed to make sure that everyone is “on the same page.” The individual in question would not be identified via the semantic content, but would be picked out by a referential intention. In effect, the descriptive content would be removed from the semantic mix.
This proposal could generalized to apply to proper names. Following proposals by Burge (1973), Hornsby (1976), Larson and Segal (1995), Eluguardo (2002), and Elbourne (2005), proper names, like the N-bar content of a description, can be thought of as predicates. If one combines that idea with this proposal for descriptions one can argue that name-like predicates do not make it into the semantics proper, but express information that is presupposed in the discourse. To illustrate, consider again Kripke's example of the man raking leaves in the distance, an individual the speaker takes to be Jones, but who in fact is Johnson. On such view, when the speaker says something like ‘Jones is up early today’, she is expressing a singular proposition about the individual a that the discourse participants are looking at, but she is presupposing that a is Jones (has the property of being Jones). Very similar considerations would hold when the individual is not in the perceptual environment and not otherwise salient—in these case we deploy what Heim (1983, 1992) and Roberts (1987) have called presuppositional accommodation. (See von Fintel (2008) for discussion, and see Gauker (2008), for reservations about employing presuppositional accommodation).
In short, for both referential descriptions and proper names, the predicational content (the predicate/name or the N-bar content of the description) would not be material that is part of the semantics of the sentences, but rather material that is presupposed.
All of this is predicated on the assumption that the Neale (2004) proposal collapses into the referential proposal, but does it? Schoubye (2011) has argued that Neale's hybrid proposal can be understood as importantly distinct from a referential account if we consider the proposal from the perspective of dynamic semantics (in the sense of Kamp (1981), Heim (1982), Kamp and Reyle (1993), Groenendijk and Stokhof (1991)). In effect, on the dynamic logic approach, the “update potentials” of the two accounts are quite different.
6. Dissolving Descriptions
As noted in the beginning of this article, the Russellian account of descriptions not only offers a quantificational as opposed to a referential account of descriptions, but it packs three different claims into the analysis of descriptions: an existence claim, a uniqueness claim, and a maximality claim. As we will see, all of these claims can be put under pressure, and all three arguably collapse under that pressure. Let's begin by examining the uniqueness claim.
6.1 Rejecting the uniqueness claim
Given the Gricean resources discussed above, one might speculate that the distinction between definite and indefinite descriptions can be collapsed—that is, perhaps ‘the’ and ‘a’ have the same literal meaning and the only relevant distinction between them is pragmatic.
This motivation for the idea would be as follows. Very few natural languages have what we would recognize as definite and indefinite descriptions. In most Asian and Slavic languages, for example, ‘the man’ and ‘a man’ would both be expressed in the same way—in the determiner-free equivalent of ‘man’. Perhaps it is just our infatuation with surface grammatical form that leads us to think that English or Italian really has two different logical elements corresponding to surface forms ‘the’ and ‘a’. Perhaps there is a single logical element (or perhaps just a free variable) with different pragmatic application conditions. That is, perhaps ‘the’ and ‘a’ have the same literal meaning—i.e., for both ‘An F is G’ and ‘The F is G’ the literal semantics is exhausted by the interpretation that [∃x: Fx](Gx) receives in a standard truth-conditional semantics. A number of linguists and philosophers have entertained this idea in recent years, including Kempson (1975), Breheney (1999), Szabó (2000), Zvolensky (1997), Ludlow and Segal (2003) and a version of the idea is at least considered in Heim (1982) and Kamp and Reyle (1993).
Obviously there are important differences between our application of the terms ‘the’ and ‘a’, but it does not follow that these differences in application are part of their semantical content. Indeed, many synonyms customarily are put to different uses. Take, for example, Grice (1961, 1975) on the distinction between ‘but’ and ‘and’. On Grice's story ‘but’ and ‘and’ literally mean the same thing, but different “conventional implicatures” are associated with them; ‘but’ implicates a sense of contrast between the conjuncts.
Ludlow and Segal (2004) offer a similar story about ‘a’ and ‘the’. Following a standard assumption in traditional grammar (assumptions also adopted in Heim (1982)), they argue that ‘the’ signals that the object under discussion is given in the conversational context. Noun phrases fronted by the determiner ‘a’ signal that they involve new information. The idea advanced by Ludlow and Segal, however, is that this slender bit of information, combined with Gricean principles, is sufficient to generate the uniqueness implication that is carried by a definite description. That is, an existential claim that there is an F that is G, plus a signal that this is given information, is often enough to allow us to implicate that there is unique F that is G.
Armed with this idea, let's return to the some of the loose threads that we left hanging in section 4 above—the residue of the misdescription problem and the residue of the incompleteness problem. As we will see, the unified treatment of definite and indefinite descriptions may provide us an entering wedge for cracking open these puzzles. Let's look at the misdescription case first.