Russell's theory of descriptions revolves around the definite and the indefinite articles of the English language in an attempt to solve some of the basic but serious problems in philosophy of language.

Why was this theory taken seriously at all?

(a) There are natural languages that don't have articles at all, like Russian, among lots of other languages.

(b) In these articleless languages same problems can be posed without any difference in meaning whatsoever.

(c) Even if each and every language of the world had articles, it is logically possible that there could be languages that didn't have them and met criterion (b).

The theory therefore seems to me entirely English-centered. In this light, Russell seems to be a linguist interested in how the English language functions, not how language (in the abstract sense of the word) works, which is what a philosopher of language should strive for ultimately.

  • 1
    Um... I'm very confused by the presuppositions here. First, I'm pretty sure Russell wasn't trying to "solve some of the basic but serious problems in philosophy of language", but rather solve a problem in the semantics of English, so that philosophical debates could be carried out with clarity. Second, your intermediate points suggest that any linguistic theory not universal to all languages should not be taken seriously - which ties in to your final claim, that a philosopher of language should strive for some universal theory of language...
    – commando
    Aug 3, 2016 at 19:39
  • ...Any such theory would be terribly abstract, and you're dismissing lots of productive philosophy.
    – commando
    Aug 3, 2016 at 19:39
  • "Not how language in the abstract sense works, which a philosopher of language should ultimately strive for": you might find Chomskys work on universal grammar useful. Aug 4, 2016 at 3:22

1 Answer 1


Russell's theory of definite descriptions is primarily concerned with denoting phrases (e.g. "the present king of France"), which are linguistic expressions that purport to refer to some object. The definite article in English is just one type of linguistic device that creates denoting phrases, but it is not essential to the theory. I don't know much Russian but I'm sure it has ways of forming denoting phrases (even if it's only determined from context).

The problem that Russell saw with denoting phrases is that if you assume that every denoting phrase must refer to some existing entity, then you get a weird ontology in which pretty much everything that can be talked about exists. This problem does not seem to be language-specific.

Russell's solution is to construe denoting phrases as existential claims. E.g. "the present king of France is bald" should be understood as "there is a thing such that it is a king of France and it is the only such thing and it is bald". In the latter phrase there is no direct reference to any object, and so the question of whether some nonexistent object exists in some sense does not arise; the sentence is simply false, since it says that there is something while actually there isn't.

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    This. You can have definite descriptions without the definite article. See page 243 of books.google.com/…
    – user5172
    Aug 4, 2016 at 17:50
  • But by definition of king means a unique person. Why we have to state that we have at most one thing that is king of France?
    – ado sar
    Aug 22, 2020 at 9:58

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