What is Definite Descriptors Theory?June 26, 2021
Russell has placed discussions of how we use language at the center of philosophical discussions. Some methods developed by Russell were used by philosophers after him. At the forefront of Russell’s influential analyzes is the theory of definite descriptors. Russell, in his article titled “On Denoting”, written in 1905, in a way determined the way analytical philosophy does business.
In this study, Russell focused on how propositions containing certain descriptors can take truth values. Specific descriptors can be defined as groups of words describing a single object. “Physicist who developed the theory of relativity”, “Turkey’s eighth president”, etc. expressions are specific descriptors. The reason why such statements pose a philosophical problem arises when they do not have a specific reference. How to decide whether a proposition containing that phrase is true or false when there is no corresponding individual in the world to an apparently meaningful phrase?
Let’s examine an example given by Russell himself, “The present king of France is bald.” The proposition ostensibly contains a provision about the person to whom the descriptor “modern-day king of France” refers. However, such an individual does not exist. In this case, it is debatable how the proposition can get a truth value. Frege dealt with this problem in his own work and considered these propositions to be meaningful but neither true nor false.
Russell does not accept this solution of Frege. Russell’s own approach is that, in everyday language, certain descriptors apparently refer to an individual, but this problem can be eliminated once the logic of the expressions in question is analyzed. Russell analyzes the proposition in question using the tools of the quantification logic developed by Frege as follows: “There is an x such that x is the present king of France, and none other than x is the present king of France and x is bald.” As can be seen, this expression is a form of proposition with universal affirmation in the domain of a particular quantifier. The first part of the proposition is, “There is an x r such that x is the present king of France, and none other than x is the present king of France.” It contains a condition of existence and uniqueness. Depending on whether the condition of existence in question is met, it can now be decided whether this proposition is true or not. Indeed, Russell decided that this form of proposition is meaningful but wrong.
This analysis of Russell also provides a solution to the paradox that arises from the necessity of referring to the existence of non-existent while talking about the non-existent that Plato draws attention to. Next, we consider how Quine developed his own ontological theory of relativity using this solution.
Russell’s theory of definite descriptors was particularly criticized by Frederick Strawson (1919 – 2006). The main point of Strawson’s criticism is that he does not attribute existence to the references of certain descriptors, but assumes them. If the putative individual in question is not present, the propositional form should be interpreted as neither true nor false. This criticism brought with it the project of developing a three-valued logic.
Russell argues that this analysis also applies to singular nouns. Singular nouns can also be thought of primarily as abbreviations used in place of specific descriptors. For example, the name “Albert Einstein” is like an acronym for specific descriptions such as “physicist who developed the theory of relativity.” Therefore, there will be no problem with propositions taking truth values even when nouns have no references. Russell argues that the only words that legitimately refer to individuals are demonstrative pronouns (this, that, that, etc.) and contextual expressions (now, here, me, etc.). Since the objects to which these expressions refer have to exist in themselves, they do not pose a problem in terms of whether the propositions they contain take truth value or not. While Russell’s analysis of specific descriptors is generally accepted, the interpretation of nouns as specific descriptors has led to controversy.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook