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

By Gideon Makin | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

The collapse of the first theory and the discovery of the theory of descriptions

I Introduction: the obscure passage in ‘On Denoting’

Given that, as explained in the preceding chapter, denoting complexes are aboutness-shifters, how can there possibly be a proposition about a denoting complex? When trying to spell out the answer to this question Russell noticed that this involved what in OD he describes as ‘certain rather curious difficulties, which seem in themselves sufficient to prove that the theory which leads to such difficulties must be wrong’ (Marsh: p. 48). The exposition of these difficulties—which amount to a decisive argument against the theory expounded in the last chapter—occupies a notoriously obscure passage in OD (pp. 48-50; often dubbed the ‘Gray’s Elegy’ passage). Deciphering this passage and exploring its argument form the chief objectives of the present chapter, and they will occupy us in all but its final section. Making sense of this passage may also be desired on more purely textual grounds: it occurs at the heart of one of the most influential and thoroughly studied essays of the analytic tradition, and so long as we have no satisfactory account of its content and role in the broader scheme of OD, our grip on that essay’s argument as a whole remains precarious.

Before examining how the question of propositions about denoting concepts might be answered, we may first ask what exactly hinges on it: what would follow if the theory failed to provide for this possibility? At first blush such a failure seems awkward indeed: since propositions are what we think or say, failure to provide an adequate answer would mean that the theory has posited a kind of entity which, by the theory’s own strictures, cannot in principle be either thought or spoken of. Further scrutiny, however, reveals the difficulty to be even more radical.

When one’s conception of truth is as some kind of correspondence, the idea of a state of affairs (or whatever truth-bearers correspond to) which defies representation, or is epistemically inaccessible, is difficult but not quite incoherent. But on a view such as Russell’s, where the truth of a proposition is not a matter of correspondence to anything outside it, to concede the impos-

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