Strawson versus Russell

January 28, 2009 at 3:39 pm (Critical Writing, Philosophy, Prose)

The Russell articles made reference to here, in my case (though not necessarily Strawson’s), are “On Denoting” and “Descriptions.”

     The most interesting point of departure for me between Russell and Strawson is the one that Strawson uses to really get “On Referring” going. By this point, Strawson has suggested that “The King of France is wise” (hereafter S) is significant, or has a meaning. He identifies the two ways in which Russell would admit this type of sentence to be significant, and they amount to (1) that the sentence’s grammatical form does not reveal the sentence’s logical form, so a sentence could be a special kind of sentence that has logical significance in spite of its grammar, and (2) that the grammatical subject of the sentence is a proper name, and the significance of the sentence is “the individual thing it designates” (248). Strawson does not agree.
     Strawson acknowledges how Russell’s argument works and that it is logical, following a clear line of thinking while accounting for possible problems. However, Strawson clarifies that Russell is overlooking a distinction that needs to be made. Strawson divides out the thing itself, in this case an expression that is used in a “uniquely referring way” like the “King of France” in sentence S, and also notes that a sentence can have various uses, as well as utterances.
     I think this choice of Strawson’s makes more sense because he is acknowledging different occurrences of language. Russell’s model assumes that language serves a single function, and he seems to overlook or readily move past the idea that an utterance of sentence S earlier in history would have a different value than a contemporary utterance. By avoiding this reduction, or rather expanding out Russell’s theory, Strawson constructs a more flexible model that can accommodate language as it occurs in a wide variety of circumstances.
     Strawson applies this model in III (352), showing that S in particular utterances is significant and asserts something true or false, but in a contemporary setting it remains significant because of the sentence’s capacity to say something true or false, even though when S is uttered now it does not mention anyone in particular and therefore does not say anything either true or false. The flexibility of Strawson’s argument is what attracts me to it, and his explanation of the problem with sentence S is more satisfying and seemingly less problematic than Russell’s. Even though the model seems more complex the resulting explanations are less-so.

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1 Comment

  1. ella said,

    can someone also pls give me arguments for Russell in response to Strawson?

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