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The following is an excerpt from Russell's "My Philosophical Development," Chapter XIV Universals and Particulars and Names:

'Hamlet' pretends to be a name, but is not; and all statements about Hamlet are false. They only become true when, for Hamlet, we substitute 'Hamlet'. This illustrates one of the peculiarities of proper names: that, unlike descriptions, they are meaningless unless there is an object which they designate. Although France is now a Republic, I can make statements about the present King of France which, though false, are not meaningless. But if I pretend that he is called Louis XIX, any statement in which 'Louis XIX' is used as a name will be meaningless, not false.

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The issue is with the difference, according to Russell, between proper names and descriptions.

See :

and the discussion in :

A proper name, in Kripke's terms, is a rigid designator, i.e. it must denote an object.

According to Kripke's reading of Russell, most of "names" are not "real" names, but only descriptions.

Russell's analysis of Descriptions can be illustrated by the well know example :

"the present King of France is bald"

which must be analyzed as :

∃x(King_of_France(x) & ∀y(King_of_France(y) → x=y) & bald(x)).

Due to to the fact that France is a republic, there is no present King of France; thus the clause King_of_France(x) is never satisfied, and so is the conjunction; thus, the existentially quantified sentence is false.

Conclusion : the sentence is false.

If we use insted a "real" propre name in a "logically perfect" language, we assume that it has reference; this is so in the current semantics for first-order logic.

Being so, we are entitled to assert the following logical law :

∃x(x=c)

for any (individual) constant of the language.

Thus, what happens with Hamlet ?

If we are interpreting our language in the "real" world, clearly Hamlet has no reference, and thus we have not : ∃x(x=Hamlet). But we cannot "violate" logical laws...

Thus, we have to ban names (individual constants) without reference; expressions with names without reference are "un-grammatical", i.e. they are not well-formed expressions :

This illustrates one of the peculiarities of proper names: that, unlike descriptions, they are meaningless unless there is an object which they designate.

If we want to use "Hamlet" meaningfully, we have to treat it as a description, something like :

the fictional character of Shakespeare's play.

  • Thanks for the reference. The reason Hamlet is interpreted as a description (the man named Hamlet) is because Hamlet can invoke mental images. The reason Hamlet can invoke mental images is because the play has assigned properties to the man named Hamlet. Mental image is the reason why one is interpreted as a description while the other is taken as a proper name. – George Chen Mar 12 '15 at 3:06
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Consider the following example:

  • There is no apple on the table.
  • You are pretending that there is an apple on the table.
  • You choose to call this apple "foobar"
  • I am not aware that you are pretending that there is an apple on the table, nor that you have decided to call your fictional apple "foobar"

If you say to me: "The apple on the table is green", for me this is a false statement, since the first part of it "[there exists an] apple on the table" is false.

If however, you say to me: "Foobar is green", this statement to me is meaningless, since I do not know what Foobar means.

Since it is general knowledge that Hamlet is a fictional character, the statement "Hamlet is human" is false.

The statement "the present king of France is fat" is false, since we know what is meant by it. On the other hand, the statement "Louis the XIX is fat" is meaningless until I define "Louis the XIX" as a place holder for the term "The present king of France".

  • Thanks for the answer. I need some more time to think about it. – George Chen Mar 10 '15 at 5:42
  • It does seem that the book is diving towards the desire to have something like Tarskian truth: "P" is true if and only if P is true. If you admit Tarskian truth as an axiom in your logic, I think the claims in the book are false. However, you have to admit that axiom first, and the author is most likely interested in exploring systems which do not admit Tarskian truths. – Cort Ammon Mar 10 '15 at 6:00
  • Yes, by Russell's standard, mental image is the reason why one is interpreted as a description while the other is taken as a proper name. – George Chen Mar 12 '15 at 3:07

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