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Russell's Theory of Meaning and Denotation and "On Denoting" RUSSELL WAHL 1. INTRODUCTION BERTRAND RUSSELL DEVELOPEDhis theory of denoting in ThePrinciplesofMathemat /cs (hereafter Principles)and later rejected it in "On Denoting." The theory is of interest in part because of the problems it was designed to solve, in part because of its similarity to certain related doctrines (such as Frege's distinction between sense and reference, to which Russell likens his theory in the appendix to Principles)and in part because it is not at first clear from the arguments given in "On Denoting" why Russell gave up the theory. The theory is of interest, also, because Russell expanded it considerably in the years between Principles and "On Denoting," actually grafting onto it a theory of meaning and designation not present in Principles, and because he had grander designs for it than are indicated in his published works. "On Denoting" is one of Russell's most important works, for it contains his new theory of descriptions, which many consider to be Russell's most important contribution to twentieth-century philosophy. His theory of descriptions is widely known, if not generally accepted in the form Russell presented it, but the central arguments of "On Denoting" have resisted the many attempts that have been made to understand them. While many of the recent attempts to make sense of the arguments shed some light on them and indicate important points being made by Russell, they ultimately fail in displaying Russell's actual argument.' This paper was written with the help of an NEH Travel Grant for travel to the Bertrand Russell Archives in February of 1989. I wish to thank the NEH and Kenneth Blackwell, the archivist who made many of these manuscripts and letters available to me. I also wish to thank Nicholas Griffin for many helpful comments. Some earlier attempts which reveal much of the argument are Chrystine Cassin, "Russell's Discussion of Meaning and Denotation: A Re-examination," in Klemke, ed., Essays on Bertrand Russell and J. R. Searle, "Russell's Objection to Frege's Theory of Sense and Reference," in [71] 72 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 31:1 JANUARY X993 In what follows, I will first give a brief account of Russell's theory of denoting as presented in Principles. This will occupy section 2. Section 3 will present modifications to the theory as Russell developed it in the unpublished manuscripts of 1903 - 1905 ." In these manuscripts, Russell developed a theory of meaning and denotation which many have seen to be simply a continuation of the theory of denoting found in Principles. But the manuscripts reveal that Russell's primary purpose in developing this distinction was to solve the Russell contradiction and related paradoxes which he later handled with the ramified theory of types. This aspect of Russell's theory of meaning and denotation has been ignored, despite the fact that in his unpublished writings on meaning and denotation written during 19o3- 19o5 Russell was concerned with the contradiction and methods of resolving it. Russell gave up the project of solving the contradiction by means of the distinction between meaning and denotation, and this is certainly one reason why he never published any of this work. Nevertheless, this aspect of his work on meaning and denotation was important to the development of the argument in "On Denoting." In section 4 I will examine Russell's project of solving the paradox and developing a theory of classes using the distinction between meaning and denotation. This background is crucial to understanding Russell's actual argument against the old theory of denoting, which is the subject of section 5. This argument has its roots in doctrines espoused in Principles and in the unpublished manuscripts. It was in fact formulated in the last of these manuscripts, "On Fundamentals," which has written on it, in Russell's hand, "begun June 7, 19o5," and "Pp. 18ff contain the reasons for the new theory of denoting." This argument is repeated in cryptic form in "On Denoting." While this manuscript is not at all easy to follow, it reveals the complexity of the theory Russell was developing and sheds much light on his reasons...


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