Bertrand Russell Philosophy Anti-Philosophy

Bertrand Russell 4, separating language into its logical elements

Fourthly, here is a summary of Russell’s effort to render language down into its atoms of meaning — his ‘logical atomism’ or ‘logical analysis’.  As I understand it, this was done to solve many of the problems of philosophy which had been caused, according to BR, by the failure to unravel the elements of meaning that statements are made of.  This became the basis of the new ‘analytic philosophy’ that replaced the Hegelian idealistic philosophy of the time.  Apparently Russell wanted to make philosophizing more logically rigorous.  (I had always thought that philosophy by its nature had always been so, but obviously I was wrong.)

I don’t know now where these next two paragraphs come from: ‘Logical atomism was an earliest manifestations of analytic philosophy, which (in its most general sense) holds that philosophy should aspire to the precision and exactitude of the sciences.’ !!

‘Russell inspired philosophers to rigorously examine their own assumptions and to avoid taking apparently self-evident truths for granted. It is this dedication to constant, consistent analysis that is Russell’s greatest legacy to philosophy.’

So BR wanted to clear up the insoluble problems of Philosophy by breaking statements down to their logical constituents, but I think the whole of it including his own is just a hobbyhorse of logico-mathematicking.

Here are some paragraphs from other sites, mostly slightly paraphrased  and edited, to substantiate my above words.  In the end, it seems I haven’t got it wrong:

From here, (although only the first sentence is entirely within my own comprehension):  ‘Via Russell’s logical atomism, ordinary language would break into discrete units of meaning.  Rational reconstruction…would convert ordinary statements into standardized equivalents, all networked and united by a logical syntax. A scientific theory would be stated with its method of verification, whereby a logical calculus or empirical operation could verify its falsity or truth.’  

From here: Russell and G.E. Moore, together perhaps with Frege slightly earlier, and Wittgenstein slightly later, strove to eliminate what they saw as meaningless and incoherent philosophy, and to seek clarity and precision in argument.  According to here , this change ‘was echoed, thirty years later in Vienna, by the logical positivists [in their] “revolt against metaphysics” ‘.

Russell not only wanted to reduce mathematics to logic as in his Principia Mathematica (see here) but also to reduce language to units of logic.

From here :  Russell applied his logical atomism/analysis to ancient issues.  In his paper ‘On the Relations of Universals and Particulars’ (1911) he used it to resolve the Problem of Universals that Plato had started.  Russell thought his was the last word on this subject (according to Mannion in what used to be the website netplaces).

From here, I think;     It seems BR thought that particulars are individual instances of sense-data, whereas universals are concepts that apply to many objects so sensed.  (I would have thought that was just a commonsense interpretation of what Plato was making such difficulties about.)  These universals include qualities like redness, softness, heaviness, and relations of time or space such as ‘before’, ‘on top of’, and  ‘next to’. (I can understand that.)   ‘Russell contended that particulars and universals are atomic “simples”—that is, they are finite and individual and cannot be analyzed or broken down further.’

‘However, it is difficult to see how this definition could apply to “redness”.  The concept of redness requires us to compare different objects and classify them as similar; so it is impossible for “redness” to be an independent entity.’  (But surely, say I, you can say this for any universal — that it just cannot be an independent simple.)

One can go further into what BR said about this old issue (from here again, though what follows is beyond me but it gives the flavour and readers may understand it.): ‘Ordinary language certainly permits the attribution of a common predicate to more than one subject: ” a is P ” and ” b is P ” may both be true. If only particular things exist, then a and b would be distinct, featureless beings whose likeness with respect to P could only be understood as a shared—and hence universal—property. If only universal things exist, then P would exist in two places at once, which would fail to account for the distinctness of a and b. Thus, Russell argued, both universals and bare particulars exist; only a robust realism can explain both the sameness and the diversity that we observe in ordinary experience.’

Now we leave the specific Problem of Universals and get back to BR’s general theme of analysing language which included many of the questions in Philosophy, down to the elements of logic they’re really composed of but which are usually hidden.  According to RogerJones in  ‘Russell thought that the grammar of ordinary language was misleading.’  Russell thought that the world was composed of elemental facts, like atoms in physics, and that statements should correspond to them. ‘One of the tasks of philosophy was to analyse propositions to reveal their “proper logical form” ‘.

From this last site are some obvious examples that Russell gives, such as: ‘The average man’ or ‘The average woman has 2.6 children’.  These are logical constructions or even mathematical statements, but not atomic facts.  This also applies to terms such as ‘the State’ and ‘Public Opinion’. Philosophers were mistaken in treating these concepts as though they really existed.

Now to turn to something else, BR’s Theory of Descriptions (from here for the next four paragraphs) which was apparently his greatest contribution to philosophy of language.  He worried for example about statements like “The present king of France is bald” when there isn’t of course a present king of France.  Another philosopher then posited a realm of “nonexistent entities”.  Frege thought that was nonsense.  Yet the sentence doesn’t sound like nonsense, although it still may be.

This opened up decades of discussion about the logic of such sentences.  The problem apparently is one of “definite descriptions” which is the term for all names like “Walter Scott” and for all terms beginning with “the”.   Russell sometimes thought that the former shouldn’t be called names, but only “disguised definite descriptions”. 

Russell’s solution was to analyze the entire sentence. He said that each definite description contains a claim of existence and a claim of uniqueness.  “The present king of France is bald” can be reworded to “There is an x such that x is a present king of France, nothing other than x is a present king of France, and x is bald”.  So the sentence as a whole says three things about the object: — the definite description contains two, and the rest of the sentence contains the third.  If the object does not exist, or is not unique, then the whole sentence turns out to be false, not meaningless.  (Oh my God, think I, this is Philosophy of Language!) 

According  perhaps originally to philosopher Strawson, definite descriptions do not claim that the object exists but they merely presuppose it (which sounds pretty obvious to me).  


These sites here and here by Kemerling  take one a step further in explaining BR, but beyond what I can presently understand.  Here are three examples that give the flavour:

‘The attempt to account clearly for every constituent of ordinary assertions soon proved problematic, however.  Russell proposed a ramified theory of types in order to avoid the self-referential paradoxes that might otherwise emerge from such abstract notions as “the barber who shaves all but only those who do not shave themselves” ‘.   (The latter quotation is for me an example of the banalities of human life that philosophers deal with.)  

‘Some cases do call for special treatment. Russell feared that some “negative facts” might require lengthy analysis in order to establish their ground without presuming acquaintance with non-existent objects. “General facts” certainly do presume something more than a collection of atomic facts. The truth of “All dogs are mammals,” for example, depends not only on the truth of many propositions—”Houston is a mammal,” “Chloë is a mammal,” etc.—about individual dogs, but also on the further assertion that these individuals constitute the entire extension of the term “dog.” Suitably analyzed, however, all of human knowledge can be seen to rest solely upon the collective content of human experience.’ 

‘Russell translated the sentence “The author of Waverly was Scotch,” into symbolic, formal logic: (∃x){[Wx • (y)(Wy ⊃ y=x)] • Sx}. ” (here).    (That’s too difficult for me at present, yet I don’t think it amounts to Wisdom; it’s a very advanced stage of precocious schoolboy.)

From here:  He came to disagree with Wittgenstein’s later approach to philosophy, while Wittgenstein came to think of Russell as “superficial and glib.” 

Here is another site that I think takes one even further, though beyond my present understanding.  It argues, from BR, that there is a relationship between our language’s grammar, its logic, our mode of thinking, and our ‘world’.

‘Like the Principia Mathematica—another of Russell’s projects that proved largely unjustifiable—Russell’s defense of logical atomism is spurred by an intense interest in justification.’  (‘Justification’ seems to mean the reasons one has for believing in something.)  BR had ‘an extreme reluctance to believe any proposition without a sound reason’.  (But surely, think I, this is what has always spurred philosophers.) 


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