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

By Gideon Makin | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

The place of ‘On Denoting’ in Russell’s development

In the last two chapters I have tried to give a full account of the theoretical background and problem situation which led Russell to propose the theory of descriptions in OD. This is not, however, the story one will find recounted in most presentations of the theory found in innumerable papers and introductory books in the philosophy of language, philosophical logic or Russell’s philosophy. Although the differences do not affect what may be called the ‘technical core’ of the theory, the account that one finds of the problem situation, of Russell’s point in so interpreting denoting phrases, is almost invariably along the following lines.

Take a statement like ‘the present King of France does not exist’ (taking any other statement with a similar subject will require only minor changes to what follows). It seems that there must be an interpretation which makes it true, and yet, unless there is, in some sense, a present King of France, then of what is existence being denied? How can the statement be meaningful? One possible response is to grant the present King of France some ontological status short of existence, which implies, more generally, recognizing a realm of entities which do not exist, but only subsist, or have being.

This line of reasoning has been associated with Meinong, and it will be convenient to label the resulting ontology ‘Meinongian’. An innocent reader of a traditional presentation of the theory of descriptions would reasonably conclude, first, that prior to OD Russell subscribed to a Meinongian view, second, that its implausibility is what drove him to devise the theory of descriptions and third, accordingly, that the theory’s most distinctive merit is its success in explaining such statements without incurring a commitment to non-existent entities.

Such a picture, it must be admitted, does seem fairly plausible in the light of OD alone (neglecting the obscure passage). Russell does indeed single out Meinong’s view as an alternative he argues against, and devotes a substantial part of the discussion to three puzzles, two of which deal with empty denoting phrases. (Though a somewhat more discerning reader will observe that Russell neither says nor implies that no alternative theory can resolve these puzzles.) This view regarding the role of the Meinongian alternative is

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