Incomplete Symbols in <em>Principia Mathematica</em> and Russell’s “Definite Proof”


  • Ray Perkins Plymouth State University



Early in Principia Mathematica Russell presents an argument that "‘the author of Waverley’ means nothing", an argument that he calls a "definite proof". He generalizes it to claim that definite descriptions are incomplete symbols having meaning only in sentential context. This Principia "proof" went largely unnoticed until Russell reaffirmed a near-identical "proof" in his philosophical autobiography nearly 50 years later. The "proof" is important, not only because it grounds our understanding of incomplete symbols in the Principia programme, but also because failure to understand it fully has been a source of much unjustified criticism of Russell to the effect that he was wedded to a naive theory of meaning and prone to carelessness and confusion in his philosophy of logic and language generally. In my paper, I (1) defend Russell’s "proof" against attacks from several sources over the last half century, (2) examine the implications of the "proof" for understanding Russell’s treatment of class symbols in Principia, and (3) see how the Principia notion of incomplete symbol was carried forward into Russell’s conception of philosophical analysis as it developed in his logical atomist period after 1910.