The Metaphysicians of Meaning: Russell and Frege on Sense and Denotation

The Metaphysicians of Meaning: Russell and Frege on Sense and Denotation

The Metaphysicians of Meaning: Russell and Frege on Sense and Denotation

The Metaphysicians of Meaning: Russell and Frege on Sense and Denotation


Russell's On Denoting and Frege's On Sense and Reference are now widely held to be two of the founding papers of twentieth century philosophy and form the heart of the famous "linguistic turn". The Metaphysicians of Meaning is the first book to challenge the accepted secondary work on these two seminal papers, forcing us to reconsider the interpretation of these two vitally important works on meaning.


Imagine someone who had mastered the technical aspects of the theory of types but who was unaware of the contradiction (‘Russell’s paradox’) which prompted it, or someone who knew Tarski’s theory of truth while knowing nothing of the Liar’s paradox. Would we be willing to credit them with an understanding of these theories? Surely something fundamental is missing, and yet what is missing is not strictly part of the theory itself. It concerns, rather, the theory’s context, its author’s rationale of putting it forth; we might even say, the theory’s whole point.

Roughly a century after they were first introduced, Russell’s theory of descriptions and Frege’s distinction between sense and reference remain unequalled paradigms in the philosophy of language and philosophical logic; and in view of the extensive secondary literature regarding them, any claim to having something new to say about them is bound to sound suspect. However, if understanding a philosophical theory requires understanding why it was called for, and this, in turn, is only possible when it is known what exactly was wrong with the earlier view, then something substantial is lacking in our understanding of these theories.

It is surprising to discover how few serious attempts were ever made to approach these theories from this perspective. in the first place, most writers seem not to have thought the matter important. Others were content with plausible-sounding answers which a little further examination reveals as false. Yet others have offered their own views where it is Russell’s or Frege’s view that is called for. I do not pretend that finding the correct answers is easy, but I do think the task important, and that it has been generally overlooked.

The following chapters will, I hope, reveal just how important; but even before entering into any detail, it is easy to see how ignorance of Russell’s or Frege’s reasons for abandoning his former theory might obscure what is distinctive about the new theory he put in its place. One might unknowingly play down features which, in the light of the author’s diagnosis of the old theory’s faults, emerge as most fundamental; or mistake the new theory’s success in handling a problem, which the former theory handled quite adequately,

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