Paul Dickey

What Santa Asked When Lord Russell Argued that “Santa Claus” was a Definite Description and not a Referring Expression
January 24, 2022 Dickey Paul

What Santa Asked When Lord Russell Argued that “Santa Claus” was a Definite Description and not a Referring Expression

Sometimes I seem to see a difficulty, but then again I don’t
see it.” ….Gottlob Frege, founder of modern logic



I tell my students to heed four things and they will be fine.
One, don’t trust common sense.
Two, everyone has one play in them before they die.
Three, don’t let anyone tell them how to write that play.
And most importantly, four, don’t do the research for their class essay on Wikipedia.
Though actually on Wiki, our own local philosophical legend Saul Kripke
is credited as being one of the top ten philosophers of the last two hundred years.
Saul Kripke is being honored this week at the International Saul Kripke Conference
at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for his mathematical theory of truth,
and reference first introduced in his seminal book Naming and Necessity.


Saul Kripke asks the small audience of scholars,
“So if Lois Lane knows Superman can fly and if Superman is Clark Kent,
how is it that Lois wouldn’t know necessarily that Clark Kent
(i.e. the person both known as “Clark Kent” and “Superman”) can fly?
Is she not referring to a singular person, that is, a reference?
Likewise, consider Russell’s Santa Claus argument….”


You might think this is rather silly.
You might think: but of course, we can know and say some things about a person
but not others.   It is just common sense.
Sometimes Frege himself says he doesn’t see the problem.
There are other examples though and every philosopher here
up for tenure has a theory full of them.
Frege and Bertrand Russell were all wrong about it, it seems.
They had said Superman thus must not be an existence
but only a set of descriptions like the tossed salad at the conference buffet.
Bear with me here, folks, I know this modal logic stuff can get confusing.


Juggling (which is not to be confused either syntactically,
semantically or pragmatically with judging)
my paper plate seemingly at the end of the world but actually only
on the edge of a table at the end of the buffet line,
I ask Saul Kripke how he got all his genius and brilliant ideas
and rescued our common sense from the mortal tragedy and cliff of Fregeanism.
Did he get it while focusing on the very problem
and the one on which all these brilliant scholars now are posturing their interpretations, or does a solution for one problem often happen serendipity
while working on another – like perhaps this poem/essay
coming forth out of my musical comedy,  Galileo Tap Dancing with the Stars?


But alas, Saul Kripke is 72 years old
and he says he cannot remember any longer how he came up with his ideas.
But age is just a descriptor, a predicate, not a designator.
Like a Bob Dylan who is also 72 in another possible world
in which we don’t know if he is a rock musician,
the surviving proprietor of his father’s furniture store,
or like Saul himself, a playwright running short of time
before writing his play. Are you still with me?


I admit.  I know Saul Kripke is the inventor
of the Kripke Theory of Meaning and Truth.
I know Saul Kripke is the man I am talking to.
So I know the man I am talking to is the inventor of the theory of meaning and truth.


I must ask Saul Kripke himself before he’s gone forever
from the UNO conference and from all possible worlds
(though you might have thought the UNO conference was just another possible world)
“Is Saul Kripke, 1) the playwright Saul Kripke, who by his own admission
would never let some old codger Bertrand Russell tell him even how to write his play,
2) the son of an Omaha rabbi who made a fortune
investing with Warren Buffett,
or 3) the famous logician we know as Saul Kripke?”
The Omaha World-Herald reporter correctly spells Buffett’s name with two t’s.




The room grew dark, as you’d expect, along the shadows of the reception line,
where the wise and the noble had gathered to nibble at the salad,
to pile their crackers high with cheese squares,
to talk to the ladies who stood by precariously beside the delicate birds,
when suddenly, in the distance, an imposing figure approached,
a figure with a white beard, carrying a bag full of toys, riding a sleigh,
commanding his elves, just as Lord Russell had logically described him.


The glass room filled with expectation and alarm,
as if to prepare for a confrontation on the nature of reality.
Just minutes before, Lord Russell had lectured on certain problematic,
falsely but apparently referring, expressions,
proving that it was not necessary to exist to have things said about you.
And thus, he had said some just awful things about Santa,
though nothing all that personal.
It was rumored Russell himself was reconciled
now with the great Wittgenstein over that misunderstanding
years before about the rhinoceros in the room.
They could now speak to each other occasionally, at least in private settings,
though not yet in full debate in a linguistic analysis.


Ergo, in the final analysis, it is understood, even expected,
among the great men that philosophy is not a trifle, a mere child’s toy.
In Russell’s day, it was no less than a battle for the hearts and minds of statesmen
and the ladies in petticoats. Elegantly putting down his wine,
and his plate of the best hors d’oeuvres the college could afford to cater,
Bertrand Russell lit his pipe and stared at Santa,
mumbling as if lost in a predicate logic.
He would have to let his argument stand on its own, he eventually surmised.


Santa stared back at Russell from within this non-existence
(which I’ll give to him, he totally owned) with his ruddy cheeks,
his pudgy face, all descriptions he was less known for,
and some even for which Russell had no way to know or express.
Not answering my question, Saul Kripke couldn’t help it
and disappeared into thin air before our very eyes.
But not disputing anything, Santa formulated a question
that alas, might take years to answer for even a young, energetic Princeton prof
like Saul Kripke himself once was,
a question that would not tonight be heard above all the fuss and turmoil in the room.

Paul Dickey is the author of several collections of poetry, including They Say This is How Death Came Into the World (Mayapple Press, 2011) and Wires Over the Homeplace (Pinyon Publishing, 2013) as well as multiple chapbooks and e-books.  Dickey received the 2015 Master Poet award from the Nebraska Arts Council. His poetry, prose poetry, drama, short stories and flash fiction have appeared in over two hundred online and print publications. More info is available at his website: Dickey lives in Omaha and is retired from teaching in philosophy.