Bertrand Russell, “Existence and Description” §1 General Propositions and Existence


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Bertrand Russell, “Existence and Description”

  • §1 General Propositions and Existence

  • “Now when you come to ask what really is asserted in a general proposition, such as ‘All Greeks are men’ for instance, you find that what is asserted is the truth of all values of what I call a propositional function. A propositional function is simply any expression containing an undetermined constituent, or several undetermined constituents, and becoming a proposition as soon as the undetermined constituents are determined.” (24a)

  • “Much false philosophy has arisen out of confusing propositional functions and propositions.” (24b)


  • A propositional function can be necessary (when it is always true), possible (when it is sometimes true), and impossible (when it is never true).

  • “Propositions can only be true or false, but propositional functions have these three possibilities.” (24b)

  • “When you take any propositional function and assert of it that it is possible, that it is sometimes true, that gives you the fundamental meaning ‘existence’…. Existence is essentially a property of a propositional function. It means that the propositional function is true in at least one instance.” (25a)



  • A propositional function is merely a schema.

  • Russell’s Question: “What is there really in the world that corresponds with [propositional functions]?” Russell’s Answer: Facts.

  • My question: What does it mean to admit facts into one’s ontology?



  • The beginning of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (1918)

  • 1 The world is all that is the case.

  • 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

  • 1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

  • 1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

  • 1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

  • 1.2 The world divides into facts.

  • 1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.

  • 2 What is the case--a fact--is the existence of states of affairs.

  • 2.01 A state of affairs (a state of things) is a combination of objects (things).



  • §2 Description and Incomplete Symbols

  • Names and definite description.

  • Names Definite Descriptions

  • Brandon Look The professor of Philosophy 550

  • Sir Walter Scott The author of Waverly

  • George W. Bush The 43rd President of the USA

  • But, for Russell, names are not truncated definite descriptions.

  • At least, this is not the case for names that really refer. Some names, e.g. ‘Romulus’, are merely truncated descriptions.



  • These things – definite descriptions or incomplete symbols – “are things that have absolutely no meaning whatsoever in isolation, but merely acquire a meaning in a context. ‘Scott’ taken as a name has a meaning all by itself. It stands for a certain person, and there it is. But ‘the author of Waverly’ is not a name, and does not all by itself mean anything at all, because when it is rightly used in propositions, those propositions do not contain any constituent corresponding to it.” (35a-b)

  • Logically Proper Name: A logically proper name is a term the meaning of which is its referent.



Is a term a proper name? Two questions:

  • (1) Can you understand the meaning of α is F without knowing which thing a refers to? If so, then a is not a logically proper name, but must be analyzed as a description.

  • (2) Would α is F be meaningful even if a had no referent? If so, then a is not a logically proper name but must be analyzed as a description.



Terence Parsons, “Referring to Nonexistent Objects”

  • Part 1. Referring to Nonexistent Objects isn’t Failing to Refer.

  • Parsons presents two dialogues that are supposed to demonstrate that we have different intuitions about terms that fail to refer and those that refer to nonexistent objects.

  • Russell, the early Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, et alia have argued that we need to paraphrase those utterances that seem to refer to nonexistent objects. But, Parsons claims, those paraphrases have yet to be produced.



Part Two: A Quasi-Meinongian View

  • Real Objects Sets of Properties

  • O1 {p: O1 has p}

  • O2 {p: O2 has p}

  • . .

  • . .

  • O{p: Ohas p}

  • So, the left-hand list seems to exhaust the ontology that we all agree on. But, we can continue, by adding properties and sets of properties in the right-hand column.

  • {goldenness, mountainhood, …}

  • According to Parsons, “the theory under discussion says that for any such set in the right-hand list, there is correlated with it exactly one object.” (38a) Therefore,

  • O+1 {goldenness, mountainhood, …}



  • There are two principles at work in Parsons account – both of which depend upon the notion of nuclear properties.

    • (1) No two objects (real or unreal) have exactly the same nuclear properties.
    • For any set of nuclear properties, some object has all of the properties in that set and no other nuclear properties.
    • But not all predicates can stand for nuclear properties (39a)


  • My gloss on this:

  • Think of the nature of some thing, e.g. a unicorn or George W. Bush. What set of properties allows you to distinguish a unicorn from a non-unicorn? George W. Bush from someone else. Those properties belong to its essence. Non-nuclear properties are not involved in that process of individuation.



Part 3. Singular Terms

  • Parsons’s Language:

  • Nuclear Predicates: PN, QN, RN,…

  • Extranuclear Predicates: PE, QE, RE,…

  • Object names and variables: a, b, c,…, x, y, z,…

  • DNs “Holmes is a detective” (which is true)

  • EEs “Holmes exists” (which is false)

  • “There are no winged-horses”  ~(x)(EEx & WNx & HNx)

  • Definite descriptions: (x) i.e. “the thing such that…”

  • “The man in the doorway is clever”  (x)(MNx & INx & EEx) CN



  • Parsons’s Conclusions:

  • Names like Pegasus and Sherlock Holmes do refer, but to non-existent objects.

  • Reference of a name doesn’t have to do with causal history.

  • Names may manifest de re/de dicto ambiguities.

  • Names have sense (meaning).



Quine’s “Ontological Relativity”

  • One of the main themes/ideas of this piece is naturalism.

  • What is naturalism? How does Quine understand it?

  • “I hold that knowledge, mind, and meaning are part of the same world that they have to do with, and that they are to be studied in the same empirical spirit that animates natural science.” (45a)

  • “When a naturalistic philosopher addresses himself to philosophy of mind, he is apt to talk of language. Meanings are, first and foremost, meanings of language. Language is a social art which we all acquire on the evidence solely of other people’s over behavior under publicly recognizable circumstances. Meanings, therefore, those very models of mental entities, end up as grist for the behaviorist’s mill.” (45a)



Myth of the museum:

  • “Uncritical semantics is the myth of the museum in which the exhibits are meanings and the words are labels.” (45b)

  • We ought to give up this myth. But, in doing so, we give up the assurance of determinacy. (46a)

  • Why?

  • Indeterminacy of translation

  • Inscrutability of reference





  • Inscrutability of reference  there is no fact of the matter. (52b-53a)

  • Reference is non-sense except relative to a co-ordinate system.

  • Principle of relativity.

  • Ontology is relative to a theory and background theory (54-55)

  • “We cannot know what something is without knowing how it is marked off from other things. Identity is thus of a piece with ontology.” (55b)




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