Russell's Theory of Descriptions in On Denoting Essay

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Russell's Theory of Descriptions in On Denoting


The aim of this essay is to give an exposition of the theory of descriptions as it is first set forth by Russell in his article 'On Denoting' found in Mind 1905.

Each section of this article will be explained in my own words, with the exception of some of the symbolic logic. Russell's own words are indicated by speech marks.

I have tried not to simply re-write what Russell has said, but rather endeavoured to explain, in an original way, each part of Russell's theses, and in the order that they are found in the article.

Firstly, I will outline the article 'On Denoting' giving my own understanding of the theory of descriptions as Russell introduces it. It
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To Russell, the interpretation of such phrases is 'a matter of considerable difficulty'.

Russell demonstrates the importance of the subject of denoting in the theory of knowledge. He distinguishes between two types of knowledge:

knowledge by acquaintance; we have knowledge by acquaintance of the objects of our perception, e.g. when I look at my hand. knowledge about; we have knowledge of the objects of our thought, e.g. when I think of the present Queen of England.
We do not necessarily have knowledge by acquaintance of those objects denoted by some phrases. We may be reliant, therefore, on denoting phrases for the knowledge of those objects that they denote.

A good example from Russell is our knowledge of other minds: '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.'


Russell now begins to state his theory. Hitherto, according to Russell, the interpretation of propositions containing denoting phrases has been based on a 'wrong analysis' of those propositions.

The proper analysis is based on Russell's assumption that denoting phrases have no meaning in isolation but that a meaning is attributed to the propositions in which they are contained.

So, it

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