Does Strawson’s Critique of the Theory of Definite Descriptions Pose a Problem to Russell’s Anti-Meinongianism?

Essay, 2017

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1. Introduction

2. The Referential Theory of Meaning and Its Problems

3. Singular Terms, Nonexistents, and Negative Existentials

4. Meinong ’ s Theory of Objects

5. Russell ’ s Theory of Definite Descriptions

6. Anti-Meinongian Consequences of Russell ’ s Theory

7. Strawson ’ s Critique and Meinong ’ s Chance

8. Conclusion and Prospects


1. Introduction

In this paper, I examine Russell’s criticism of Meinong in his article On Denoting. Furthermore, I enquire into the possibilities Strawson’s critique of Russell’s theory of definite descriptions may open up for Meinongian ideas. As I will show, there is indeed some potential to find there, although it seems not to be strong enough to be really convincing.

In order to introduce Russell’s theory, I shall first give an overview of the Referential Theory of meaning Russell wants to overcome; then I will clarify some basic notions (the varieties of singular terms) and problems (nonexistents and negative existentials); after this I present Meinong’s Theory of Objects which is one of the targets of Russell’s criticisms; eventually, after all basic theories, notions and problems have been laid out, I will demonstrate Russell’s Theory of Descriptions and their critical anti-Meinongian implications; finally, I will single out two objections Strawson made regarding Russell’s theory and evaluate their potential for supporting Meinongianism.

2. The Referential Theory of Meaning and Its Problems

A common-sense approach to the question ‘What makes words meaningful?’ could be that words are meaningful because they stand for things. According to this theory, meaning depends on reference which is why we can call it the Referential Theory of meaning. (Cf. Lycan, 3)

However, this theory faces obviously many difficulties. One of its main problems is that not every word denotes a thing. On average, words denoting things are outnumbered in the sentences we use. In the two preceding sentences, for instance, we find the prepositions ‘of’, ‘on’, and ‘in’, the negation ‘not’, and verbs like ‘is’ which do not denote things. Does this make these words meaningless? They at least seem to be important for the meaning of the whole sentences. The Referential Theory is deficient because sentences just are not like lists of names and if they were, they would be entirely ungrammatical and therefore probably uninformative. (Cf. Lycan, 3-5)

3. Singular Terms, Nonexistents, and Negative Existentials

The Referential Theory may not be suitable as a general theory of meaning but as a theory of the meaning of singular terms it seems to be more plausible. Singular terms are expressions by which we refer to individuals. They are singular in the sense that they apply only to one object. In what follows we will focus on proper names (e.g., ‘Christina’, ‘Hamlet’) and definite descriptions (‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, ‘the Chancellor of Germany’) as supposedly singular terms, although also singular personal pronouns (e.g., ‘she’) and demonstrative pronouns (e.g., ‘this’) count as singular terms. (Cf. Lycan, 10)

When we examine the Referential Theory of meaning as applied to singular terms more closely, we can see additional problems that arise from it. I will just name two of them which will be relevant to our further discussion.

The first problem can be illustrated by the following sentence: ‘Pegasus has wings.’ Assuming that Pegasus does not exist, there would be no reference to the word ‘Pegasus’ wherefore it (and the sentence it is part of) would have no meaning, according to the Reference Theory. However, this seems to be counterintuitive. We can call this the Problem of Apparent Reference to Nonexistents. (Cf. Lycan, 10)

The second problem is closely related to the first and we can demonstrate it by this puzzling sentence: ‘Pegasus does not exist.’ According to the Reference Theory, for this sentence to be meaningful Pegasus must stand for a thing in the world, and it must be false if Pegasus really refers to an existing thing. But if the sentence is true, ‘Pegasus’ has no meaning and there is no thing the sentence can be about. Both results seem counterintuitive because it seems more plausible to think of the sentence as meaningful and true. We can call this the Problem of Negative Existentials. (Cf. Lycan, 11)

There are different options one could choose in order to fix these problems. One way to cope with these problems could be to introduce a more complex ontology which allows for non-existing objects to still have some positive ontological status. Another approach could consist in analysing the allegedly singular terms involved in a fashion that would resolve the confusion surrounding them. The first way is chosen by Alexius Meinong who developed the so-called Theory of Objects. The latter way was invented by Bertrand Russell and is known as the Theory of Definite Descriptions and derived from it is also the Description Theory of Proper Names. I will introduce these theories in the same order in the following sections because it is important to be acquainted with the main ideas of Meinong before engaging in a reconstruction of Russell’s argument which is critical of Meinong’s solution.

4. Meinong’s Theory of Objects

Meinong was looking for a science or Theory of Objects (Gegenstandstheorie) in general, i.e. of everything we can think of. This theory would have to go beyond the limits of metaphysics and include also all non-existing objects because traditionally metaphysics had a too narrow scope for this task due to an inherent bias towards existence (cf. Meinong, 13). Metaphysics is, according to Meinong, concerned with what is actual and only what exists is actual. Although this view of metaphysics could easily be rejected by looking more closely at some classical texts, let us try to follow Meinong’s thought and see where this leads us.

Unfortunately, Meinong is not explicit enough about what he precisely means by ‘exist’. I assume he means ‘to be in space and/or time’, i.e. to be concrete like cats and trees. He contrasts this with another kind of being which is marked by the verb ‘subsist’ (bestehen) (cf. Meinong, 5). What subsists are so-called ideal objects (our contemporary term would be ‘abstract objects’), e.g., logical relations and the objects of mathematics (Meinong does not mention fictional objects, but according to some theories they count as abstract objects). (In Platonism, these objects had even a higher degree of being than material objects.) We can know things a priori about these abstract entities and this knowledge plays an important part in our live, although the objects it is about do not exist, according to Meinong.

This fact leads Meinong to formulate a principle which says that non-being has no effect on the essence/being-so (Sosein) of an object and the essence of an object can be known without it having to be. So, there is an ontological and epistemological independence of the essence from being (cf. Meinong, 8). Famous examples for this are so-called impossible objects (although Meinong does not use this term), e.g., the round square which cannot exist because it is contradictory. We could still at least know something about the round square, according to Meinong, namely that it is round.

Through this principle Meinong reaches the highest abstraction and adds to the existing and subsisting objects also the pure objects (reine Gegenstände) which are beyond being and non-being (cf. Meinong, 12). These pure objects precede our judgments about their being or non-being. They are simply given (vorgegeben) as objects of thought at this point (cf. Meinong, 9). This might be a helpful phenomenological starting point.

5. Russell’s Theory of Definite Descriptions

Bertrand Russell tried to demonstrate that the Referential Theory of meaning is false concerning definite descriptions and proper names by analysing them in a way that shows that they are in fact not singular terms but have a more complex structure which involves quantifiers and general terms. General terms, in contrast to singular terms, can apply to more than one thing. Examples for general terms are ‘human’, ‘blue’, and ‘vegan’. Quantifiers are words we use to quantify over general terms, e.g., ‘ all dogs’, ‘ some philosophers’, ‘ no ideas’.

Let us look at the following example in order to see how Russell would analyse a definite description: ‘ The queen of Germany is bald’ (‘the’ makes it definite, ‘a’ would make it indefinite). Although regarding its grammatical form this seems to be a subject- predicate sentence, assuming that this is also its logical form would be a mistake, according to Russell. Under its simple surface the definite description ‘the queen of Germany’ actually involves two different statements: (1) ‘At least one x is queen of Germany’ and (2) ‘At most one x is queen of Germany’. Both statements combined interpret and transform the ‘the’ in this definite description as saying, ‘there is exactly one’. If we take the sentence as a whole, we have to add (3) ‘Whoever is queen of Germany is bald’. All these statements involve no singular terms. They have been analysed away.

Furthermore, truth-values can be assigned to all of these statements. Frege, who would have taken ‘the queen of Germany’ to be a singular term without reference, would instead have said that the sentence has no truth-value (although it has a sense). Being able to assign truth-values to sentences which involve references to nonexistents can, therefore, be seen as an advantage of Russell’s theory. Hence, a sentence like ‘The queen of Germany is bald’ would only be true if all the statements of its analysed form were true. Since (1) is clearly false, we have no problem with this kind of sentence and can conclude directly that the sentence involving the definite description is false.

6. Anti-Meinongian Consequences of Russell’s Theory

In On Denoting (1905), Russell criticizes Meinong’s theory because it takes every “grammatically correct denoting phrase as standing for an object” (Russell, 482). For Russell, Meinong let himself be deceived by the superficial form of our language. This becomes especially problematic when it comes to an apparent reference to non-existent or impossible objects like ‘the queen of Germany’ or ‘the round square’. For, Russell thinks that Meinong’s theory infringes the law of non-contradiction (as presented in various ways in Aristotle’s Metaphysics Γ), which is intolerable to him.

In the case of the impossible object referred to by ‘the round square’ this might be obvious at first sight, but in the case of ‘the present king of France’, I think, Russell uses Meinong’s theory definitely in the wrong way. According to Russell, Meinong would assert at the same time that the present king of France exists and does not exist (cf. Russell, 483). However, as we saw earlier, Meinong would have said that there exists no present king of France in the material world, but that does not prevent ‘the present king of France’ from being given as an object of thought. Coming back to the example of the round square. I think that Meinong would have agreed that in the realm of existing and subsisting objects the law of non-contradiction holds. Nevertheless, although we cannot imagine a round square this does not mean that we cannot grasp the properties it is supposed to have, for we understand at least the two notions that make it up individually. I think that one problem of Russell’s critique is that he failed to show an inconsistency inside the system of Meinong. One can see this again in Russell’s analysis of the sentence ‘the round square is round’: “there is one and only one entity x which is round and square, and that entity is round” (Russell, 491). According to Russell, this statement is, of course, false. However, it is only false because he analyses the sentence as asserting (or presupposing) that the round square is and, furthermore, identifies being and existence, contrary to Meinong (according to p. 485n1, Russell also identifies subsistence and being).

7. Strawson’s Critique and Meinong’s Chance

Whereas Russell is known as one of the proponents of Ideal Language Philosophy who treated sentences in a more abstract way (expressions refer to things or states of affairs), Strawson is an advocate of Ordinary Language Philosophy which takes into account the ways in which we, as human beings, use and react to linguistic expressions in our everyday life (cf. Lycan, 19).

In his On Referring (1950), Strawson criticized Russell’s Theory of Descriptions in various ways. I will just briefly mention two objections and examine whether they pose serious problems for Russell’s account and whether they involve repercussions for Russell’s anti-Meinongianism.

While, according to Russell, a sentence like ‘The present queen of Germany is bald’ is false, Strawson argues that this sentence would be, when uttered, neither true nor false because the speaker may have produced a meaningful utterance, but, nonetheless, failed in referring to anything (cf. Strawson, 326). This result originates from his fundamentally different approach to the philosophy of language in general. That the utterance fails to make a complete statement which can be assessed by truth-values is shown by the usual reaction to it by an interlocutor. Rather than qualifying the utterance as false, its presupposition (that Germany has a queen) would be called into question. (Cf. Lycan, 20) According to his differing standards, Russell could reply that such reactions should not serve as a criterion for determining truth-values because the real logical structure of these sentences is hidden and requires a more in-depth analysis. From the point of view of truth-conditional theories of meaning, one could object that sentences that are neither true nor false cannot be meaningful.

Strawson’s critique of this aspect of Russell’s Theory of Descriptions dismantles his anti-Meinongian strategy to some degree because the reference to nonexistents is at least not disqualified anymore by assessing a sentence like ‘The present queen of Germany is bald’ as false. Furthermore, Strawson does not dissect such sentences and does not deny that they are meaningful (cf. Strawson, 321) which opens up the possibility of a Meinongian account. For, Meinong thinks of pure objects as beyond being and non-being which goes hand in hand with these utterances having no truth-value.

Strawson’s second objection regards Russell’s analysis of ‘the’. As we saw earlier, Russell’s transformation of the sentence ‘The queen of Germany is bald’ into ‘There is one and only one queen of Germany and whoever is queen of Germany is bald’ includes an existence statement. According to Strawson’s interpretation of Russell’s kind of analysis, a speaker uttering ‘The queen of Germany is bald’ would be asserting that there is one and only one queen of Germany. The purpose of the utterance, however, is probably a different one, since it is descriptive and not aiming at an existential claim. I think that Strawson’s point is very plausible. Instead of asserting we can be said to presuppose certain entities in such cases. (Cf. Lycan, 21) However, how big a difference does it make when it comes to ontological commitment? I think, maybe not much. Nevertheless, if we stay with Strawson and accept that in these cases we are presupposing objects without any intention to judge about their existence or non-existence, this seems to go well together again with Meinong’s theory of pure objects.

Besides these bold theoretical links, however, it is quite improbable that Meinong’s Theory of Objects would fit together with Strawson’s philosophy as a whole. One would have to look for further weak points of Russell’s theory and for more convincing arguments to rehabilitate Meinong’s approach.

8. Conclusion and Prospects

In this paper, I showed that Russell’s theory of definite descriptions as well as his associated critique of Meinong face some serious difficulties which can give Meinongians hope that their approach is not pointless. Nevertheless, in order to deepen the discussion, one would have to examine Russell’s Description Theory of Proper Names that is linked to his theory of definite descriptions. According to this theory, proper names are not really names, but abbreviations of definite descriptions. (Cf. Lycan, 34) I think that this theory of proper names is even less plausible than the theory of definite descriptions itself. Using Kripke’s criticism of description theories of proper names (cf. Kripke 1980) and by focussing on proper names of fictional objects one could reveal more serious defects of Russell’s account and therefore bring Meinongianism back into the game.


KRIPKE, Saul. 1980. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. LYCAN, William. 2008. Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

MEINONG, Alexius. 1988. Ü ber Gegenstandstheorie. Selbstdarstellung. Hamburg: Meiner.

RUSSELL, Bertrand. 1905. ‘On Denoting’. In: Mind 14, 479-493. STRAWSON, Peter. 1950. ‘On Referring’. In: Mind 59, 320-344.

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Does Strawson’s Critique of the Theory of Definite Descriptions Pose a Problem to Russell’s Anti-Meinongianism?
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Martin Scheidegger (Author), 2017, Does Strawson’s Critique of the Theory of Definite Descriptions Pose a Problem to Russell’s Anti-Meinongianism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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