The 'gray's elegy' argument, and the prospects for the theory of denoting concepts

Synthese 152 (1):47 - 79 (2006)
Abstract
Russell’s new theory of denoting phrases introduced in “On Denoting” in Mind 1905 is now a paradigm of analytic philosophy. The main argument for Russell’s new theory is the so-called ‘Gray’s Elegy’ argument, which purports to show that the theory of denoting concepts (analogous to Frege’s theory of senses) promoted by Russell in the 1903 Principles of Mathematics is incoherent. The ‘Gray’s Elegy’ argument rests on the premise that if a denoting concept occurs in a proposition, then the proposition is not about the concept. I argue that the premise is false. The ‘Gray’s Elegy’ argument does not exhaust Russell’s ammunition against the theory of denoting concepts. Another reason Russell rejects the theory is, as he says, that it cannot provide an adequate account of non-uniquely denoting concepts. In the last section of the paper, I argue that even though Russell was right in thinking that the theory of denoting concepts cannot provide an adequate account of non-uniquely denoting concepts, Russell’s new theory does not succeed in eliminating the occurrence of all denoting concepts, as it requires a commitment to the existence of variables that indirectly denote their values. However, the view that variables are denoting concepts is unproblematic once the ‘Gray’s Elegy’ argument is blocked.
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