- Criticisms of Russell’s Theory of Descriptions
Russell’s theory of descriptions can be criticised on a number of grounds:
Criticism 1 – Failure of Uniqueness
In normal language, it is often the case that we use ‘the’ to designate a single object, when in fact the descriptor could match any number of objects. For instance, if I say ‘the car is parked outside’ nobody is going to question this statement on the basis that ‘the car’ is satisfied by more than one object. Rather, the context of the discussion allows ‘the car’ to be narrowed down to one particular car. We cannot analyse statements such as these without having further understood the context in which it was stated. Perhaps Russell’s theory needs to modified along similar lines. ‘The so-and-so’ has to be read in context. Strawson recognised that in this case, the speaker has not provided enough information to identify the single object, so we would want to ask further questions to help narrow down the object.
Criticism 2 – The Empty Case
Strawson argued that sentences such as ‘the present King of France is bald’ is neither true nor false, since it refers to a non-existent subject. Russell’s theory of descriptions still abides by the classical law of bivalence, which insists that everything is either true or false. According to Strawson’s view, saying that ‘it is not the case that the present King of France is bald’ doesn’t really get to the heart of why the sentence is false. Again we would want to ask the speaker to clarify their meaning further, as what they have provided so far cannot be interpreted one way or the other. If the speaker cannot do this, then they have uttered a meaningless statement that lacks a truth value entirely.
One question for Strawson and Russell is how each would deal with an object that has uncertain or ambiguous existence, such as referring to ‘God’. The subject of God will produce different responses in different people. Russell would contend that because there are many versions of God, the expression fails to uniquely identify a single case, so it would have to be considered as false. Strawson might contend that the expression is ambiguous as the speaker has not done enough to clarify their meaning.
Criticism 3 – Referential versus Attributive Descriptions
Donnellan raised an example of how we use ‘the’ in everyday speech to refer to a particular person or object. Although the statement is false (the person does not satisfy the description used), everyone knows who you are referring to, so the description still has value.
For instance, if you identify someone at a party as ‘the man next to the door drinking the martini’, when in fact the man is drinking a glass of water, nobody is likely to be confused. Everyone knows who you are referring to. The description has still adequately identified one and only object, even though the description is not correct. Russell did not deal with this scenario as part of his theory. In fact, his theory would regard the statement as false since ‘it is not the case there is one and only man next the door drinking a martini’.
Donnellan believes then when we use descriptions to identify an object, we need to draw a distinctive between uses that are referential and those that are attributive only. When we are using the description in an attributive way (such as ‘the present King of France’), then the theory of descriptions applies and it is necessary to prove that there is one and only one instance of ‘P’. However, when the statement is used in a referential way (‘the man drinking the martini’), then the theory of descriptions does not apply.
- Proper Names – John Stuart Mill
The next topic to consider as part of naming and descriptions is the use of proper names. When we use the name of someone in a logical statement (‘Napoleon Bonaparte’), what exactly are we introducing into the argument? Is it simply just a label, or are we also including attributes of that person, such as ‘the former Emperor of France’. The two opposing views can be summarised as the John Stuart Mill view and the Bertrand Russell view.
The Mill view states that proper nouns denote an individual, but they don’t do anything further than that. The Russell view is that proper nouns act like descriptive definitions. They do more than just denote. They can also imply attributes for that person, such as when we use ‘Napoleon’, we are also introducing ‘first Emperor of France’ into the argument. Although philosophers have historically favoured one view over the other, in recent attempts there has been more of an attempt to reconcile the two positions (eg Sainsbury).
To understand the Mill view in more detail, we need to consider Mill’s two ways in which a word can be used: denotation and connotation. If a noun is used to denote (eg tall), we are using it only to identify a particular person (‘the tall man standing near the window). However, words can also be used to connate properties, such as the way ‘tallness’ is implied by describing someone as ‘tall’. Many adjectives can be used in both senses. However, Mill argued that proper nouns only have the property of denotation.
To use one of Mill’s own examples, the name of the town ‘Dartmouth’ only identifies the particular town you could be referring to. Some people could argue that the name introduces further attributes, such as the fact the town lies on the river Dart. However, Mill rejects this view, saying that it’s possible for the river to dry up, or the town to move location, and it would still be called Dartmouth. We cannot imply any further properties from the name. Proper names, according to Mill, do not attach to any properties of that object. This means they act in a similar way to individual constants in logic.