Tue 1 Sep, 2009 08:15 am
Russell's Theory of Descriptions
An example of the kind of false view that the surface grammar of our language can lead us into can be found in the work of the Austrian Philosopher Alexius Meinong who Russell has studied in detail and had a significant amount of influence on Russell's thought especially during the early part of Russell's life. What Alexius Meinong argued was that suppose you say the sentence 'the golden mountain does not exist' you are obviously talking about something which is 'the golden mountain' and when you make the assertion that this 'golden mountain does not exist' and as what you say is meaningful, therefore must be in some sense a golden mountain. Meinong's theory is that everything that can be talked about, named or referred to must exist or have some sort of metaphysical 'being' or what we were saying would be meaningless. It should be noted that Russell himself held this view for a period of time until what Russell called a 'vivid sense of reality' undermined his view and Russell went onto create a beautiful tool for dealing with such utterances using the techniques of logic. Russell's 'Theory of Descriptions' first appears in his 1905 essay On Denoting which was published in the Philosophy journal Mind.
Taking Russell's now infamous example of 'the present king of France is bald' we can see how Russell intended to resolved this issue. If we take propositions to always be true or false it seems obvious that the proposition 'the present king of France is bald' is false, due to the lack of a 'present king of France' not because the present king of France in fact has a full head of hair. This gave Russell the clue he need to show there need not be any metaphysical 'king of France' who has some kind of 'being' which we are referring too. Russell argued that sentences containing a definite description in the subject-place when properly analysed turn out to be a serious of sentences making assertions about the existence, uniqueness and the baldness of the king of France. Thus the proposition 'the present king of France is bald' is equivalent to
1) There is a king of France
2) There is not more than one king of France
3) Whatever is the king of France is bald
The first sentence consists of a claim of existence, while the second sentence makes a claim of uniqueness and finally the third sentence is the predication of baldness to the king of France. The original sentence 'the present king of France is bald is true when all three sentences are true. 'The present king of France is bald' is false due to the fact that sentence one 'There is a king of France' is false. Under this analysis the need to evoke subsistent king of France to make our utterance meaningful has disappeared, thus the problem that seemed to be presented by Alexius Meinong about the kind of metaphysical being the 'golden mountain' would have to have to be meaningful has been solved.