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Why is "the present king of France is bald" considered false?

  1. Because "present" means "existing" so it's paradocixal.
  2. Because the concept of "the present king of France" has no referent.
  3. Another reason.
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    My choice is No. 2.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 8, 2023 at 17:51
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    Because it's not true. Russell's motivation for treating "the present king of France is bald" as false is that he wants to retain bivalence. The sentence is not true, so it's false. Russell proposes to handle the sentence by treating it as a conjunction: There is a unique present king of France AND that person is bald. The first conjunct is false, so the whole proposition is false. Equally, "the present king of France is not bald" is false because it is the conjunction: There is a unique present king of France AND that person is not bald.
    – Bumble
    Dec 8, 2023 at 18:12
  • 1. "present means existence" is not paradoxical..it's just "wrong" (present is the (logical) opposite of existence(="eternity"="past+future"="ever not present")) ...2. Sounds like good guess.. (but in historical context (e.g.), we'd have to shift our perspective..)
    – xerx593
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:58
  • this book has a great introduction to philosophy and in particular propositions and their truth "Contemporary Metaphysics: An Introduction (Contemporary Philosophy)" by Michael Jubien Dec 8, 2023 at 22:08
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    @Speakpigeon - reopened. And the fact that you point at your previous answer shows that the question is duplicated:-) Dec 9, 2023 at 18:17

4 Answers 4

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Why is "the present king of France is bald" considered false? (if there is no king of France)

It is not generally considered false.

Bertrand Russell's theory of description makes the sentence out to be false, but first his theory is just false, and second, it is not even relevant since it does not try to explain the logic of this sentence, but that of a different sentence, namely, "There is a king of France and he is bald".

It would be false that the king of France is bald if he had hair, but then it would be true that he had hair. In other words, if it was false that the king of France is bald, then it would be true that he is not bald. This is what all proficient speakers in any natural language would say.

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  • “The present King of France is bald” is false if there is no King of France.
    – PW_246
    Dec 10, 2023 at 18:58
  • @PW_246 ""The present King of France is bald” is false if there is no King of France." Please explain. Dec 11, 2023 at 10:14
  • Whenever there is no King of France, no one can satisfy the title ‘King of France,’ so clearly no one can be a bald King of France under those same conditions.
    – PW_246
    Dec 11, 2023 at 17:41
  • @PW_246 "no one can be a bald King of France" Sure, but this is not what the sentence means. It doesn't say that one can be a bald King of France. It say that the king of France is bald. You are discussing a different sentence. Just like Russell did. Dec 12, 2023 at 11:07
  • “The A is B” indicates that exactly one thing A in a specific domain fulfills a predicate B. If there is no King of France in the world, then there is not exactly one King of France who is bald. Else, provide your own analysis of what ‘the’ means, other than just saying Russell was wrong.
    – PW_246
    Dec 12, 2023 at 12:17
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Bumble has addressed Russell's reason for treating it this way, the starting point of which is that Russell sees such statements as worth paraphrasing a certain way. Here are three other ways you can interpret the sentence so that it comes out false:

  1. Assume that in some other possible world (some world besides our own), the French monarchy has endured to the present day, and in that world, the current French king has a full head of hair. Relative to that world, "The present king of France is bald," would be false. However, there will presumably be yet other possible worlds in which there are present kings of France who are bald, so relative to those, "The present king of France is bald," is true.
  2. Examine, or write, stories about enduring French monarchies with current kings. It is possible to write such stories such that in them, such kings are bald or not. So like with (1), we will have some present French kings with luscious heads of hair, others without a single vibrant follicle to their scalps' names.
  3. Imagine that someone incorrectly believes some actual Frenchman, let's call him Alessio Girard, to be, presently, the king of France. Now, suppose that Girard is not bald. Roughly hyperintensionality-wise, we can understand our misinformed speculator as entertaining the proposition, "Alessio Girard is bald," in place of, "The present king of France is bald," and so our misinformed speculator judges wrongly twice over.

Addendum regarding, "The present king of France is bald," among linguistics students

Since it has been claimed that "any linguist" will tell you that Russell's paraphrase is misguided and contrary to "common sense," I should like to quote the entirety of this answer to a LinguisticsSE question about presupposition failures:

The issue of what happens with a proposition in case of a failed presuppositions is still not settled. There is a huge pile of literature on this matter, so let me just quickly sketch the three main positions, using the classic case of:

(1) The present king of France is bald.

  • According to Russell, (1) is just false, if the presupposition that there is a present king of France is false. This is still a position that sometimes is maintained (especially for definite description as in (1)), but one must note that this does not really treat the inference that there is a present king of France as a presupposition. Instead it is treated as an entailment.

  • According to Strawson, a presupposition failure deprives a sentence of it ability to have a truth value. That is, if there is no King of France, (1) is neither true nor false. This often is modeled using a trivalent logic (e.g Beaver & Krahmer 2001), with the values 1 (true), 0 (false), and * (undefined).

  • According to the “dynamic” view (Stalnaker 1978), a failed preuspposition prevents a sentence from updating the so-called common ground (= the shared belief system of the interlocutors) and may lead to a failed state. That is, if I utter (1) in a conversation, the shared belief system should contain the proposition (or imply it; depending on the formal elaboration) that there is a king of France. If it does, the common ground is updated with the new information that the king of France is bald. If it does not contain the proposition that there is a king of France, (1) will either be unable to update the common ground or it will, but the result will be failed state.

Still the best overview over the historical development of the (technical) of presupposition is provided in the first part of Beaver 2001, which you can access here. A more concise overview (by Beaver & Geurts) can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Ohio State University also hosts an extensive bibliography on presuppositions.

Some important references

Beaver, David I. (2001): Presupposition and Assertion in Dynamic Semantics. Stanford: CSLI. http://semanticsarchive.net/Archive/jU1MDVmZ/book-2001.pdf.

Beaver, David I. & Emiel Krahmer (2001): “A partial account of presupposition pro- jection”. Journal of Logic, Language and Information 10.2, 147–182. doi: 10.1023/a: 1008371413822.

Beaver, David I. and Bart Geurts (2011): “Presupposition”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Winter 2014. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/presupposition/

Lewis, David (1979): “Scorekeeping in a language game”. Journal of Philosophical Logic 8, 339–359.

Russell, Bertrand (1905): “On denoting”. Mind 14.56, 479–493. url: http://www.jstor. org.ubproxy.ub.uni- frankfurt.de/stable/2248381.

van der Sandt, Rob (1992): “Presupposition Projection as Anaphora Resolution”. Journal of Semanticsition projection as anaphora resolution 9.4, 333–377. doi: 10.1093/jos/9. 4.333.

Strawson, Peter F. (1950): “On referring”. Mind 59, 320–44.

Stalnaker, Robert (1978): “Assertion”. In: Peter Cole, ed.: Pragmatics. Syntax and Seman- tics 9. New York: Academic Press, 315–332.

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  • "in some other possible world" This is irrelevant. The question concerns the sentence "The present king of France is bald" which refers to the actual world, as discussed in the academic literature. Dec 11, 2023 at 10:20
  • "Russell sees such statements as worth paraphrasing a certain way" Is that a reasonable basis for serious academic work of the logic of natural sentences? The sentence is what it is, and the point is to explain its logic, not to go into fanciful considerations with no basis in fact. Dec 11, 2023 at 10:24
  • "It is possible to write such stories" The sentence "The present king of France is bald" is obviously qualifies the present king of France, not some historical personage. Dec 11, 2023 at 10:27
  • "someone incorrectly believes some actual Frenchman (...) to be, presently, the king of France." This is also irrelevant since there is no such assumption in the academic discussion of the sentence or in the question itself. Dec 11, 2023 at 10:29
  • @Speakpigeon different people have different reasons for assigning different truth values to, "The present king of France is bald." The OP poster did not seem, to me, to ask about any specific person's such assignment, and as a proficient speaker of English, I responded with the considerations that seemed relevant to me. If you have an academic paper you could link to in your answer, I might be willing to believe that most people don't think the sentence is false, but otherwise I don't know if there's much consensus regarding it, even outside of philosophical logic circles. Dec 11, 2023 at 13:34
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Strictly, only consistent statements are subject to logical calculus. Inconsistent propositions become fallacies that can take multiple forms.

Example:

X is true while X is false.

Asking if this is false or true is a false dilemma fallacy. This is a paradox, which is neither false or true.

In case of...

the present king of France is bald

... it fits a fallacy of reification: making further judgements over an inconsistent object. Further judgements in this case (...is bald) produce false dilemmas.

Since it is malformed, the statement is neither false or true.

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  • "X is true while X is false." This is not inconsistent. This is essentially saying that X is true and X is false. This is just a contradiction, and therefore just false. Feb 12 at 11:08
  • "it fits a fallacy of reification" No, it does not. The sentence "The present king of France is bald" is not trying to pass an abstract object into a concrete one. It is asserting something of an object which doesn't in fact exist. Feb 12 at 11:12
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It depends on what degree of rigour/pedantry you feel inclined to apply. In everyday conversation, you might dismiss the statement as straightforwardly false, on the grounds that if it were true then there would be a bald King of France, and since there is not a bald King of France the statement must be false.

However, the purpose of the example is to highlight subtle inconsistencies and ambiguities in our use language. Someone might point out that to dismiss the statement as being false on the grounds that a king of France does not exist is inconsistent with accepting statements such as 'Sherlock Holmes smokes a pipe' as being true, since Sherlock Holmes is as unreal as the King of France. Others might argue that even where it makes sense to say that a statement is not true, it might not make sense to say it is false, since there is a possibility that the statement is undecidable for some reason. Take, for example, the phrase 'Wednesday violation comparability'- that is neither true nor false because it is not a form of words to which a truth value can be meaningfully applied.

The point is that you can decide to categorise the statement in different ways depending on your purpose.

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