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Russell, Frege, and the "Meaning" of the Theory of Descriptions (or): Did Russell Know His Frege? R. K. PERKINS, JR. EARLY IN Principia Mathematica where Bertrand Russell sets forth his famous theory of descriptions, one encounters a curious argument that occurs in the context of Russell's contention that definite descriptions are incomplete symbols and that purports to show that " 'the author of Waverley' means nothing ." As Russell gives it: "The author of Waverley" cannot mean the same as "Scott," or "Scott is the author of Waverley" would mean the same as "Scott is Scott," which it plainly does not; nor can "the author of Waverley" mean anything other than "Scott," or "Scott is the author of Waverley" would be false. Hence "the author of Waverley" means nothing.' Some philosophers---my former self included--have dismissed the argument as exhibiting an elementary fallacy of equivocation on "mean" as between sense (in the first line) and reference (in the third line). '~Of course, the charge that Russell was generally guilty of confusing the idea of meaning as sense with the idea of meaning as reference has been made by a number of contemporary philosophers. Thus W. V. Quine has written, "for want of A modified version of this paper was read before the Bertrand Russell Society at the meeting of the eastern division of the American Philosophical Association in 1976. 1 Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, PrincipiaMathematicato *56 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), p. 67. L. Linsky, Referring(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), pp. 53, 88; A. R. White "The 'Meaning' of Russell's Theory of Descriptions," Analysis 19, no. 6 (1959): 8-9; R. Jager, The DevelopmentofBertrandRussell'sPhilosophy(London: Allen & Unwin, 1972), p. 245. [4o71 408 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY distinctions Russell tended to blur meaninglessness with failure of reference .... To make sense is to have a meaning, and the meaning is the reference. ''~ Similarly, P. F. Strawson, in his well-known attack on the theory of descriptions, has claimed that "the source of Russell's mistake was that be thought that referring .... if it occurred at all, must be meaning," and so he "confused meaning with referring. TMAnd to this list of accusers one could add the names of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, A.J. Ayer, and John Searle. 5 Now, this is a puzzling state of affairs because not only is it prima facie hard to believe that a logician of Russell's caliber could have confused such semantically distinct dimensions as sense and reference; it is also prima facie difficult to believe that such a mistake could have been made by one who was something of a Frege scholar at the time he produced his theory of descriptions (19o5). 6 So the question that naturally arises is, What bearing, if any, does Frege's distinction between sense and reference have on Russell's theory of descriptions, and to what extent was Russell aware of this? I want to show in what ways Russell's theory of descriptions does accomodate Frege's distinction and in what ways it does not. Specifically, I shall argue in section ~ that Russell does not confuse sense and reference and that be does embrace a sense-refer6nce distinction, although not Frege's, since Frege's was not up to doing the job that Russell wanted done in 10o5. In section 3 I shall return to consider Russell's curious Principia argument and defend it against some charges of equivocation. First, however, by way of background, I would like to sketch the essentials of Russell's theory and what be took to be the main problem it was designed to overcome. I The main problem that provided the motivation for the theory of descriptions was the old puzzle of how we are able to talk about things that do not exist. 7 The problem is as old as Parmenides' poem On Nature, in which he is 3 "Russell's Ontological Development," in Bertrand Russell: Philosopherof the Century, ed. R. Schoenman (London: Allen & Unwin, 1967), p. 31o. 4 "On Referring," Mind 59 095o): 328. 5 See L. Wittgenstein, PhilosophicalInvestigations, 2nd ed. (Oxford: BasilBlackwell,1958),p. 4o; G. Ryle, "Meaning and Necessity,"Philosophy24 0949): '7~ and "The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 407-423
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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