Skip to main content

Russell's Theory of Names

Image result for bertrand russell

Suppose I am trying to understand what some other person believes. This other person believes something that seems very odd to me, but he/she speaks my language, and appears to speak it competently, and in some respects at least is a rational person.

Is there anything we can say in general about the kind of explanation that might put me in some sympathy with apparently irrational views in such a case? I think there is, and that Bertrand Russell's theory of names will get us to it. Russell said that people often confuse the words we consider "names" with what he called logically proper names, both when we use them and when we hear them.

The classic example is drawn from the Superman mythos. Lois Lane at some point believes:

1) That Clark Kent is not strong
2) That Superman is strong.

Assuming further that I am part of that world, and I know that the reference of the two propositions is the same. So I regard (1) as the logical equivalent of the negation of (2). I'm tempted to believe that Miss Lane, who plainly believes both in (2) and in its negation, is being irrational.

If I don't know that she doesn't know that the reference is the same, then I could of course be confused by hearing her state the belief (1).

This simple example feeds into Bertrand Russell's discussion of "logically proper names." There are apparently only two logically proper names, "this" and "I"! This refers to the speaker's sensation at the moment. Lois is looking at Superman as he stops a speeding locomotive and says to herself, "this guy is strong."

But anything other than "this" and "I" isn't a name, in the "proper" sense of referring to that known by acquaintance. It's an abbreviation for a description, instead. "Clark Kent" is short for "the mild mannered fellow in the desk next to mine at work." "Superman" is short for "the man who stopped the locomotive."

Leaving Metropolis out of it now: are there real-world cases in which I might come to understand how people can believe absurd-seeming things by translating the names they use into descriptions?


Popular posts from this blog

England as a Raft?

In a lecture delivered in 1880, William James asked rhetorically, "Would England ... be the drifting raft she is now in European affairs if a Frederic the Great had inherited her throne instead of a Victoria, and if Messrs Bentham, Mill, Cobden, and Bright had all been born in Prussia?"

Beneath that, in a collection of such lectures later published under James' direction, was placed the footnote, "The reader will remember when this was written."

The suggestion of the bit about Bentham, Mill, etc. is that the utilitarians as a school helped render England ineffective as a European power, a drifting raft.

The footnote was added in 1897. So either James is suggesting that the baleful influence of Bentham, Mill etc wore off in the meantime or that he had over-estimated it.

Let's unpack this a bit.  What was happening in the period before 1880 that made England seem a drifting raft in European affairs, to a friendly though foreign observer (to the older brother…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Francesco Orsi

I thought briefly that I had found a contemporary philosopher whose views on ethics and meta-ethics checked all four key boxes. An ally all down the line.

The four, as regular readers of this blog may remember, are: cognitivism, intuitionism, consequentialism, pluralism. These represent the views that, respectively: some ethical judgments constitute knowledge; one important source for this knowledge consists of quasi-sensory non-inferential primary recognitions ("intuitions"); the right is logically dependent upon the good; and there exists an irreducible plurality of good.

Francesco Orsi seemed to believe all of these propositions. Here's his website and a link to one relevant paper:

What was better: Orsi is a young man. Born in 1980. A damned child! Has no memories of the age of disco!

So I emailed him asking if I was right that he believed all of those things. His answer: three out of …