Optional: Russell, "Mr. Strawson on Referring" (DjVu, JSTOR)
Our focus will primarily be on pp. 320-35 (sections I–III). What follows is an important early discussion of "context dependence", which is a topic to which we shall return later.
There is now a large literature on so-called "incomplete" definite descriptions. For anyone interested in this topic, here are some places to start: Scott Soames, "Incomplete Definite Descriptions", Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 27 (1986), pp. 349-75 (Project Euclid); Stephen Neale, Descriptions (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), esp. §3.7; Marga Reimer, "Incomplete Descriptions", Erkenntnis 37 (1992), pp. 347-63 (JSTOR).
Strawson is out to argue that Russell's Theory of Descriptions "embodies some fundamental mistakes". Strawson is particularly concerned to reject Russell's argument for the existence of "logically proper names" and, with it, his argument that 'ordinary' proper names are really descriptions (which, recall, is the Description Theory of Names).
As Strawson sees it, these arguments rest upon the claim that "if there are any sentences which are genuinely of the subject-predicate form, then the very fact of their being significant...guarantees that there is something referred to by the logical (and grammatical) subject" of those sentences (p. 323). So he will argue, by contrast, that a sentence can perfectly well be significant even if its "logical subject" fails to refer to anything.
One might worry here that Strawson is not distinguishing clearly enough between the Theory of Descriptions and the Description Theory: The former does not imply the latter. If we do distinguish these, however, then at which target are Strawson's arguments really directed? Or should they be understood as directed not at these theses themselves, but rather at arguments Russell gives for them?
Strawson begins his argument against Russell by making some distinctions, between:
- Uses of sentences
- Utterances of sentences
And similarly for other expressions, e.g., names or descriptions. The first and last should be fairly clear—though note that an utterance is an action that someone performs, one that involves the intentional 'production' of a sentence, which may be spoken, written, signed, etc. It is not so clear what Strawson means by a 'use', and the example he gives on p. 325 to explain it is not terribly helpful (it seems to me). Fortunately, this does not seem to be a particularly important notion for Strawson: His various claims can, so far as I can see, be stated just in terms of sentences and utterances.
Perhaps the most important thing in this paper is a distinction between two senses of the verb "refer", which emerges at p. 326. So far, we have been speaking of reference as a relation between words and things: "Hesperus" refers to Venus. But one can also speak of reference as an act: To whom were you referring? Strawson seems to want to insist that the latter is really more fundamental: "`Mentioning', or `referring', is not something an expression does; it is something that one can use an expression to do", he says. By contrast, meaning or significance is something an expression (e.g., a sentence) can have (p. 327).
Overall, then, Strawson thinks Russell conflates the question whether, say, "The King of France is bald" is meaningful with the question whether the subject-phrase, on some particular occasion of utterance, refers to anything. What the sentence means is supposed to be revealed by the "general directions" regarding its use, on various occasions, to say different things about, potentially, different objects.
Strawson uses a variety of examples to press this point, one of which involves "I". Another involves what have come to be called "incomplete descriptions", such as: The table is covered with books. These pose a challenge to Russell's theory because it is fairly obvious that there is not a unique table. (Make sure you understand why this is a problem for Russell.)
In Russell's reply (which you do not have to read), he insists that Strawson is confusing different issues. Russell never meant his theory to address issues concerning what he calls `egocentric' words, of which "I" is the best example and tense is another. We can get away from such issues by considering, e.g., "The King of France circa 1905 is bald". Do Strawson's arguments still work as applied to such a case?
Strawson goes on to insist, however, that if someone does seriously use a sentence containing a descriptive phrase without thereby referring to anything, then they are "not making either a true or a false assertion" (p. 329); that is, they are not saying anything at all. In that sense, Strawson is accepting something Russell seemed to find absurd: Russell insisted that, if someone were seriously to claim, right now, that the King of France is bald, then they would have said something that was not meaningless but "plainly false". Strawson is saying that, yes, the sentence they uttered was not meaningless, but their utterance, in effect, was meaningless: They made no significant assertion.
This seems to return us to a question I asked when we read Russell: Why does Russell claim that "The King of France is bald" is plainly false? But we now face a more general question. Forget about whether Russell or Strawson is correct. What kinds of considerations might possibly be brought to bear to help us decide this kind of issue?
In section III, Strawson goes on to explain his view that (contemporary) utterances of "The King of France is bald" somehow 'misfire'. Strawson claims that someone who uttered this sentence would thereby "imply" that there was a (unique) King of France. But he notes that "The King of France is not bald" has the same implication, and that suggests that this is "a very special and odd sense of" implication. It is, in fact, a version of what has come to be called presupposition.
Thus, if I were to ask you, "Have you stopped smoking crack?" you might reasonably want to refuse to answer either "yes" or "no" because, as a lawyer might say, the question presupposes facts not in evidence. In particular, it presupposes that you have smoked crack in the past. But if both "You have stopped A-ing" and "You have not stopped A-ing" presuppose that you used to A, then this cannot be an ordinary logical implication: If both P and ~P imply Q, then Q is itself a logical truth. And surely it is not a logical truth that you used to smoke crack!
Can you think of other natural examples of words, like "stop", that carry presuppositions?
Similarly, Strawson wants to say that, if one utters "The King of France is bald", one does not assert but only presupposes that there is a (unique) King of France. So it is no part of what one is claiming when making such an assertion that there is a (unique) King of France, and the non-existence of such a monarch does not imply that your utterance is false. Rather, in that case, as Strawson puts it, the question whether the King of France is bald simply does not arise.
How satisfying is this suggestion that some assertions involving descriptions 'misfire'?
Strawson goes on to illustrate this sort of point with what has become a very famous example: Someone says, "This is a fine red one", when there is nothing to which "this" might plausibly refer. In this case, indeed, one might reasonably want to say that nothing has really been said by the person who uttered this sentence. But one might reasonably wonder whether is really an example of the same sort as the one involving "the King of France"
Is it really an example of the same sort as the one involving "the King of France"? In what ways might they be similar or different?