Bertrand Russell the Passionate Skeptic: A Biography

By Alan Wood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
The Theory of Descriptions

I MUST now come, with many misgivings, to Russell Theory of Descriptions. Here again, there are appalling difficulties in explaining it in any book for the general reader, mainly because it is so easy. Russell's first formulation of it, and the results derived from it, were technical and very difficult; but any simple explanation of it may make it seem too obvious to be worth bothering about. Yet the attempt to say something about the Theory of Descriptions must not be shirked. There is general agreement that it was Russell's most important single contribution to philosophy. This was not only his own opinion, but that of such good judges as G. E. Moore and Wittgenstein. ' The Theory of Descriptions,' said Moore, 'was something quite new. It was Russell's greatest philosophical discovery, more important than anything he said later. It was his own work, and not influenced by anyone whatever.'

When the expectant reader, with his interest aroused in this way, asks what this remarkable discovery was, he is bound to find the reply a little disappointing at first. He will have to be told that the theory arose partly as a reply to the Austrian philosopher Meinong, who had been much exercised by the status of certain things which do not exist. Suppose you say 'The golden mountain does not exist', or 'The round square does not exist'. These are not only true statements, but useful ones. The first might well be used to give some romantic explorer, misled by myths and legends, a realistic fact about the world. The second might be used by a teacher to correct a pupil who had mistaken views about geometry--or, at any rate, about the definitions used in geometry. Now can you have true and meaningful statements about nothing? It might be argued that

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