Theories Of Reference: Evans On Russell

Introductory: Russell’s Criterion

The stated aim of the chapter [1, Ch. 2] is to examine Russell’s theory of reference. These views were only held by Russell at one particular point (around 1918). [2] Russell’s model is basically that of Frege, but again at only one point — before 1890. Evans’ basic theme will be the claim that Russell is often right for the wrong reasons.

Referring expressions have exactly one function — to identify an object in such a way that if the object satisfies the predicate, the sentence containing the expression is true; and if not, it is false. If the term does not refer, the sentence is not truth-evaluable. The person saying it has said nothing; it is `nonsense’ (Russell). [`Nonsense’ is a very interesting term of course; it specifically denies what Frege says can be there even for non-referring terms — Frege says this in order to account for our clear view that sentences containing non-referring terms can be significant.] Russell’s model did not follow Frege in Frege’s introduction of the distinction between sense and Meaning; [recall that Evans is using Meaning for what is normally translated from Bedeutung as reference].

Russell’s argument for the non-sensicality claim relies on the claim that name is a means only; it does not occur in the sentence. We as it were look through it to what it points to in the same way that we will rarely consider a signpost as such; we will be more interested in the location to which it directs us. And if the only significance of a signpost is what it points to, then we don’t care about the difference between signposts — so long as they point to the same thing.

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This leads directly to what Evans calls `Russell’s Criterion’ which states that if you can imagine that the subject of a proposition does not exist, and the proposition does not become meaningless, then the subject is not a proper name: it does not represent some object.

All definite descriptions like `the φ’ fail this test. Evans agrees with Russell on this point — cf. his `Julius’ argument. [Recall: Julius was the inventor of the zip.] So definite descriptions are not names. However, we can still understand (and truth-evaluate) `the φ is F’ irrespective of whether `the φ’ refers. Evans does not agree with Strawson [3, `On Referring’] that nothing has been said by a sentence containing an empty term.

Russell also holds that you cannot think about something unless you know which one it is. There are two ways of knowing that: by acquaintance or by description. Different persons will therefore be effectively using only approximately the same names because their way of knowing about objects will differ.

Radical Reference-Failure

A corollary of this last point is that there can only be private languages (of full precision). This is held to be absurd — it is constitutive of languages that they not be private.

If you are acquainted with an object, it must exist. Thus if you think of an object (successfully refer to it) you know by acquaintance, it must exist. [We must guard here against any kind of reification error { there is no suggestion that thinking makes it so. Just that if acquaintance was the route, then you must be acquainted with something.] Russell wants to rule out the possibility that you can be mistaken if you think you are thinking of an object. The infallibility relates only to the mental components of predicates.

Evans wishes to deflate the problem that Russell has: Evans thinks it is not incoherent for a subject to have a thought which phenomenologically is as of object x, but that there may be no physical object x, and then `he may fail to have a thought of the kind he supposes himself to have’. [Is this enough? Is a thought `of a different kind’ the same as `no thought’? A thought of a hallucinatory object does appear in one sense to be a thought about nothing, but isn’t Russell worried about it being a thought about nothing at the as it were — mental end of the thought? Bear in mind that Russell is a sense data theorist and so intentional objects are mental for him.]

Evans concedes that a full defense of his position would require an account of the nature of demonstrative identification of material objects.

Evans also considers Prior’s view that someone must be able to think `a is F’ because it is part of the compound thought `I am thinking that a is F’. But Evans denies that those who claim that someone can be mistaken that they are thinking `a is F’ are committed to them also thinking that they are thinking that thought.

Russellian Singular Terms And Descriptive Names

Define: Russellian Singular Terms are those whose sense depends on them having a referent. Evans wishes to improve Russell’s model in two primary ways.

The first is to revert to Frege in allowing sense to empty singular terms. The second is to avoid the private language problem; Evans aims to do this by abandoning the `Cartesian’ requirement that you cannot think about an object x unless x exists. But — retain Russell’s opposition between proper names that refer and definite descriptions.

All sentences have truth conditions. They can only be true if they do not contain empty terms. Sentences containing empty terms are useless rather than nonsensical. [But even this is too strong. The objections that can be brought against the claim of nonsensicality are as valid against the claim of uselessness. We can and do communicate using claims about lime trees that do not refer and such communication is neither nonsense nor useless. What Evans means by useless here is that if we have a name for something which turns out not to exist — like the 10th planet — we will stop talking about it. But not if the name is `doing duty’ for something that does exist. Further — Evans does not explicitly state here that all sentences which are not true are false; one position would be to hold that sentences containing empty terms fall into a truth-value gap.]

This section will deal only with `descriptive names’ like `Julius’; definite descriptions are postponed to the next section. [So Evans may be disagreeing with Russell: terms like `Julius’ can refer. Alternatively, we can say that `Julius’ is not a definite description and therefore Evans is not disagreeing with Russell.]

Understanding a descriptive name involves understanding what it will be for an object to fit the description. [By contrast, proper names just refer to whatever they have been introduced to refer to; you cannot fail to understand a proper name because even failing to know what it refers to does not constitute failing to understand it: there is nothing to understand.]

Even when most people know only one thing about a named individual –(Homer wrote the Odyssey) — that is just an piece of data about Homer rather than a signal that one intends to use the name to refer to whoever wrote the Odyssey. This is Kripke’s line. Examples of descriptive names include `Jack the Ripper’ (the person committing murders in the East End) and `Deep Throat’ (the person leaking in Watergate). And we can introduce new ones, like `Julius’, by stipulation.

Principle P connects reference with truth:

(P): If S is an atomic sentence in which the n-place concept-expression R is combined with n singular terms t1 . . . tn, then S is true iff < the referent of t1 . . . the referent of tn > satisfies R.

(P) defines both reference and satisfaction simultaneously in terms of truth. [Bold.] Any expression refers if its contribution to the truth-condition of sentences containing it is given by P.

Returning to `Julius’, Evans excludes non-referring uses, producing the axiom (2) below.

(2): (∀x) (The referent of `Julius’ = x iff x uniquely invented the zip.

Thus `Julius’ does not refer if no single person invented the zip.

This is held to be equivalent to (3) below.

(3): (∀x) (The referent of `Julius’ = x iff [Julius] x = Julius)

[The square brackets indicate the uniqueness condition; and `Julius’ is used — not mentioned — as being the inventor of zips if there is one. So we get (4) or equivalently (5) below.]

(4): `Julius is F’ is true iff the inventor of the zip is F

(5): `Julius is F’ is true iff [Julius] Julius is F

— which can be read as `Julius is F’ is true iff there is one unique Julius such that Julius is F. Again, nothing is said about occasions when either there is no unique Julius or there is one but Julius is not F other than `Julius is F’ is not true in both cases.

So if there is a unique inventor of the zip, `Julius’ refers to that person. The argument for the equivalence of (4) and (5) is that they are belief states and the evidence for (4) would be the same as the evidence for (5). It is admitted that the two sentences after `i’ in (4) and (5) embed differently in modal operators, and that this must be explained — such discussion is postponed to section 2.5. [By this, Evans means that `necessarily, the inventor of the zip invented the zip’ is true while `necessarily, Julius invented the zip’ is false.] But Evans denies that this is sufficient to make them separate thoughts.

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Definite Descriptions

[This is by far the largest section of this chapter at nine pages.]

Russell gives three arguments against admitting that definite descriptions refer.

1. George IV did not know that Scott = the author of Waverley but he did know that Scott = Scott.

2. The negation of `The φ is F’ is `The φ is not F’; the disjunct of the two must be true by the law of excluded middle; both disjuncts entail that the φ exists; this is absurd.

3. Finally, the argument we have been considering i.e. that if definite descriptions are treated as referring expressions then sentences containing empty terms will be meaningless.

On the first, Evans thinks Russell should have seen that Frege’s concept of sense allowed for the differing cognitive significance of co-referring terms. On the second, Evans observes that there is no difference between wide-scope and narrow-scope negation, because : (a is F) is meaningless for Russell if `a’ does not refer instead of being true. But in a Free Logic, there is a distinction between (7) and (8) below.

(7): ¬ [a] F(a)

(8): [a] ¬ F(a)

The difference is that between (7) `it is not the case that there is a unique a such that a is F’ and (8) `there is a unique a and it is not the case that a is F’ because (7) and (8) take different views on the existence of a. The truth of (7) allows but does not require that a may not exist while the truth of (8) requires a to exist.

Russell should have chosen wide-scope negation which means that the existence of the would not be entailed by the negated disjunct. [There is a fair amount in this chapter of `Russell should have seen x’ when in fairness, it is highly likely that Russell saw x and chose ¬ x for specific purposes.]

We come to (12) below, which is argued for by noting that taking the narrow-scope assumes that all singular terms are Russellian, which begs the question.

(12): ¬ (a is F)

— is intelligible and true if a does not exist.

A theory treating definite descriptions as referring expressions would enable the derivation of truth conditions for sentences containing a definite description, and would include (14) below.

(14): (∀φ)(∀x) (The referent of the φ) = x iff Satisfies (x, φ)

— i.e. `the φ’ refers to x if x uniquely satisfies the description. However, Russell was right that descriptions are quantifiers and Evans says he will show that (14) is not adequate for for all modal contexts.

Evans replaces modal operators with quantification over possible worlds and revises P to P’ in a possible worlds version employing truew i.e. true at world w, and satisfiesw. But there is a problem combining (14) and P’ if definite descriptions are treated as referring. This is that only one reading of certain modal sentences is captured. An example is `the first man in space might have been American’. This may mean either i). Gagarin could have been American or ii). someone else who was American might have been the first man in space.

Only the first reading is accommodated but the second does appear in some possible worlds.

(14) is now relativized to (15) by allowing for reference in a possible world w, and P’ becomes P” which is now relativized both to truew and referentw to allow for both readings. This has been done [4] but comes at the price of relativizing reference in all cases. This seems expensive just to handle definite descriptions [so perhaps Russell was right to be wary of it.] And names get this relativized reference as well, even though they never use it. [This is an anticipation of the Kripkean points of the next and final section.]

Similar ambiguities occur temporally and in relation to binding by higher quantifiers, so we end up replacing `refers to (t, x)’ with `refers tow,t,π (t, x)’ — and this seems complex and suggests that definite descriptions do not belong with referring expressions as a natural kind.

So Evans considers alternative approaches, one of which is to notice the similarity of `the’ in definite descriptions to a quantifier, since all of the following share a form: (∀φ) (φ is ψ); (∃φ) (φ is ψ); ¬(∃φ) (φ is ψ) and The (φ is ψ). This has the merit of simplicity; especially so when compared with Russell’s version (16) of `The φ is F’ below.

(16): (∃x) (φx & ∀y (φy → x=y) & Fx)

— which is a format Russell allegedly required for the Principia.

Another proposal would be to regard natural language quantifiers as binary rather than Russell’s unary ones. These quantifiers would be pairs of functions from objects to truth values — to truth values. This would represent `The φ is F’ as Ix [φ(x); F(x) ] i.e. there is exactly one x which is φ and that x is F.

Chomsky suggests treating `the’ as a universal quantifier with existential import. There is an implication of uniqueness in singular forms; whether the `the’ is being used in singular or plural forms is given by the associated concept. For example, the `the’ in `the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’ is singular while that in `the men who robbed your wife’ is plural. Evans himself does not consider plural reference.

`Rigid Designations’ And Fregean Sense

Evans relies on the claim that it is just a feature of how we use language that in truth-evaluation of sentences, we are solely interested in whether the object referred to satisfies the predicate and not in whether the singular term refers. He says we would not accept sentences like (20) below.

(20): `If Haldeman had released the information to the reporters, he would have been Deep Throat’.

[This seems open to question however. Deep Throat was the name the reporters Woodward and Bernstein used for their secret informant to avoid disclosing his identity. Speculation was rife for many years until finally Deep Throat was unmasked as being Mark W Felt. Before that unmasking, speculation considered a number of candidates, and Haldeman was among them. The general public knew only that Deep Throat was the source for Woodward and Bernstein. If they had eventually announced that Haldeman was their source, and that was true, then we would in fact accept (20). What Evans is relying on here is that Woodward and Bernstein knew that Deep Throat was Felt and that was their name for him and not for anyone else. But could they not have dubbed Haldeman with the same name if he had been the source?]

[Evans is on much stronger ground with (21) which seems to attempt to ascribe causal power from leaking to seniority — when the other direction seems more likely; or at least, a senior position would have enabled the leaking if not caused it.]

Evans also says we would not agree with (22) below.

(22): if you had invented the zip, you would have been Julius.

[But again — clearly there can be no claim that your given name would have been different if you had invented the zip. But if we have agreed that `Julius’ is our term for whoever did invent the zip, and that turns out to be you, doesn’t that make that another name for you?]

Evans wishes to avoid Kripke’s term `rigid designators’ because if it is useful, there must also be non-rigid designators. And that re-introduces the relativization of reference to possible worlds which Evans thinks is unnecessarily complex.

See Also:

Quine And Fine on Reference and Modality

The Structure And Content Of Truth For Davidson

Why Kids Are Robots

Why Does Epicurus Think That His Radical Views Will Be Persuasive To The Average Person?


[1] G. Evans and J. McDowell, The varieties of reference. Clarendon Paperbacks Series, Clarendon Press, 1982.

[2] B. Russell and D. Pears, The philosophy of logical atomism. Classics Series, Open Court, 1985.

[3] P. Strawson, Logico-linguistic papers. Ashgate, 2004.

[4] R. H. Thomason and R. C. Stalnaker, “Modality and reference,” Nous, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. pp. 359{372, 1968.

By Tim Short

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