Jun 8, 2020 in Analysis

In Russell’s lectures of The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, he tries to answer a metaphysical question about the essence of reality. He answers this question by constructing a theory of logical atomism. Russell’s theory is based on understanding our language by analyzing different statements at the level of simple logical propositions, which are constituted from different simple symbols such as: particulars, qualities and relations. In this paper, Russell’s empirical approach for knowing the meaning of a certain word is discussed and challenged.

In the second lecture Particulars, Predicates and Relations, Russell responds to the claim that we cannot analyze anything. He starts his lecture with the question “What sort of things shall we regard as prima facie complex?” (Russell and Pears 50). In order to answer this question, Russell explains what he means by the complex entities by distinguishing between two types of entities. The first type of complex entities, excluded from Russell’s notion of prima facie complex entities, is the apparently complex entities with a proper name, such as tables and chairs. The second type of complex entities is facts, which make a certain proposition true or false. According to Russell, these facts should be explained in order to understand the reality in the world. These facts are not only composed of particulars, but they are also composed of relations between these particulars and properties of these particulars, which makes them complex entities that are supposed to be analyzed to ensure understanding of the reality.

Type of assignment
Writer level
Number of pages


For instance, the word ‘Camry’ in the following propositions: ‘Camry is car’ and ‘Camry is tool’ has a different meaning, although they are the same words denoting the same subject, which is ‘Camry’. In this example, ‘Camry’ constitutes a part of the fact. This part can constitute another fact in other different propositions because the properties or the relations are different in each fact. Hence, Russell concludes that there are complex entities which could be analyzed.

In the next part of Russell’s second lecture, another form of complexity is addressed and explained. This form of complexity occurs because propositions are composed of several words. In other words, in order to understand a proposition, you should understand each part of it. Hence, Russell claims that “when you know the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of language, you can understand a proposition in that language even though you never saw it before” (Russell and Pears 53). In the following lines, this claim is discussed and challenged.

It is important to mention that the aim of challenging Russell’s claim is not to undermine his argument for either the existence of complex entities or Russell’s notion of complex entities. To the contrary, the challenge aims to illustrate possible problems or missing parts that should be considered and developed in order to construct a complete logical atomism theory.

Russell’s claim entails that the component of certain language could be understood if the structure and the components of this language are understood. However, there are some words that do not have certain meanings or those agreed upon. For instance, the meaning of the word ‘hole’ can differ from one individual to another, from one context to another; additionally, it may not be possible to assign a specific meaning. One meaning of the word ‘hole’ is ‘a hallow space in a solid body or surface’; another meaning is ‘a round absence of matter’. Furthermore, one can raise the question whether ‘hole’ is an entity or not.

At first glance, it seems that this problem is not considered in Russell’s theory; however, he does not ignore it. On the contrary, he thinks that the solution for this problem could be found at the last stage of analysis, which is the direct acquaintance with the objects, that gives the meaning of a certain word (Russell and Pears 54). However, Russell’s solution raises another problem because it is neither sufficient nor necessary.

Russell uses the word ‘red’ as an example to solve this problem by distinguishing between two things: a word description and the actual meaning. According to Russell, a word description is not the actual meaning because the proposition used in a word description is different from the proposition used in the actual meaning. For instance, there are two ways to understand the word ‘red’ either by defining ‘red’ as ‘the color with the greatest wave-length’, or through the acquaintance with an object. Russell thinks that understanding the concept of ‘red’ is not possible by defining ‘red’; however, it is possible through acquaintance with the object. In fact, Russell thinks that defining or describing a word results in a kind of circularity. Hence, Russell concludes that defining a name is different from analysis; hence, analyzing should not rely on definitions or descriptions.

Therefore, according to Russell, in order to solve the problem of the word ‘hole’, we should realize that the different meanings for ‘hole’ are definitions and description and not the actual meaning, which should be obtained through acquaintance with the object. This solution entails that ‘hole’ is a physical object that has physical properties such as: shape, size and color. Hence, ‘hole’ exists in the physical world because these properties exist. However, it is not clear how an empty space can exist in the real world. Therefore, Russell’s empirical view of knowing reality is an insufficient approach that needs to be developed in order to allow knowing unphysical object. In addition, there are things that can be understood without the acquaintance with an object such as the word ‘hole’ or ‘the word ‘goodness’. The only difference between the meaning of the word ‘red’ and the word ‘goodness’ or the word ‘hole’ is that ‘red’ can have two types of meanings, which are a physical meaning and an unphysical meaning, while ‘hole’ or ‘goodness’ can have only an unphysical meaning. In order to understand a certain word, one needs to understand both types of meaning, if the object has both types of meaning. Russell’s empirical approach is unnecessary because some words could be understood without the acquaintance but with other ways of understanding the meaning of a certain word. Hence, Russell needs to develop an approach that can allow us to understand both physical properties and unphysical properties.

In addition, Russell’s empirical approach raises another problem because his view entails that reality can be known by senses which may be considered as an ancient theory of knowing reality. For instance, Aristotle thinks that we can know reality by direct senses. However, the Aristotelian approach for ancient science is rejected by the Copernican revolution because senses may provide us with unreal appearances, which prevents us from knowing reality. In fact, Russell illustrates this problem at the beginning of his lecture when he rejects considering the apparently complex entities that have a proper name as complex entities. However, later on he admits that knowing a certain meaning should be done through acquaintance with the object, which conflicts his view.

In addition, Russell needs to solve another question that is raised because of his empirical approach. Acquaintance with an object means that there are three parts which should be considered in the process of knowing a certain meaning: the subject, the object and the connection between the subject and the object. However, Russell’s view entails the fourth part that should be considered, which is the meaning of different words that compose a certain proposition. The fourth part raises an important question whether there are connections between the object and the subject, between the object and the meaning, or between the object and both the meaning and the subject. In order to answer this question, these three possibilities should be examined.

In the first case, if there is connection only between the object and subject, the subject will not know the meaning of a certain word; hence, the subject will not understand the proposition. The first possibility should be rejected because the subject cannot understand the proposition; hence, the subject cannot examine the reality of a certain fact. In the second possibility, if there is connection only between the object and the meaning, Russell should explain how the meaning can preserve its reality when it transfers from the object to the subject without any kind of modification. In the third case, connection between the object and both the meaning and the subject entails that the object and the meaning are two different things; hence, acquaintance with the object is somewhat different from understanding the meaning of a certain word. In other words, acquaintance with the object does not entail understanding of a certain meaning. Therefore, Russell needs to explain the nature of the connection between the object, the subject and the meaning to develop a more consistent theory.


Related essays