University of Bristol, Undergraduate first year Philosophy of Language essay.

ESSAY TITLE: Explain Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions. How does this theory analyse sentences containing non-denoting descriptions such as “The King of France is bald?” Do you think this analysis is adequate?


Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions can analyse non-denoting sentences such as:

(1) The king of France is bald.

According to Russell (1) does not refer to a unique object despite the use of the definite article, but rather the “the” in the sentence is a quantifier used to claim that:

There is at least one person who is the king of France There is at most one person who is king of France. Whoever that one person is they happen to be bald.

‘The king of France’ according to Russell only superficially appears to denote a unique object and actually is an improper description that describes nothing (1970)(as cited by Irvine 1999). According to Russell the sentence is false due to there not being at least one person who is king of France.


Strawson (1950)(as cited by Lycan, 2008) argues (1) is not true or false at all because it does not get a chance to be judged as true or false because the sentence fails to say anything meaningful. A sentence must be meaningful to have a truth value. In Strawson’s view to be meaningful the speaker must succeed in saying something, which they have not done in (1). For example “the queen of England is posh” does denote a unique object –Elizabeth Winsor, but ‘the king of France’ does not. This contrasts to Russell who would say that a sentence has meaning if it expresses a proposition, which (1) does, albeit a false one.

Strawson held the view that sentences and expressions do not refer at all. Rather, people do, and people use sentences to refer to things in reality. I agree with this, but it could be argued a stage further, that a situation as a whole can refer. For example, if watching an upsetting news item, the suffering of expression on the person’s face and the bleakness of their situation could refer to a thought of the viewer. The viewer could have been considering donating money to help that cause and the news images could refer or bring their attention to this portion of their thoughts, stimulating them into action. The words of the news reporter need not be the only thing that communicates, if anything they are far less important than the film footage itself. This is not necessarily a flaw in Russell’s theory, but rather a reminder of its limits to actual language, and we shall see that it is severely limited even within that respect.

Scope and improper descriptions

A further problem with Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions can be found by looking at the scope of (1), which emerges with a simple modification:

(2) The king of France is not bald.

This is true if the improper description, ‘the king of France’ is given secondary occurrence and false if it is given primary occurrence (1970)(as cited by Irvine 1999, 152). How can a sentence be true and false at the same time? According to Russell the sentence is false because there is no king of France, but this seems like it could be true if the lack of baldness is given primary occurrence, after all a non existent thing can’t have any hair. This can be made more apparent by making it absurd: ‘the king of France is not a potato.’ A non-existent king definitely is not a potatoe. The absurdity draws attention away from the improper description and means that the sentence could primarily be about potato kings rather than French ones. However, the very ambiguity over the truth or falsehood of such a sentence causes the knock on effect of meaninglessness. Clarity is required for a sentence that is out of context to be labelled as true or false. This lends strength to Strawson, i.e. something must be meaningful to be true or false; but could it work both ways? It could be said that something has to be true or false to have meaning and that any blip along the way causes it to be discarded as either meaningless, or true or false, depending on the intention of the speaker, who as MacKay (1968)(as cited by Lycan 2008, 27) pointed out, may be “arbitrarily crazy”. Therefore Russell’s theory of Definite Descriptions is only useful to deconstruct unusually simple and isolated sentences such as (1).

Anaphoric sentences and ‘near-miss’ cases

A further limitation of Russell’s theory of Definite Descriptions arises with anaphoric sentences. An anaphoric sentence is one that inherits it’s meaning from another expression, usually one that came before, its antecedent (2008). This is a problem for Russell’s theory, which picks individual sentences both out of physical context and potential anaphoric context, thus limiting the applicability his theory further.

A ‘near-miss’ case involves what the speaker intended to say and the literal meaning of the words they used. Donellan (1966)(as cited by Lycan 2008, 25) gave the example of a guest at a party seeing an interesting looking person sipping from a martini glass and asking, “who is the man drinking a martini?” The person they are talking about is in fact drinking water from a martini glass and the only person drinking an actual martini is off in the billiard room. The literal meaning of the words used by the guest is not important, the context makes their expression clear.

I argue that anaphoric sentences and ‘near-miss’ cases are considerable in number and are not merely obscure examples that avoid Russell’s theory. Most people have a number of interpersonal relationships where most, or at least a significant portion of their speaking occurs. This is a basis of friendships and other interpersonal relationships. We spend time with the same people who can make sense of us, using what we have said previously as part of their understanding of what we mean to say. Among other benefits, talking with people who know us saves us from have to spell things out, because they have knowledge of our intentions and what we are likely to intend to say. An ‘in-joke’ is a sort of ‘rolling anaphor’, and these ‘near-miss’ cases happen often. Russell’s theory of Definite Descriptions cannot deal with these complex situations and only works when a sentences literal meaning is examined, which is often not what the speaker intended.

Uniting the theories

According to Russell the truth conditions of (1) and (2) have nothing to do with the king being bald. I argue simply that it can be said to be false for more than one reason:

False because there is not at least one person who is king of France. False because there is no baldness being exemplified. False because it lacks meaning.

If the sentence were extended to “the present king of France is bald, unmarried, gluttonous and owner of a fine navy” it would become more and more ridiculous to say that it is false because there is ‘no gluttony being exemplified, no marriage took place and there is no navy’ even though these criticisms are true. Therefore any of the false claims can render the sentence false, but the most concise and definitive way is to say simply as Russell does that there is not at least one person who is king of France. This is not necessarily in any disagreement with Strawson because I argue that lacking meaning means the sentence should be ‘discarded’ just as if it were meaningful and false, and so it is only a minor semantic quibble whether meaningless sentences are false or not, the action to be taken is the same – discard the sentence from the truth pile, which is what matters.


I have explained Russell’s theory of definite descriptions and gone over the main objections, weaving in my own ideas. Russell’s theory is perfectly adequate when examining isolated sentences where the meaning is intended to be taken literally. It has much more limited applicability in more complex situations. Nevertheless, it is rational for the literal meaning to at least hold some importance and so in that respect it cannot be completely removed. Regarding Strawson’s objection I hold that finding truth is what matters, not separating falsehood from meaninglessness and so it is not an important objection to the theory. Overall, Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions is adequate for what it claims to be able to do, but that is limited to deciphering the literal meaning of unusually isolated sentences.


Donnellan, K. (1966) Reference and Definite Descriptions. Philosophical Review: 75:281-304

Irvine, A. D. (1999) Bertrand Russell: Language, knowledge and the world, London: Routledge

Kaplan, D. (1970) What is Russell's Theory of Descriptions. Physics, Logic, and History 277–288.

Lycan, W. G. (2008) Philosophy of Language a Contemporary Introduction Second Edition, New York, Routledge

MacKay, A. F. (1968) Mr Donnellan and Humpty Dumpty on Referring. Philosophical review 77: 197-202

MIT (2005) Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions <> (22 February 2011)

Strawson, P. F. (1950) On Referring. Mind 59: 320-44.

UCL (2003) Coherence: Anaphora and Reference <> (22 February 2011)

Witton, A. (1996) ‘Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions’, <> (22 February 2011)


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