First, it is helpful to understand some of Russell’s technical vocabulary. In particular, for our purposes, we should consider his notion of a name, of a definite description, of a proposition, and of a propositional function.
For Russell, a logically proper name (or, for short, just a name) is a word whose meaning is a particular, i.e., an individual object or entity. For instance, intuitively, the name “Socrates” directly denotes the particular object, Socrates. Or the name “Paco” directly denotes my Chihuahua, Paco. Now, this is simplifying a little bit, since Russell has a whole theory of what a particular is and which words actually are proper names, but this isn’t really essential to his account of existence. One could hold to views about existence that are basically the same as Russell’s even if one modified his account of particulars and the extent of the proper names.
What is important, however, is that proper names be contrasted with definite descriptions. A definite description is some phrase that is meant to describe a particular, unique individual. For instance “the Chihuahua that I have had since 6th grade” is a definite description. (As it turns out, it does successfully denote something: my dog Paco.) “The dragon flying above my head” is a definite description too, though to my knowledge it is one that does not refer to anything.
Note: Names are not definite descriptions and definite descriptions are not names. The meaning of a name is just the object it refers to; the meaning of a definite description includes all of the predicates mentioned in the description (for instance, in the last example, "dragon," "flying", and "above my head" are all part of the meaning of the description).
It is important to bring up this contrast between definite descriptions and proper names because Russell gives a separate account of existence statements for each. What we are interested in when talking about “individual existence” statements is existence statements whose subject term is a proper name. This is the type of existence statement Russell will say is meaningless.
A proposition for Russell is, in essence, something that can be asserted, or something that can be true or false. For instance, that it is raining is a proposition, or that Paco is black is a proposition. Once again, this is simplifying a bit, but the particular details of Russell’s views on propositions are not essential here.
Finally, there is the notion of a propositional function. Russell says that a propositional function is “any expression containing an undetermined constituent, or several undetermined constituents, and becoming a proposition as soon as the undetermined constituents are determined.” Examples include ‘x is a man’ or ‘n is a number’ or ‘(x+y)(x-y)=x2-y2’. So, if we were to “fill in the blanks” so to speak we would have a full proposition. For instance, replacing ‘x’ with ‘Paco’ gives the proposition that Paco is a man. Replacing 'n' with '2' gives the proposition that 2 is a number.
Russell's propositional functions can be necessary, possible, or impossible. Russell defines this as follows. A propositional function is:
- Necessary, when it is always true;
- Possible, when it is sometimes true;
- Impossible, when it is never true.
(Interesting side-note: Obviously Russell's definition of "possible" and the like is not at all the definition we would immediately think of when we hear these words. What's interesting is that it's not clear whether he even meant to capture what we do with possible worlds semantics. He makes it explicit that he thinks previous thinking about modality is confused and problematic in some way, but it's not clear whether his discussion of modality is trying to capture some sort of traditional modal phenomenon as opposed to just making stipulations, nor whether his attitude toward traditional notions of modality is one of revision or rejection. Another interesting question: Is there any way to modernize Russell here? Is he on to anything at all? Anyway, enough of this digression...)
That brings us finally to Russell’s theory of existence. Russell’s official view is that “existence is a predicate of a propositional function.” In particular, if F is a type or kind of entity, then to say that F’s exist is just a shorthand way of saying that the propositional function ‘x is F’ is possible:
- (EXIST): F’s exist iff ‘x is F’ is possible (in Russell’s sense above).
So, according to Russell, “It is of propositional functions that you can assert or deny existence.” On the other hand, to say of a particular thing in the world that it is exists or not is “strictly nonsense.” After all, it doesn’t make sense to say of a particular object a that it is “possible” or “sometimes true.” Hence, individual existence statements are meaningless.
This is of course rather shocking on the face of it. We seem to make true individual existence claims all the time. But on Russell’s view, “John exists” isn’t simply false. It isn’t even a loose way of speaking. It’s simply nonsense. Moreover, the seemingly indubitable inference from “I think” to “I exist” is not invalid on this view; it isn’t even an argument, since arguments have to have propositions as their conclusions, and “I exist” isn’t even a comprehensible thought. What one might have thought incorrigible turns out to be unintelligible.
Nonetheless, as repugnant to common sense as this might seem at first, common sense is not infallible. And to be fair, we have only laid out Russell’s views and have not presented his arguments for them. In the next post I'll consider some of the reasons why, exactly, Russell might have come to this conclusion.