The Philosophical Motivations for the Theory of Descriptions

Kele Perkins, M.A. 

Long Beach City College

ABSTRACT.  In this paper, I endorse the view that the fundamental subject matter of Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions (as represented in “On Denoting”) is ontology, as contrasted with logic or philosophy of language.  I briefly supply some of my own historical reasons for agreement and then address Rosenkrantz' (2005, 2007) reasons for holding this view. Throughout the essay, I distinguish between the logical and linguistic means by which Russell addressed his concerns and the ontological ends in whose service the theory of descriptions was developed.  I argue that Russell’s emphasis on logical and linguistic methods ironically obscures his metaphysical emphasis.

Logic, Language, or Ontology?

In her book Philosophy of Logics, Susan Haack suggests part of the motivation for Russell’s theory of descriptions:

“Russell regarded his theory of descriptions as ontologically liberating …  After developing his theory, Russell quite severely pruned his ontological commitments …  [Quine] would, I think, sympathize with Russell’s view of the theory of descriptions as an instrument of ontological restraint.”

Although this last claim can hardly be taken all by itself as a conclusive answer to the question of whether ontology or some other subject area is the fundamental concern in the theory of descriptions, it nonetheless introduces the importance of the role that ontology plays in that theory.  Certainly Quine does, in “Russell’s Ontological Development,” see “On Denoting” as a major milestone in the various stages of Russell’s evolving ontological commitments over time.

There are strong reasons for viewing the theory of descriptions as fundamentally a work of ontology.  But it is also easy to understand how one could confuse the method, or the means, by which Russell typically makes his case in “On Denoting” and parts of the lectures on logical atomism, with the purposes, or ends, which he intends to establish as the significant result of various analyses.  At one point, Russell suggests that his theory of descriptions is a logical one; in his introductory remarks, he explicitly mentions its importance to epistemology and mathematics, with no mention of ontology:  

"The subject of denoting is of very great importance, not only in logic and mathematics, but also in theory of knowledge …"  (OD, p. 479)

Russell spends a majority of his essay critiquing various important inferences and analyzing linguistic structures, thus encouraging readers towards the view that his fundamental concerns are logical, and in other cases linguistic, in nature.

Due to his efforts to clear the logical and linguistic cobwebs, Russell can be seen as engaging in those subfields of philosophy, but upon closer inspection, his worries are ontological.  His analysis of two historical problems can set the stage for the present argument. The first example is Russell's treatment of Aristotelian logic, which he sees as flawed not only inferentially, but in terms of the entities to which one ought to commit.  He considers examples such as "All Greeks are men, and all Greeks are white; therefore, some men are white." Whereas Aristotle believed this to be a valid syllogistic form (AAI-3), Russell rejects the argument as invalid unless there are Greeks.  In other words, Russell is unwilling to import the existential assumption necessary for validity; instead he exercises caution.  A second example holds a similar lesson: Russell's analysis of the Ontological Argument. Rejecting existence as a logical predicate (following Kant), Russell again appears to be engaging in the subfields of logic and language.  However, his primary concern is once again with the resulting ontological commitments, such that no acceptance of a mere definition can ever logically commit a person to believing in God as an existent entity.  

Having established Russell's concern with inference, and how its emphasis obscures the more genuine ontological concerns that motivate Russell in general, I now turn to the theory of descriptions.  In doing so, I choose to address the "second" puzzle first, and the "first" puzzle second.

Second Puzzle:  The Present King of France

The following puzzles offer support for my theses that

1)  Russell's methodology was inferential, but that 

2)  his primary concern was ontological, and that 

3)  the methodology obscured that primary concern.

I now turn to the 'present king of France' and related cases.  Russell famously addresses the statement:

'The present King of France is bald.'

What exactly, then, does Russell find initially puzzling about this?  Rather than puzzle over questions like, "What does one do with a non-referring subject term?", Russell turns the issue into one of simple logic:  "Are all of the above conjuncts (a, b, c) true?" His analysis cleverly allows the ontological status of a 'present King of France' to be evaluated independently of the other concepts in the statement, i.e.  independently of membership in the class of bald objects, and independently of how many present Kings of France there are. The latter are elements in the analysis, but for truth-functional purposes, the falsity of just one conjunct makes the entire conjunction false.  This is a merely logical point, but serves as the methodological emphasis for this example: the hidden conjunction need only to be revealed and analyzed properly. [Those who, like P.F. Strawson, insist that the statement has no truth-value are misled by the linguistic feature of a single copula in the original puzzle sentence; taking the 'is' (bald) to be the only copula – which it is, but only in terms of inscription on paper – Strawson concerns himself with the question of whether that person is or is not bald, and notices that he cannot answer in the absence of a King of France.  In fact, the sentence is best analyzed as having multiple copulae. However, since Strawson's views are not of primary importance here, there is no need for further discussion of them here.]  

On his analysis, the statement should be understood as a conjunction of the following three assertions:

a) there is at least one X which is the present King of France;

b)  there is at most one X such that X is the present King of France;

c)  for any X such that X is the present King of France, X is bald.

Russell's analysis also nicely resolves what for Meinong appears to be a violation of a basic law of logic, since as Russell points out, a list of all bald objects will not contain a present King of France, while a list of all non-bald objects will likewise not contain a present King of France.  The problem for Meinong is not merely that he will have to assert the existence of a present King of France on at least one of these lists; it is that even distinguishing between existence and subsistence, Meinong still has no grounds for placing a present King of France on one list and not the other.  To the question: even if we were dealing only with existent-but-not-subsistent entities, on which list would the present King of France be found?  He has no answer, because he has no basis for one. Furthermore, if that king is somehow placed on both lists (in the manner of Schrödinger’s cat, who is both 'dead' and 'not dead' until instantiated), then Meinong will have committed a violation of the law of contradiction.  

Rosenkrantz (2005) offers an interpretation of "On Denoting" that explains just what is puzzling in this case.  The two questions he addresses (p. 114) are:

1)  What is the proper analysis of the truth-makers for sentences containing definite descriptions? 

2)  What is the proper analysis of the connection between those sentences and their truth-makers? 

While a cursory glance at these concerns, and in particular at the term 'sentences' in both questions, might make one think that the issues here are fundamentally linguistic, Rosenkrantz (perhaps emphasizing 'truth-makers' over 'sentences') claims that the fundamental concerns are ontological in nature.  His reading shows more concern for what Russell meant within a broader context than for what Russell carelessly says in limited contexts.  This requires several passages to be explained in ways that conflict with traditional or dominant views.  Another way to consider the claim (about ontology being fundamental) is to focus on the concern in the form of questions about purpose:

1a)  Why was Russell, and why should anyone be, concerned with truth-makers?

2a)  Why was Russell, and should anyone be, concerned with connections to truth-makers?

The answer to both questions, I believe, is that despite several comments indicating the contrary, Russell's most basic concern in "On Denoting" is the ontological status of entities.  To be sure, the questions above are not the same questions as in (1) and (2) above; however, they do draw attention to the purpose of those corresponding questions – and thus make it even more clear that the fundamental issues are ontological in nature.  The basic concern is with what there is, i.e. with what exists extra-linguistically, independently of our (linguistic) manner of representing what there is.  

Wading through several misleading turns of Russell's phrases, Rosenkrantz emphasizes Russell's failure to distinguish between two purposes served by propositions: 

i)  their role as truth-makers for sentences, labeled 'propositionsF' with the subscript representing facts; and

ii)  their role as connectors to the truth-makers of sentences, labeled 'propositionsT' with the subscript connected to (Fregean) thoughts.

The inclusion of both roles is, according to Rosenkrantz, what distinguishes Russell's official theory of descriptions from his unofficial theory, the latter being an attempt to improve upon Russell's stated (official) view by removing some of the confusions.

"Since 'the present king of France is bald' is false, it must be connected with a proposition … [which in turn] … must contain a constituent connected to 'the present king of France.'  Yet since there is no such entity, there can be no [such] propositionF."

On Frege's view, the phrase 'present King of France' has a sense, but no referent, so the sentence 'the present King of France is bald' does not have a truth-value.  But, as Rosenkrantz points out, this claim nonetheless poses no problem for the labeling of that sentence as "not true," since while avoiding the label "false," the current label is simply the negation of the label "true," in perfect accordance with the law of the excluded middle.  So while Russell considers the sentence false on grounds of logical rules about conjunctions, Frege is committed to labeling the sentence not true. But as Rosenkrantz points out, the distinction between 'true' and 'not true' is all that is required here; there is no need for further distinctions within the 'not true' side of the dichotomy.    

First Puzzle:  the Author of Waverley

One noteworthy point to make about Russell's theory of descriptions is that in introducing the puzzles of "On Denoting," he himself labels it as a logical theory:  

A logical theory may be tested by its capacity for dealing with puzzles, and it is a wholesome plan, in thinking about logic, to stock the mind with as many puzzles as possible, since these serve much the same purpose as is served by experiments in physical science. (OD, pp. 484-485)

Russell (mis)leads the reader into "thinking about logic" as the topic at hand.  This characterization makes it all too easy for any reader to think of his primary concern as logical or inferential in nature.  Of course, it is true that there is inferential work occurring in the article. Furthermore, since there is an equally obvious emphasis on linguistic mechanisms (subject, predicate, descriptive phrases), it is equally understandable that a reader would see the fundamental issues as being linguistic in nature.  But these topics, logic and language, are merely the means by which Russell his more basic metaphysical concerns. The analysis is clearly carried out in the service of the questions regarding truth-makers, i.e. the propositions which give truth-values to sentences, but which themselves are in turn not made true.  

Following Rosenkrantz (p. 124):

"The puzzle involves three sentences with the following truth-values:

[1a] Scott was the author of Waverley. True

[1b]  King George wished to know whether Scott was the author of Waverley. True

[1c] King George wished to know whether Scott was Scott. False

"On Russell's construal, [1b] is the puzzling sentence.  The difficulty is to account for its truth in a way that preserves the truth of [1a] and the falsity of [1c]."

Russell did not at the time have recourse to Donnellan's attributive/referential distinction.  But he did have Frege's arguments from "On Sense and Reference," in which Frege rejected the notion that "the first gentleman of Europe" had any interest in the law of identity as it applied to this case.  Therefore Russell, in explicating his and Frege's views, has to implement a logical rule against substitution within intentional contexts, and a linguistic point about propositional attitudes, that might (again, understandably) lead one to think in logical and linguistic terms when considering the main point of this example.

Rosenkrantz' shows that Meinong and Frege can each solve one, but not both, of these puzzles.  That in itself means that solving both using their methods requires Frege's senses and Meinong's non-existent entities.  With Russell's theory, however, neither one is necessary for providing a solution to the puzzles:  it has all of their merits without any of their major drawbacks. Whereas Fregean senses are unnecessary and not up to the full task, Meinong's non-subsistent entities are ontologically repulsive, in addition to being unnecessary and inadequate to the full task for Russell.  The common thread here is that if the theory of descriptions can do all the explanatory work of the other two combined, while asserting fewer entities, then it is philosophically superior to the other two. Ontological commitment, for Russell, was functional: one commits to entities in an ontology for purposes of philosophical explanation.  He did not believe in "analysis for its own sake." Furthermore, Ockham's Razor endorses a sparse ontology, ceteris paribus, and this is provided, relatively speaking, by the theory of descriptions.


Russell's methodological concerns with proper logical inference are prominent in his treatment of the puzzles of "On Denoting."  With various references to sentences, subject and predicate terms, and other linguistic issues, it is easy to see how the paper can be (mis)construed as dealing primarily with topics in the philosophy of language.  Therefore, the linguistic discussion represents a second level of distraction as regards Russell's primary concerns. But in each case, the purpose of the logical rigor and linguistic analysis is ontological. Considering that Russell believed that our (il)logical and (bad) linguistic habits often get in the way of a proper understanding of certain topics, it is ironic that his own explication of how it does so would itself be so widely misunderstood as fundamentally logical or linguistic in nature.  


Cartwright, Richard.  “On the Origins of Russell’s Theory of Descriptions.”  Philosophical 

Essays, p. 95-133.  Cambridge, MIT Press, 1987.

Donnellan, Keith.  “Reference and Definite Descriptions.”  Philosophical Review, Vol. 75, No. 

3, 1966.

Frege, Gottlob.  “On Sense and Reference" in Meaning and Reference, ed. A.W. Moore, 1892 

(reprinted 1993).

Glock, Hans-Johann.  What is Analytic Philosophy? Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Haack, Susan.  Philosophy of Logics.  Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Quine, Willard V.O.  “Russell’s Ontological Development.”  Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 63, p. 


Quine, Willard V.O.  Word and Object

Rosenkrantz, Max.  “The King of France Restored.”  Metaphysica:  International Journal of 

Ontology and Metaphysics, Vol. 8, No. 2, p. 149-163, 2007.

Rosenkrantz, Max.  "The Ontological Motivations for Russell's Theory of Descriptions."  Pacific 

Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 86, p. 114-134, 2005.

Russell, Bertrand.  “On Denoting.” Mind, Vol. 14, No. 56, p. 479-493.

Russell, Bertrand.  The Philosophy of Logical Atomism.  Routledge, 1918 (reprinted 1972, 1985).

Russell, Bertrand.  Principles of Mathematics.  Cambridge University Press, 1903 (reprinted 


Russell, Bertrand.  A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1945.

briefly noted


finding philosophical equilibrium

“The proper amount of wealth is that which neither descends to poverty 

nor is far distant from it” – Seneca

In the current issue of New Philosopher, Alex Hinds interviews Elizabeth Anderson, Professor of Philosophy and Women’s’ Studies at the University of Michigan and chair of their Philosophy Department. Anderson put into perspective debates, and indeed current theorists’ preoccupation with, balance and equality. Far from a merely theoretical approach to the topic, however, Anderson cited Anthropological work on hunter-gatherer societies that seem to show, universally, their egalitarian nature. She notes a concept called ‘reflective equilibrium:’

In trying to figure out what is right, we seek an equilibrium between intuitive, general propositions or principles about right and wrong and our intuitions about particular cases. We move back and forth; we refine principles against our intuitions about particular cases and try and find principles that will fit all the particular cases; and then we also seek new cases and try to get them in equilibrium with our principles.

In this case, it is income equality and inequality about which balance is being sought. The discussion made me begin the formulation of a historical question: has inequality generally increased over time? If hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian, and monarchical societies very unequal, both were positively classless compared with today’s disparities in wealth, in which a smaller and smaller number of people have as much wealth as the bottom half – a couple of years ago it was reported at 88 and now it’s in the single digits.

Another article examines the balance of time. How do people adjust their use of time when a new activity, such as an exercise regimen, is introduced? The study found how time spent sleeping, watching TV and cleaning house are adjusted (or neglected), and then resumed after the new activity is stopped. I did about a quarter of my dissertation reading on an elliptical trainer in order to keep such a balance. My dissertation advisor used to ask me if I was exercising, which I thought was a strange question, but she said “it keeps you sharp.” The study reports what the “Goldilocks Day” – the perfectly balanced day in terms of time spent in each activity – would look like. This is an important template for intellectuals, who are expected to balance; reading everything, keeping fairly fit, making enough money to exhibit highbrow tastes and husbanding the next generation (whether students or offspring) to mental perspicacity. 




Hiking with Nietzsche

On Becoming Who You Are

John Kaag

Strauss, Farrar, Giroux

“God is dead.” – Nietzsche, 1888

“Nietzsche is dead.” – God, 1900

Quotes on a T-shirt

 Nietzsche is supposed to be the philosopher of a certain demographic. Like Jordan Peterson’s brand of bootstrapping self-reliance (Philosopher John Kaag’s previous book was about – who else? – Emerson), Nietzsche demands of us crucibles in which we may just succeed if we’re privileged enough to be cared for, probably by a woman as he was for a large portion of his life.

When reading the enthusiastic advocates of Nietzsche’s thought (or watching – for example, the BBC’s Human, All too Human, or Netflix’s Genius of the Modern World), one can easily forget that this is the thought of a very young man. Like a mathematician who does their best work by 30 and so has to be a child prodigy, graduating college at 18, Nietzsche had tobe one of the youngest professors ever appointed because his productive life was over by age 45. So, it has the ring of a young libertarian. Kaag is too old for this, surely? But the book jacket reveals a philosopher who meets two and a half of the three criteria for a Nietzschean disciple: an open, lily-white shirt mirroring youthful, alabaster skin. He himself points to one flaw – a frostbitten ear – as proof that he was made stronger by hiking with Nietzsche.

The book is certainly ponderous, but sometimes this works. While we’re subjected to his trek through Logan airport:

 I glanced across the terminal to the flickering screens of a generic sports bar. The Tour de France was in full swing, and the riders, each of them powered by their own two legs, were in the Alps. Crashes, dehydration, torn tendons, broken bones: they were killing themselves on these mountains. And it was a thing of beauty. At Logan, a crowd of beer-drinking Americans had gathered to watch. There are still traces of the [Nietzschean] tragic struggle in our culture, but they are faint. High stakes competition is regarded as mere spectacle rather than as a vital part of everyday life.

Just because a UMass Lowell prof in his late thirties goes for a thirteen-day trek in the Alps, does that mean we have to read about it in every detail? The only reason there’s much hiking in the book is that he went through this trial twice, once at age nineteen and again pushing 40. Kaag pulls no punches: he candidly describes his suicidal ideation caused by extreme fasting during his first hike with Nietzsche. He habitually pokes himself in the ribs to assure himself that he is still there, but also that there’s not too much of him.

Nevertheless, Kaag is a genuine philosopher and this is somewhat more than travel writing with occasional philosophizing. He weaves in another thinker The New Yorker tells us is for adolescents: Hermann Hesse. Along with Theodor Adorno and others, Hesse seemed to pine for a taste of Nietzsche by retracing his Sils-Maria hikes, evoking David Caspar Freidrich’s “A Wanderer over a Field of Clouds.” Kaag reminds us that philosophy began, and perhaps remains, a peripateticpractice. His book reminded me of this and I once again found that ideas come to me while walking my dog.

Kaag skillfully and subtly weaves in his own father-complex with Nietzsche’s. Kaag’s father, who he calls by his first name, was largely absent, like a flying fish darting beautifully, if fleetingly, in and out of Kaag’s life. Nietzsche’s was the imposing, pious father whose early grave left Nietzsche surrounded by women, with whom he would never form fully functional relationships, and with an impossibly idealized chimera for a father figure. Nietzsche also had a surrogate father, the German musical luminary Richard Wagner, with whom he had a close, but increasingly frayed relationship. Kaag paints this duo in its love-hate splendor and excavates some telltale details. Nietzsche apparently was used by Wagner and his wife (Franz Liszt’s daughter) as an errand boy. He even fetched Wagner’s undergarments – Nietzsche, who later claimed “I am no man.  I am dynamite!”

Nietzsche became famous for saying “God is dead.” (This even inspired a recent Christian film God’s Not Dead.) But the statement itself implies that God was once alive, and so is not atheist per se, but instead is prescient of the mood of our time, the first non-religious society in history. Nietzsche’s project was, like Hegel’s, a grand one, he was “preparing a moment of the highest self-reflection for humanity. A great noon when it looks back and far forward, when it emerges from the dominion of accidents and priests and for the first time poses as a whole the question of Why? And For What?” These are questions I have been asking myself lately – when I go to the mall and see all the fine clothes, to wear “For What?” I see the Herculean struggle for riches – “Why?” Despite Nietzsche’s being a young man’s philosopher, it is for these reasons that his project continues to be germane.