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Russell’s Eccentricity

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Russell claims that ordinary proper names are eccentric, i.e. that the semantic referent of a name is determined by the descriptive condition that the individual utterer of the name associates with the name. This is deeply puzzling, for the evidence that names are subject to interpersonal coordination seems irrefutable. One way of making sense of Russell’s view would be to claim that he has been systematically misinterpreted and did not, in fact, offer a semantic theory at all. Such a view is put forward in Sainsbury (in: Sainsbury M (ed) Departing from Frege, Routledge, London, 2002). Sainsbury claims that Russellian descriptivism is not the theory that the thought in the mind of the speaker determines the semantic reference of a name, but simply a theory about the thought in the mind of the speaker using a name. I argue that the truth is subtly different, and points the way towards an intuitive explanation of Russell’s eccentricity.

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  1. When speaking of ‘Russell’s views’ I speak of one relatively stable and continuous set of views held from ‘On denoting’ onwards.

  2. In fact, Russell’s view is sometimes referred to as ‘famous deeds’ descriptivism; examples given—e.g. ‘Bismarck’, ‘Scott’—concern our most well-known names. His examples, in other words, typically concerned exactly those names that are subject to our most enduring interpersonal linguistic conventions.

  3. Scott is merely a noise or shape conventionally used to designate a certain person” (1910: 123). This is no throw-away remark, but occurs in the context of an argument where the notion of a convention is central to the argument. This argument concerns the issue of whether ‘Scott is the author of Waverley‘ can be interpreted as asserting identity of denotation. Russell objects by pointing out that there cannot be a single notion of denotation at play here, for the relation between ‘Scott’ and Scott is a matter of arbitrary convention alone, whereas the relation between ‘the author of Waverley’ and Scott is not (1910: 123–124).

  4. Strange as eccentricity may seem, Russell’s remark that a logically perfect language “would be very largely private to one speaker” (2009: 25) suggests a certain tolerance for such eccentricity.

  5. First published in 1993.

  6. Sainsbury (2002: 86) acknowledges that Kripke’s most direct formulation (1980: 71) of descriptivism is consistent with the view that such descriptions can vary between speakers. Furthermore, in ‘A Puzzle About Belief’ (1979: 245) Kripke does interpret Russell as allowing the relevant descriptions to vary in this way.

  7. Or, at least, using locutions indicative of speaking of what names mean. I.e. ‘[E]ven proper names, as a rule, really stand for description’ (1910: 123), ‘The word “German” will again have different meanings for different people’ (1910: 115), and so on.

  8. Consider, for instance, in ‘Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description’: “This conclusion forces us to analyze descriptive phrases occurring in propositions, and to say that the objects denoted by such phrases are not constituents of judgments in which such phrases occur (unless these objects are explicitly mentioned)” (1910: 128, my italics).

  9. The phrase ‘semantic content’ is, of course, somewhat anachronistic when employed here. But this is harmless, the argument might equally well have been stated in terms of Russellian locutions like ‘meanings of phrases’.

  10. It will also not do to claim that Russell here means to merely discuss names without bearers as a special class. He nowhere indicates that he views names without bearers as semantically unique. Elsewhere he explicitly dismisses the analogous possibility of treating non-denoting definite descriptions like ‘the present King of France’ as having different logical form than descriptions that do denote. He states that, based on ‘parity of form’, they must be treated similarly (1910: 122).

  11. Russell takes these thought contents to vary across occasions of use (1910: 115–116).

  12. If the content of sentences can vary in this way, then, contra Sainsbury, Russell must be interpreted as endorsing eccentricity about not only thought-contents, but also semantic contents (and also as denying Millianism about semantic content). The passage fits perfectly with interpreting Russell as an eccentric semantic descriptivist; on such a view interchanging descriptions with the same denotation does not typically affect the truth-value of the sentence, though it may do so in intensional contexts.

  13. This would also make sense of his claim that ‘On denoting’, while much more focused on semantic content, and ‘Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description’, while much more focused on thoughts, are dealing with the same topic (1910: 108).

  14. First published 1918.

  15. In a response to Strawson (1950), Russell states that such thought content cannot straightforwardly be equated with the state of mind of the utterer, but may be “a more accurate and analyzed thought to replace the somewhat confused thought which most people at most times have in their heads” (1957: 388). This issue, however, is orthogonal to the current discussion and will not be pursued here.

  16. This is most obvious in ‘Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description’, but also in the last few paragraphs of ‘On denoting’ where the main claims of ‘Knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description’ are first formulated (1905: 492–493).

  17. The topic is a surprisingly under-explored one. An enormous amount has been written about the semantics of names and the same goes for the matter of how their reference is secured. Yet few authors have made much of the fact that names, as all linguistic expressions, are conventional.

  18. Lewis (1969) portrays conventions as arising in this way, i.e. as a response to recurrent coordination games.

  19. The convention governing a non-referring name like ‘Santa Claus’ cannot be object-dependent.

  20. Such views have been proposed by Stine (1977) and Sainsbury (2015).

  21. Dictionaries typically give us the conventional meaning of a term, but only if this is useful. When they do contain information about names, as they occasionally do, they do not give us the useless ‘“London” refers to London’, but the rather more useful, salient proxy-rule ‘“London” refers to the capital of England’. The same goes for their treatment of natural kind terms. This, unfortunately, muddles the distinction between conventional content and commonly used proxy-rules.

  22. These proxy-rules must, of course, be rigidified in some or other way. Nothing here depends on how this is to be done, though Kaplan’s dthat operator suggest an obvious option. Speakers following the proxy-rules ‘Use “Glob” to speaker-refer to dthat[the person who matches visual stereotype a]’, and ‘Use “Glob” to speaker-refer to dthat[the tallest man in England]’ can be portrayed as following the single convention ‘Use “Glob” to speaker-refer to Glob’.

  23. Cognitive-semantic coincidence can occur in cases of non-object-dependent linguistic conventions, i.e. for definite descriptions (in cases where no conventions relevant to defining the component parts are object-dependent), logical connectives, logically proper names (if they exist) and so on. Of course, even where the convention and the thought can coincide, the convention and the thought used to follow the convention are still conceptually distinct, even though they have the same content. This can be seen from the fact that, even in such cases, a non-standard proxy-rule that does not have the same content as the convention may still allow one to follow the convention.

  24. Russell individuates thoughts strictly in terms of objects that the subject is acquainted with (1910: 117). Kripke (2008) has claimed that Frege is also committed to something akin to Russellian acquaintance.

  25. One could try to claim that Russell took proper names to be an exception to such cognitive-semantic coincidence. There seem to be no textual evidence in support of such a view. Furthermore—as explained earlier—the casual way in which Russell switches between talking of thoughts and talking of names qua linguistic items would militate against such a view.

  26. “The notion of what words can mean, in the language, is semantical: it is given by the conventions of our language” (1977: 263). Note that Kaplan is even more explicit when presenting his theory of indexicals, saying that “[t]he character of an expression is set by linguistic conventions and, in turn, determines the content of the expression in every context” (Kaplan 1989: 505), and that Kaplan and Kripke are normally understood as writing about the same type of topic.

  27. Grice states that what is said is “closely related to the conventional meaning of the words” (1975: 44, my italics), but seems hesitant about equating his notion with conventional content.

  28. For a discussion of the issues involved, see Stojanovic (2007).

  29. Minimalists (e.g. Cappelen and Lepore 2005; Borg 2004) similarly deny that that the proposition communicated by an utterance should be equated with the utterance’s semantic content.

  30. The above analysis suggests a possible answer as to why Russell’s theory of names may seem intuitively compelling. When we have Kripkean intuitions, we are thinking of conventionally determined reference, but when we have Russellian intuitions, we are thinking of a speaker’s grasp of conventionally determined reference. In this way Lewis may provide the key to explaining why both views can have such considerable intuitive appeal; our conflicting intuitions are the result of an unnoticed conceptual sleight of hand.

  31. The argument made here inevitably raises the matter of how we should think of Frege and his commitment to idiolects (1948, 1956). This is not a matter that will be explored here, though I do think that Fregean idiolects can be accounted for in much the same way as Russellian eccentricity.


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Smit, J.P. Russell’s Eccentricity. Erkenn 86, 275–293 (2021).

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