PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday September 18, 2012


[3.] Bertrand Russell.[1]


[3.1.] Biographical Background.


·         1872: born in the city of Trellech, in the county of Monmouthshire, now part of Wales[2]

·         One of his grandfathers was Lord John Russell, who twice served as Prime Minister of Britain.

·         Upon Russell’s birth, John Stuart Mill agreed to be his godfather, but Mill died only a year later, so Russell never knew him.

·         Russell’s parents died when he was very young and he was subsequently raised by his grandmother, a strict Presbyterian.

·         His first encounter with philosophical problems came at the age of 11, when


his older brother introduced him to Euclid: ‘This was one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as first love’ … [Russell] demanded to know what grounds there were for accepting Euclid’s axioms, and received the unsatisfying reply, ‘If you don’t accept them, we cannot go on.’ ‘The doubt as to the premises of mathematics which I felt at that moment remained with me, and determined the course of my subsequent work’ … He even claims that only his desire to know more mathematics prevented him from committing suicide while a schoolboy …[3]


·         He began writing about religious and metaphysical questions in a journal at the age of 15, and he kept the journal secret from his relatives.

·         In 1890, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study mathematics, but soon changed to philosophy.

·         He was associated for much of his life with Cambridge University, first as a student, then as an instructor (although he did teach in the United States for a brief period in the 1930s).

·         He was an extremely prolific writer; published about 70 books, some dealing with “harder,” more technical areas (logic and mathematics, philosophy of science, metaphysics and epistemology) and others dealing with “softer,” more popular areas (social philosophy, ethics and religion).

·         Some of the later books were written for a popular audience; some were about sex and marriage and were very controversial at the time.

·         He was married four times.

·         He ran for public office in England but was unsuccessful because he was an avowed agnostic (Russell authored Why I am Not a Christian).

·         He became a pacifist in about 1901 and was briefly imprisoned in England during WWII for writings critical of the US Army.

·         He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1950.

·         He was engaged in political activism in the 1950s and 60s, e.g., he was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was arrested when he participated in one of their protests.

·         Died in 1970, in Wales, at the age of 97.



[3.2.] Philosophical Background: Idealism.


At the time that Russell began his studies at Cambridge, the most influential philosophical movement in Britain was a form of idealism:


idealism (df.): in some sense, the world, or reality, is dependent on, or not entirely separate from, the mind, or reason. [this is an extremely vague definition; different idealists, e.g., Berkeley, Kant and Hegel, take this core idea in very different ways.]


Russell was trained by philosophers who themselves were idealists, so it is no surprise that in his early years he himself accepted this view.


But Russell famously abandoned British idealism around 1898 and adopted a form of realism:


realism (df.): in some sense, the world, or reality, exists separately from the mind.


Both Russell, and G. E. Moore, his friend and colleague at Cambridge, are famous for abandoning idealism around the same time. (We will study Moore later in the semester.)



[3.3.] Philosophical Background: Logicism.


Like Frege, Russell (beginning in 1900) devoted much time to establishing the truth of logicism:


logicism (df.): the truths of arithmetic can be derived from, or reduced to, truths of logic. [This is the version of logicism Frege defended; Russell believed that, not just arithmetic, but all of mathematics, is reducible to logic.]


Russell had followed Frege’s work and wrote to him to point out a serious error: an assumption Frege made which was essential for his project (showing that arithmetic can be reduced to logic) to succeed had to be false.


It is now universally acknowledged that Frege did not achieve his goal of showing that the truths of arithmetic could be derived from the truths of logic.


Russell continued to try to show that logicism was true and that the logical foundations of mathematics could be formulated in such a way as to avoid the paradox.



[3.4.] Russell’s Theory of Descriptions.


Russell put forward this theory in 1905’s “On Denoting.”



[3.4.1.] Denoting Phrases.


Russell intended his theory to explain the meaning of denoting phrases.


“Denotation” means the same thing as “reference”  (which is the word that is usually used to translate Frege’s term “Bedeutung”)—so presumably, he wanted the theory to explain the meaning of phrases that refer. But it seems that he did not have all referring phrases in mind:


By a ‘denoting phrase’ I mean a phrase such as any one of the following: a man, some man, any man, every man, all men, the present King of England, the present King of France, the centre of the solar system at the first instant of the twentieth century, the revolution of the earth round the sun, the revolution of the sun round the earth. Thus a phrase is denoting solely in virtue of its form. (35, emphasis added)


That last sentence isn’t very helpful. Russell is better at giving examples of denoting phrases than he was at giving a general definition. (Also notice that Russell is not using quotation marks to distinguish when he is using words and when he is merely mentioning them; i.e., he is not observing the use-mention distinction.)


So for Russell, denoting phrases include:

·         definite descriptions and

·         phrases of the form “all such-and-such” (and their synonyms) and of the form “some such-and-such” (and their synonyms).



[3.4.2.] Why Denoting Phrases are Important.


According to Russell, denoting phrases are very important for human knowledge.


This is because there are some things we are capable of knowing only by way of denotation.


He gives as an example: “we know that the centre of mass of the solar system at a definite instant is some definite point, and we can affirm a number of propositions about it.” (35)


So this is something that we can have knowledge of: the center of mass of the solar system at a definite point in time.


But we have no acquaintance with it; we do not “have presentations” of it:

·         it is not an “object of perception,” i.e., we do not perceive it with the senses;

·         nor is it one of those “objects with a more abstract logical character” that we are acquainted with by way of thought (e.g., a number).


The only way that we can “reach” this object is “by means of denoting phrases.” Without denoting phrases, we would be incapable of having knowledge of those things with which we are not acquainted.


Russell gives an additional example:


…there seems no reason to believe that we are ever acquainted with other people’s minds, seeing that these are not directly perceived; hence what we know about them is obtained through denoting. (33)


[Unfortunately, Russell does not give an example of the sort of denoting phrase someone might use to refer to another person’s mind or mental states. “Frege’s mind” and “Russell’s pain” don’t seem to be denoting phrases as defined by Russell. Perhaps he has in mind something like “the mental state currently being experienced by Frege.”]



[3.4.3.] The Theory Itself. 


This theory does not involve a distinction between sense and reference. Russell wants to operate with a simpler notion of meaning than Frege’s.


1.      Denoting phrases have meaning only within the context of a sentence. Phrases like “a man,” “all men,” “the father of Charles II,” etc., have no meaning when they occur by themselves.


2.      The meaning of a denoting phrase in the context of a sentence is not what it appears to be. In “The father of Charles II was executed,” the denoting phrase “The father of Charles II” does not mean Charles I.


3.      The real meaning of a denoting phrase (in a sentence) is given by the following sort of translation:


“I met a man” means:


      “‘I met x, and x is human’ is not always false.” (p.34)


Or, less formally:


“There is an x such that x is human and I met x.”


Or, even less formally:


“There is an entity such that that entity is human and I met that entity.”


The denoting phrase “a man” has completely disappeared from these translations. [Important: in the last translation, I am doing something of which Russell would not approve, namely, introducing a new denoting phrase, “an entity.” The point of a Russellian translation is to get rid of denoting phrases.]



“The father of Charles II was executed” means:


“It is not always false of x that x begat Charles II and that x was executed and that ‘if y begat Charles II, y is identical with x’ is always true of y.” (p.34)


Or, less formally:


“There is an x such that x fathered Charles II, and for all y, if y begat Charles II, then y=x, and x was executed.”


Or, even less formally:


“One and only one entity fathered Charles II, and that entity was executed.”


In these translations of “The father of Charles II was executed,” the original denoting phrase has disappeared. [Important: in the last translation, I am doing something of which Russell would not approve, namely, introducing a new denoting phrase, “one entity.” The point of a Russellian translation is to get rid of denoting phrases.]


Furthermore, the original sentence, which is grammatically a subject-predicate sentence, is shown to be logically an existential sentence, i.e., a sentence asserting that something exists.



4.      The real meaning of a sentence containing a definite description (which is one kind of denoting phrase) involves:

  1. an existence claim (there is one entity...)
  2. a uniqueness claim (and only one entity...)
  3. a predication of a property (that has such-and-such a property).


This is illustrated above in the case of “The father of Charles II.”


 “The father of Charles II” is a definite description. The sentence “The father of Charles II was executed really means:


“There is one... [the existence claim]

“and only one entity that fathered Charles II... [the uniqueness claim]

“and that entity was executed.” [the predication of a property].


The definite description “the father of Charles II” has disappeared from this translation. (The phrase “that fathered Charles II” is not the same as the definite description “the father of Charles II”.)


Here is a different example that will soon be shown to be very important to Russell:


 “The present king of France” is a definite description. The sentence “The present king of France is bald” really means:


“There is one... [the existence claim]

“and only one entity that is presently a king of France... [the uniqueness claim]

“and that entity is bald.” [the predication of a property].


And again, the definite description “the present king of France” has disappeared from this translation. (The phrase “is presently a king of France” is not the same as the definite description “the present king of France”.)



These four claims do not constitute an argument for the theory; they simply state the theory itself. Regarding why we should believe the theory, Russell writes:


                The evidence for the above theory is derived from the difficulties which seem unavoidable if we regard denoting phrases as standing for genuine constituents of the propositions in whose verbal expressions they occur. (37)


In other words, other theories that attempt to explain the meaning of denoting terms run into “difficulties” that Russell’s theory does not.



[3.4.4.] Competing Theories: Frege.


Russell describes two competing theories of the meaning of denoting terms: those of Alexius Meinong (Austrian, 1853-1920) and Frege. We will examine only what Russell says about Frege.[4]


Russell reminds us of the following:

·         Frege distinguishes between denotation, a.k.a. reference (the very thing that an expression picks out or refers to) and meaning, a.k.a. sense (the way in which that expression picks out its reference).

·         The distinction provides an explanation of the fact that “it is often worth while to assert identity.” (37)


E.g., “Scott = the author of Waverely.” Frege would say that this sentence has cognitive significance because “Scott” and “the author of Waverley” have different senses, whereas “Scott = Scott” lacks cognitive significance.[5]


But, says Russell, Frege’s account has a big problem: it does not deal well with non-referring terms, e.g., “The present king of France.” If Frege’s view is correct, this expression has sense but no reference, and so a sentence in which it occurs (e.g., “The present king of France is bald”) “ought to be nonsense; but it is not nonsense, since it is plainly false.” (37)


Here Russell seems to be assuming that the sense of an expression like “the king of France” is not enough to keep a sentence like “The king of France is bald” from being non-sensical. Perhaps this is because Russell is translating Frege’s term “Sinn” as “meaning” rather than as “sense.” So, on Russell’s understanding of Frege’s theory, when a term lacks a Sinn, it lacks a meaning and should thus be meaningless, nonsense.


Frege actually says that sentences with non-referring terms, like “Odysseus was set ashore at Ithaca while sound asleep” and “The present king of France is bald,” are neither true nor false.


So this is a central disagreement between Frege and Russell:

·         Frege takes sentences that contain non-referring expressions to be neither true nor false.

·         Russell takes them to be false.


[Russell gives a long, difficult argument against Frege’s sense-reference distinction, one involving the example of the first line of Gray’s Elegy, at p.39.]



Stopping point for Tuesday September 18. For next time, finish reading Russell’s “On Denoting pp.38-42 (just to the end of the first paragraph on p.39). Come to class prepared to discuss these questions:

1.      What are the three puzzles that Russell believes his theory of denoting will solve?

2.      How does he think his theory will solve those puzzles?




[1] For a good summary of various aspects of Russell’s philosophy, see A. D. Irvine, “Bertrand Russell”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.


[2] Russell’s hometown is now the site of an important archaeological discovery: “the Lost City of Trellech.” < >


[3] Mark Sainsbury, Russell, Routledge, 1979, p.1. Quotations from Russell are from his Autobiography (1967).


[4] You may still wish to attend to what Russell says about Meinong, who will appear later in the semester under the pseudonym “Wyman” as a target of W. V. O. Quine’s criticism in Quine’s “On What There Is.”


[5] Here “Scott” refers to Sir Walter Scott. His novel Waverely, widely believed to be the first historical novel, is online here: .

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