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  • Russell vs Meinong: The Legacy of 'On Denoting'
  • Judy Pelham (bio)
Nicholas Griffin and Dale Jacquette, editors. Russell vs Meinong: The Legacy of 'On Denoting'. Routledge. 2008. 384. $111.00

The fifteen essays in this collection elaborate in diverse ways on the history, subject matter, and significance of the theory of descriptions Bertrand Russell presented in his famous article 'On Denoting' in 1905. In it Russell says, '[I]f a word means something, there must be some thing that it means.' This quote raises the central puzzle of the collection: it should be impossible to speak about what does not exist. At issue is the nature of the meanings of expressions such as 'the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,' or 'the present King of France,' or 'the famous detective who lives on Baker St.' In 'On Denoting' Russell cites disapprovingly Alexius Meinong, a German philosophical psychologist, who contends that all such expressions have some object they refer to. 'OnDenoting' argues thatMeinong's theory is an undesirable solution to the problem of naming non-existent entities and presents a theory that defines such expressions contextually.

The papers range over scholarship in various areas of philosophy, with many papers touching on more than one area. The majority are concerned with Russell scholarship in some way. Urquhart, Stevens, Klement, Makin, Nasim, and Bostock write in order to achieve greater philosophical understanding of Russell's work. Gideon Makin details the evolution of Russell's ontology from The Principles of Mathematics, to the paper 'The Existential Import of Propositions,' to 'On Denoting.' Alasdair Urquhart's paper also discusses the development of Russell's ontology, but relates it to Russell's logical work in the foundation of mathematics. He gives evidence from Russell's manuscripts of this period to support the view that the metaphysical and epistemological issues are secondary to Russell's interest in resolving logical problems in the foundations of arithmetic. David Bostock is conscious of his article's distance from this type of historical scholarship when he writes, 'My history . . . confines [End Page 247] attention to works which Russell himself prepared for publication. My elucidations are sometimes quite anachronistic, relying on modern perspectives which Russell would find quite unfamiliar.' Bostock claims Russell's early theory of denoting concepts in The Principles of Mathematics fails to provide a theory of natural language concepts. The idea that this was not Russell's primary purpose does not seem to have occurred to him.

The paper of Linsky and Pelletier is concerned with a historical comparison of Russell and Frege on the issue of how to analyze definite descriptions. It uses the logical rules and axioms that were crucial to Russell's logicism to bring a fresh approach to the question. Logical work continues to be philosophically engaged in Nicholas Griffin's paper. In it Griffin extends R. Routley's item theory to consider entities of different sorts, including impossible or imaginary objects. Where Gabriele Contessa's paper asks, 'Who Is Afraid of Imaginary Objects?' Griffin's article argues that imaginary objects can be accommodated in a modern theory of philosophical logic if we allow our logic to distinguish the context of supposition from the context of fact.

Analytic philosophy of language is integrated into discussion of Russell's logic in Gregory Landini's article. In it Principia Mathematica's theory of definite descriptions and many aspects of its logic are analyzed in terms of their impact on some puzzles of intentionality and belief ascription. Michael Nelson and Nathan Salmon analyze definite descriptions using analytic concepts from Quine, Kaplan, and others in their analysis of Russell's work.

Meinongian scholarship is represented by only one article by Johann Christian Marek. The article stands out as a lucid exposition of Meinong's work, and it provides interesting insight into how the disciplines of philosophy and psychology differed as well as overlapped in 1900.

The introduction to the articles gives helpful historical background on Meinong and Russell and describes the philosophical problem that drives the collection. The collection is well done, and although I cannot agree with its editors' characterization as 'vigorously advancing' the conversation on definite descriptions and non-existent objects, it...


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pp. 247-248
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