Monday, February 18, 2013

Russell on 'The baby has been sick all day'

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Russell on 'The baby has been sick all day'
Date: 28th April 10:03

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 23 April, with your essay written under exam conditions in response to the University of London Logic question, 'One can understand the claim, 'The baby has been sick all day', without supposing there is one and only one baby in the world. So Russell's theory o definite descriptions is wrong.' Discuss.

On the question of topic selection for revision, your strategy seems as sound as any. The most important thing is not so much 'very focused preparation' (it is a matter of luck if you happen to have been reading something which has particular relevance to that very question) but rather your willingness to think on your feet and engage with whatever question they throw at you. In other words, stay loose.

I know that's easy to say. But it is a strategy which worked for me. Your mood when you go into the exam room is an important factor. Know that you are a good philosopher and that you will give a good account of yourself.

This essay is rather short (three pages would be fine, four would be excellent, but pushing it). However, in terms of content you have everything essential for a decent answer to the question.

You have correctly identified what the problem is (I have had essays which missed the point and talked about Donnellan).

You have mentioned Strawson's distinction between sentence and statement (although more could have been said here about the relevance to this problem, and the contrast between the responses that Strawson and Russell would give).

You have shown that you are aware that simply regarding the context as 'implicit' or capable of being stated in principle comes up against awkward counterexamples (though, once again, if you'd had the time to do more than simply give your 'the book is on the book' example this would also gain more marks).

One way to think about this problem is to turn it on its head and ask whether ANY statement containing a definite description could be sufficiently 'explicit'. Consider a universe where Nietzsche's 'Eternal Recurrence' is true (there's a beautiful reference to this at the end of the movie K-Pax with Kevin Spacey, and also in Kundera's novel 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'). Make your description as precise and explicit as you like. You have failed to indicate which of the eternally recurring worlds the object in question is located in. Indeed there is no way to do this because you are relying on an irreducible indexical element: we are talking about this world, this 'Mount Everest', this 'Barack Obama' and so on, not any of the Everests or Obamas which exist in the other infinitely many worlds which have been or will come to be.

The problem doesn't arise in maths. And it could be argued that Russell's response would simply be to say that this is one of the intractable aspects of empirical reality. If you are attempting to give a theory of meaning for a natural language on the model of Tarski's definition of truth (in other words, along broadly Davidsonian lines -- something which of course Russell never attempted) then there are inevitably going to be difficulties of 'fit', the only question being the pragmatic one of which of the competing theories does the work in the most lucid and intelligible way. A criticism levelled at Strawson's theory of presuppositions is that it is messy (because it admits truth value gaps) and consequently harder to formalise.

If I was answering this question, I would also be tempted to pick at this particular example. 'The baby' could just as easily be read as 'our baby'. Problem solved. If we had more than one baby (say, twins) under what circumstances would we (in real life) speak of 'the baby'? It would be odd, to say the least. You'd use the baby's name. Obviously, just picking at one example doesn't get you very far. But there is a suspicion that this problem has been overblown, and that looseness of talk and colloquialism aside, when we say 'the' we mean 'the', the context being obvious to anyone who is in on the conversation, and perfectly capable of being stated if one were being pedantic.

As it stands, the essay deserves a mark in the mid-60's despite its short length. I'd give 65.

All the best,