Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Objections to Russell's facts and propositions

In his chapter on facts and propositions, Russell starts off by talking about the sorts of things he thinks are undoubtable. The first of these is that the world contains facts and beliefs (and that beliefs have reference to facts). He holds that a fact is the kind of thing that makes a proposition true or false, but that facts themselves cannot be true or false; they simply just are. The example he uses is the proposition "It is raining". The proposition is true or false depending on the fact if it is raining: "the condition of weather that makes my statement true (or false) is what I should call a 'fact'" (pg. 182). Russell also says that no particular thing just by itself makes any proposition true or false; a 'fact' is expressed by a whole sentence, not by a single name.

At this point, it seems to me like Russell runs into some problems. So far it looks like Russell argues:

1) All facts are expressed by propositions.

2) All facts are expressed by a whole sentence.

3) 1 +2, therefore: All facts expressed by propositions are facts expressed by a whole sentece.

The conclusion of (3) seems to put too much importance on the structure of the language being spoken. Couldn't you express a fact without using a whole sentence? Did cavemen not express facts when they were speaking broken-up-non-perfect-language? Not only that, but consider the ease of which people can still understand which fact you are referring to when you speak improper english. For example, after writing a test someone just learning to speak english might say to you "I think that test do good?", and any normal person would interpret this (probably correctly) as "I think that I did well on the test". Here, Russell would have to say that this person was not expressing a proposition, as well as not expressing any fact. I think that clearly they are expressing both a version of the that-style propostion "that I did well on the test" as well as a version of the fact I did well on the test (which could still prove the proposition true or false).

Moving on, Russell gives examples of the different types of facts and then starts on symbols. I do not want to focus on the details of these parts, but rather on the argument Russell seems after the examinations. Russell eventually comes to the conclusion that propositions are not names for facts. He says people who think this have mistaken types of symbols. He finishes by suggesting that names are the proper symbols for a person (or other things I imagine) and a sentence (or proposition) is the proper symbol for a fact. Russell takes care to show that propositions cannot name facts. Here is his argument:

1) All Propositions bear a 3 place relation

2) All names bear a 2 place relation

3) 1 + 2 therefore, No propositions are names

In support of premis 1, Russell claims that all propositions are either true, false, or meaningless. So there are 3 possible relations propositions can have toward something. Names on the other hand, as premis 2 suggests, can either name the thing they are relating to or be meaningless (a name is not true or false). He says that if a name does not name anything, then it is simply a sound. From the difference in the nature of propositions and names, Russell derives his conclusion that the two are completely different.

I would like to raise an objection to premis 1. I do not think that propositions bear a 3 place relation. I would like someone to show me a proposition that is meaningless. It seems impossible to do. Any proposition you can put together (let's use Russell's guidelines from earlier and say that any proposition must be a sentence) is either true, false, or not a proposition (not meaningless as he would suggest).

I think that this objection to premis 1 takes one leg out from Russells argument. I haven't quite figured out how to reconcile the fact that propositions are true and false, and names either 'name' or 'do not name'. If this difference could be shown to be negligible, or that somehow naming something and not naming something is the same as being true or false then Russell's position would completely reverse. He would have to accept that propositions are (or can) name facts.

The closest thing I can think of to reconciling these two relations is that it is either true or false that something is the name for something else. I think this line of reasoning looks promising, and Russell cannot sit contently forever on his position that propositions cannot name facts.

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