Meaning of the word "the"

by Perplexed1 min read10th Apr 201111 comments

1

Personal Blog

I need some help tracking down a quotation.  I'm pretty sure that it was an early 20th century philosopher - perhaps Russell.  He was explaining that modern philosophy no longer tries to find the meaning of life.  Post-Witgenstein, it has narrowed its ambitions and now seeks only to discover the meaning of words.  He goes on to explain why even this is likely to prove difficult.  And then (here is the part I like) he wryly comments that in spite of the difficulties, there has been some progress in working out the meaning of the word "the".

Does that ring a bell for anyone?

11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:38 AM
New Comment

Russell did spend a lot of time on "the" in his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (chapters 16 and 17). But I haven't found a point in there where he makes a wry contrast between this pursuit and the ambitions of earlier philosophers to explain the meaning of life. On the contrary, he seems to take the matter completely seriously. From p. 167:

It may be thought excessive to devote two chapters to one word, but to the philosophical mathematician it is a word of very great importance. . . I would give the doctrine of this word if I were "dead from the waist down" and not merely in prison.

(He was in prison at the time for his pacifist activism during WWI.)

Yes, the quote ('some progress in working out the meaning of the word "the"') was a reference to Russell's theory of descriptions. I already knew that, though I suppose I didn't make that explicit. I was looking for the source of the quote itself.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I read that quote in a comic book. Well, "graphic novel", actually. Logicomix. I'll be able to check that suspicion at the library within a few days. Edit: Nope. Wasn't there.

My reason for wanting to nail down the quote is that I intend to make a blog posting in which I argue that Russell's theory of descriptions is a mistake. That if John is unmarried, then the sentence "John's wife has red hair" is meaningless, rather than false as Russell would have it.

A bit disheartening, that, but I'm not sure the philosophers did much better back when they were working on the meaning of life.

My memory of this, which I picked up studying linguistics (though I don't know where it originated), is that statements have a set of presuppositions, which the speaker asserts to be true and noncontroversial by using them, and then additionally have a truth value for the main proposition only if the presuppositions all hold. There's a presupposition for every noun phrase introduced with "the" that an appropriate referent exists; and presuppositions may also be introduced in a variety of other ways, such as by embedding statements in certain ways ("she knew that X" presupposes X and asserts her knowledge of X), with type compatibility (using a pronoun presupposes that the context has one most salient person of the appropriate gender), with "too", and in a number of other ways.

What you call a sentence for which presuppositions fail, such as "John's wife has red hair" when John is unmarried, is a matter of definition. The presupposition failed and so the supposition cannot be evaluated, and there is no further fact of the matter. It could be false, or meaningless, or even ungrammatical depending on how you define terms, and arguing over those definitions is quite unilluminating.

What you call a sentence for which presuppositions fail, such as "John's wife has red hair" when John is unmarried, is a matter of definition. The presupposition failed and so the supposition cannot be evaluated, and there is no further fact of the matter. It could be false, or meaningless, or even ungrammatical depending on how you define terms, and arguing over those definitions is quite unilluminating.

Hmmm. I agree that arguing about those definitions is probably fairly pointless. But I also tend to agree with Russell that working out the consequences (advantages and disadvantages) of each of those possible definitions is a very suitable occupation for an intelligent man stuck in prison. :)

Hmm. If "the wife of John" is the null set, it seems false, rather than meaningless, to predicate "red hair" on the null set.

But "the wife of John" doesn't denote the null set. It denotes the unique member of the null set. I'm sticking with "meaningless".

[-][anonymous]10y 0

By your reasoning what's the status of

  1. "all wives of John have red hair"
  2. "a wife of John has red hair"

Assuming John remains unmarried, 1 is true and 2 is false. But, "the youngest wife of John" fails to denote, and the claim that this nonexistent entity has red hair is meaningless. That is my story, and I'm sticking to it.

It does ring a bell and with connection to Russell. My guess would be one of Russell's letters after he'd fallen out with Wittgenstein. It's a difficult one to search for though.

Sorry, though I remember discussing the meaning of 'is' with regards Plato.