I was recently reading Russell's chapter on Parmenides in The History of Western Philosophy, and I came across a fun little argument for the absence of change. Essentially, it says that word meaning cannot refer to anything in the past or anything in the future; therefore, whatever words we use and their meanings we wish to convey must be existing in the present.

Russell's solution used George Washington as an example; our discourse no longer is about the man George Washington unless he is before us in the present, and we know him. Whenever we use the name "George Washington," we are actually referring to perceptions carried from other people's memories. In this sense, we are never actually referring to "George Washington." Whenever we use the name "George Washington," we are only referring to what others have said about/recorded of him or what others recall of him, but never to the actual "George Washington" per se.

I recognize that Quine had a quite different conception of meaning, claiming that meanings are not entities, as words can mean even if they are referent-less; and, indeed, intensionally, "George Washington" does not mean "the first president of the United States." How would have Quine (or Davidson) responded to Parmenides' argument as described in Russell's History?

  • Russell isn't tackling Pamenides arguments on his own terms; one reason why I got interested in him is that there was, at least in my eyes, a family resemblence to Barbours (a British physicist) notion of a timeless universe, as well as Wheelers (American physicist). Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 7:57

2 Answers 2


There is an extra premise for this argument to become an argument against change. Judging by how Parmenides and Zeno generally argued it might be something like this: since the present is fleeting and words do have meanings time and change must be illusions, and only the unchangeable meanings truly exist. This would also be an argument for Plato's immutable Ideas. Quine, Davidson, Wittgenstein, and other supporters of "meaning is use" deny this premise, they deny that meanings are entities, let alone ideal entities in the sense of Parmenides and Plato, see Do Wittgenstein and Quine give the same criticisms of semantics?

Quine specifically avoids dealing with meanings altogether, he considers them a hopelessly obscure notion. In Word and Object he rephrases the problem of meaning as the problem of translation: we understand what others "mean" when we can produce a translation manual that results in actions mutually accepted as accomplishing set goals, see more in What is Quine's rebuttal to Grice and Strawson's In Defense of Dogma? Word and Object discusses the "indeterminacy of translation", Quine argues that translation manuals would serve communication purposes just as well whether "rabbit" refers to the whole rabbit, or to "undetached rabbit part". Not only is "meaning" obscure, but reference is also "inscrutable". As he later quipped in a reply to Parsons:

"In psychology one may or may not be a behaviorist, but in linguistics one has no choice. Each of us learns his language by observing other people's verbal behavior and having his own faltering behavior observed and reinforced or corrected by others. We depend strictly on overt behavior in observable situations."

So yes, to Quine "George Washington" is a cipher for contexts in which the name is used "today", and so is the rest of the language. It ultimately reduces to coordinating actions and interactions.

This would make everything we talk about "illusory" by Parmenides's lights, but his conclusion that something absolute must "truly" exist over and above it does not follow. Quine's criterion of existence is pragmatic: we accept existence of an object if it is "indispensable" in our governing conceptual scheme, everyday or scientific. So to him not only George Washington, but also atoms, electrons, and even natural numbers and time, exist. None of it is unchangeable however, times change, and conceptual schemes change with them. Quine's ontological positions are discussed more under Does Quine's dissolution of the Analytic/Synthetic distinction challenge mathematical realism?


As a matter of fact, Quine completely adopted Russell's response to Parmenides's argument. This is explicit in Quine's "on what there is" (1948).

Curiously, Quine related that argument to Plato rather than to Parmenides. Quine even humorously nicknamed the argument Plato's Beard, to match the infamous Occam's Razor.

This is the old Platonic riddle of nonbeing. Nonbeing must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there is not? This tangled doctrine might be nicknamed Plato’s beard; historically it has proved tough, frequently dulling the edge of Occam's razor. . .

After elaborating on the problem, Quine moves on to the solution - Russell's solution - which he adopts.

Russell, in his theory of so-called singular descriptions, showed clearly how we might meaningfully use seeming names without supposing that there be the entities allegedly named. . .

Now what of „Pegasus‟? This being a word rather than a descriptive phrase, Russell's argument does not immediately apply to it. However, it can easily be made to apply. . .

Our argument is now quite general. [Parmenides] supposed that we could not meaningfully affirm a statement of the form „So-and-so is not‟, with a simple or descriptive singular noun in place of „so-and-so‟, unless so-and-so is. This supposition is now seen to be quite generally groundless , since the singular noun in question can always be expanded into a singular description, trivially or otherwise, and then analyzed out à la Russell.

Quine's criticism of "meaning" in Frege's sense (a criticism which was close to Russell's own view), and his "inscrutability of reference" thesis, are not related to the Parmenides issue.

  • 1
    Quine does not follow Russell's framing in On What There Is. Plato's beard, and Russell's definite descriptions appear in the context of eliminating bloated ontologies, like Meinong's, not the issue of change. This is why the beard is Plato's, and not Parmenides's. Although the two issues are related, Parmenides does not need the "becoming" with its dubious ontological status, nor does he have the multiplicity of "ideas", Plato does. And Quine does not relate the issue to the temporality of reference at all.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 2:17
  • @Conifold 1. The question is about the ability to refer to things that do not exist. The question is not about change, or time, or becoming. It mentions "change" only incidentally, in passing. 2. Russell's response is based on his theory of descriptions. 3. In "on what there is" Quine is facing the exact same problem, under the title Plato's Beard. 4. In facing this problem, Quine is following Russell's theory of descriptions to the letter. 5. Therefore, Quine's response is identical to Russell's. 6. Everything else is irrelevant. Commented Sep 11, 2016 at 11:27
  • The question is about "Parmenides' argument as described in Russell's History", which OP himself paraphrases in the first paragraph as "word meaning cannot refer to anything in the past or anything in the future; therefore, whatever words we use and their meanings we wish to convey must be existing in the present", so the temporality is explicitly invoked here, and not in Quine. So 1 and 6 do not exactly belong. Moreover, Quine does not accept Russell's ontology of logical atomism, knowledge by acquaintance, etc., "existence" means different things to them, so 3 does not belong either.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 20:00
  • @Conifold Concerning the first point, you are right about the explicitness of temporality. However, explicitness is not a sure sign. Sometimes explicitness is a sign of relevance, but sometimes a thing is irrelevant even though explicit. The second option is the case here, I think. Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 22:21
  • @Conifold And concerning the second point, you are right about Quine's disagreements with Russell. However the only relevance of these disagreements here is a small step that Quine added to Russell's theory of descriptions. While Russell allowed some names in descriptions, Quine demanded a reduction of all names, so that ultimate descriptions will contain only predicate signs and bound variables. Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 22:22

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