Bertrand Russell Philosophy Anti-Philosophy

‘Philosophy’ has always been bunk, 16: Bertrand Russell 4: break statements into logical atoms

(See the first two paragraphs of my first post on BR, here.) 

BR thought that many problems of Philosophy could be solved by exposing the hidden elements of meaning that statements are made of.  Philosophy had always created insoluble pseudo-problems for itself by not exposing them. This was his Logical Atomism or Logical Analysis.

Russell’s had previously tried to reduce mathematics to logic, which was called Logicism (see here).   Now his Logical Atomism was trying to reduce statements in language to their units of logic, here.  

It was a radical step in the whole history of Philosophy, and founded the new Analytic Philosophy that replaced the Hegelian Idealism still holding sway in the late 19th century.  

(Did this abolish Philosophy and turn it into a branch of Linguistics?  No, it didn’t.)

G.E. Moore was also in on the flight from Hegelianism.  This new step of Logical Atomism was  perhaps started by Frege slightly earlier, added to by Wittgenstein slightly later (from here); and re-emphasized thirty years later in Vienna by the Logical Positivists [in their] “revolt against metaphysics” (from here).  

I was hoping to give good examples of un-atomized statements that had deceived Philosophers from the beginning, but  I didn’t come across them!  Here are the best I could find, from BR himself, thought they’re hardly philosophic (from here):  ‘The average man has 2.5 children’ or ‘The average woman has 2.6 children’.  Russell said they were logical constructions or complex mathematical statements, and not atomic statements.  This also applies to terms such as ‘the State’ and ‘Public Opinion’; philosophers, it says, were mistaken in treating these concepts as though they really existed — they obviously need breaking down into atomic statements of atomic facts.  

To use somewhat different words, from  here, some of them verbatim:  Russell  combined Frege’s logical insights with  Hume’s empiricism. ‘Russell thought that the grammar of ordinary language was misleading.’  The word ‘grammar’ for me needs explaining but Russell meant that the world was composed of elemental facts like atoms in physics, and that true statements should correspond to them. The philosopher should analyse propositions into their full logical form of atomic statements expressing atomic facts.


BR also produced a Theory of Descriptions (from here, for the next five paragraphs) which also seems to come under his theme of analysing statements in language down to the elements of logic they’re composed of.  This Theory was said by some to be his greatest contribution to philosophy of language! 

He worried about statements like “The present king of France is bald” because obviously there isn’t a present king of France!  Someone else posited a realm of “nonexistent entities” but Frege thought that was nonsense.  Yet the sentence itself, ‘The prsent king of France is bald’, doesn’t sound like nonsense (though that doesn’t prove it isn’t).  Oi!

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”, as well as for all terms beginning with “the”( as in, I suppose, ‘the present king of France’).   Russell sometimes thought that terms like ‘Walter Scott’ shouldn’t be called names, but only “disguised definite descriptions”. 

Leaving that aside, here is how Russell solved his problem:  He said that each definite description contains a claim of existence and a claim of uniqueness; which means that”The present king of France is bald” can be reworded as “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 says three things about the object: — the definite description (‘the present king of France’) expresses two, and the rest of the sentence (‘is bald’) expresses 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 obsessesive turning around to eat one’s own tail of logicking is Philosophy of Language!) 

It may have been the philosopher Strawson who said that definite descriptions do not claim that the object exists but merely presuppose it (which sounds unexceptional to me but just adds to my amazement that anyone could take this subject seriously).  


BR applied his Logical Atomism to ancient issues, such as in his paper ‘On the Relations of Universals and Particulars’ (1911) (as I understand from here, and from Mannion in what used to be the website netplaces).   

To go into it (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.  That sounds to me a commonsense interpretation of Plato’s ancient problem.  These universals include qualities like redness, softness, heaviness, as well as relations of time or space like ‘before’, ‘on top of’, and  ‘next to’.  ‘Russell contended that particulars and universals are atomic “simples”—that is, they are finite and individual and cannot be analyzed or broken down further.’

But surely, think I in my simple-mindedness, BR is wrong in saying that universals are atoms of meaning.  As this site here now says, 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.’ 

All of that sounds pretty obvious. 

[But BR goes further (from here again) into territories beyond me: ‘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.’

No, that’s for the philosophical mind.]


[These sites here and here by Kemerling also take one a step further into BR’ s Logical Atomism, 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” ‘.  (I don’t know what ‘types’ in this context are; and the latter quotation is for me an example of the banalities of human life that philosophers think of.)  

‘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.’   (Oi!  I fail to comprehend, except fot isolated bits.)

‘Russell translated the sentence “The author of Waverly was Scotch,” into symbolic, formal logic: (∃x){[Wx • (y)(Wy ⊃ y=x)] • Sx}. ” (here).    (That of course is completely beyond me.)

Here is another site that I think takes one even further, though beyond my present understanding.  An obvious thing it says is that there is, according to BR,  a relationship between our language’s grammar, its logic, our mode of thinking, and our ‘world’.]



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