Why "On Denoting"?


  • Ray Perkins, Jr. Plymouth State University




A recent trend in Russell scholarship has been towards the thesis that, contrary to his own recollections, Bertrand Russell really didn’t need the 1905 theory of descriptions to deflate an excessive ontology, because (1) there was no excessive ontology in The Principles of Mathematics, at least not one with golden mountains and the like, and so (2) Russell’s real motive, at least his main one, was not ontological but rather was to replace the incoherent sense–reference distinction on which the old theory of denoting depended. I want to gently dispute that thesis by showing that Russell’s old theory in the Principles was ambivalent on ontic commitment to non-existent things and it could not give an adequate account of the central problem which Russell faced before “On Denoting”, viz. our apparent discourse—including our ability to make true and false propositions—about non-existent things. I also show briefly how the new theory solves the old problem.