University of Sussex
Rebera,_Andrew_Peter.pdf (1.72 MB)

On the origins of Russell's theory of descriptions

Download (1.72 MB)
posted on 2023-06-07, 15:40 authored by Andrew Peter Rebera
This thesis explores the development of Bertrand Russell‘s theory of definite descriptions. It aims at demonstrating the connection between Russell‘s views on the subject of denoting and his attempt, in the period 1903-05, to develop a solution to 'the Contradiction' (i.e. the Russell Paradox). The thesis argues that the discovery of the theory of descriptions, and the way in which it works, are best understood against the backdrop of Russell‘s work on the paradoxes. A new understanding of Russell‘s seminal paper 'On Denoting' is presented, including a novel interpretation of the notorious 'Gray‘s Elegy Argument', in which Russell argues against his earlier theory of denoting. That Russell‘s work on denoting is connected to his work on the paradoxes is reasonably well-known: the nature of the connection has not, however, been adequately brought out in the literature. This is addressed through demonstrating the relationship between Russell‘s work on denoting and his development of the 'substitutional theory' of classes and relations. This theory eliminates classes and propositional functions in favour of matrices and substitutions. The role of the theory of descriptions in the development of the substitutional theory is commonly supposed to be merely that the theory of descriptions facilitates the ontological elimination of classes. But this elimination was equally possible on Russell‘s earlier theory of denoting (which he had rejected in the Gray‘s Elegy Argument). In the thesis it is suggested that the theory of descriptions brings with it a new conception of analysis, and that it is through the introduction of this new form of analysis—rather than through the elimination of classes—that the theory of descriptions facilitates the substitutional approach.


File Version

  • Published version



Department affiliated with

  • Philosophy Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • dphil


  • eng


University of Sussex

Full text available

  • Yes

Legacy Posted Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Theses)


    No categories selected


    Ref. manager