[Phil. Ed.] The Present King of France, explained


A couple months ago, I wrote a dialogue for my satirical series, Somewhere Atop the Ivory Tower, on “The Present King of France is bald” proposition. That piece was inspired by one of the most peculiar puzzles in the Philosophy of Language, and if it went over your head, that’s fine. So to help decipher the madness of this famous proposition, and because today is Bastille Day, the mark for the beginning of the end of the reign of kings in France, I have decided to write a special philosophical editorial for it here.

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Somewhere Atop the Ivory Tower 8


“The Present King of France”

This is a nuanced dialogue that comes about in the Philosophy of Language. It concerns the predicate “The Present King of France is bald” as popularized by Bertrand Russell. Just like other entries in this series, this is meant to be a humorous take on the questions raised by philosophy. I apologize for any errors that are made to the actual arguments posed if there are any, as I do find their critiques to be important and fascinating to philosophy.

Scene: Lecture hall atop the Ivory Tower. Bertrand Russell has called a summit to solve the problems with modern logic. A crowd of philosophers and logicians have come across time and space to attend. Enter Bertrand RUSSELL, Gottlob FREGE, P.F. STRAWSON, Alfred TARSKI, H.P. GRICE, Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU, Rudolf CARNAP, W.O. QUINE, Saul KRIPKE, and others.

RUSSELL: Hello and welcome, everyone. Glad you can all be here today. Philosophers, Mathematicians, and Logicians alike, we have had our differences in the past. But now, we have a grave concern on our hands.

[The crowd of intellectuals murmur among each other, as Russell writes a predicate on the blackboard: “∃x((Fx & ∀y(Fy → x = y)) & Gx).” The crowd roars.]

STRAWSON: Oh dear god.


FREGE: You guys still write like that?

RUSSELL: Hear me out, all of you! (crowd falls silent) We all know what this is. This is a classic case of definite description. A means that there exists only one F, and it is G.

TARSKI: Okay. So what’s the problem?

STRAWSON: Yeah, it’s perfectly fine. Seriously, what’s gotten into you?

RUSSELL: What’s gotten into me? This sentence has posed a threat to classical logic. The law of excluded middle! What will this do to how we speak!

FREGE: Russell, stop. I’ve discussed this problem before. Sure, no one bothered to review it, but nothing is being threatened. The sentence remains true–

RUSSELL: No, it is not!

FREGE: (pause) Come again?

RUSSELL: Just think, the sentence presupposes something that exists, that is also something else. But what if that thing doesn’t exist at all?

GRICE: Like what?

RUSSELL: Like the present King of France! And more importantly, “The present King of France is bald!” That fits the predicate just fine.

KRIPKE: Okay, but why the King of France?

TARSKI: (to KRIPKE) It’s best not to ask.

STRAWSON: Well isn’t it obvious? Just like Frege said, that predicate would be indeterminate.

FREGE: (to STRAWSON) I never said that.

STRAWSON: (to FREGE) You inferred it.

RUSSELL: No! That sentence must be false because it implies that a present King of France exists, which last I checked, there isn’t one.

ROUSSEAU: Really? Because last time I checked there was one. What a bloody bastard.

RUSSELL: Yes, but was he bald?

ROUSSEAU: How the hell should I know? I didn’t bother to check!


QUINE: Look, Rousseau makes a good point. Finding out which present King of France is being uttered depends on who is uttering it and when. It may not be true if someone in Rousseau’s time said it, but it might be true if the present King of France was from another time or place, and that one happens to be bald.

CARNAP: Yeah, like what if there was another universe, where the present King of France does still exist, and he happens to be bald? Wouldn’t the statement then be true?

QUINE: Don’t confuse things, Carnap.

TARSKI: Look guys, it’s simple. The sentence is true if and only if the present King of France is in the set of all persons that are bald. Just as the syntax dictates. At present, there is no present King of France. Therefore, Russell would be correct.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

TARSKI: Whatever.

GRICE: Look, maybe we’re all approaching this problem from the wrong position. Sure, we can agree on the syntax of a sentence like “The present King of France is bald,” but the semantics? Surely none of us agree on what exactly we’re talking about, when some of you think a real one doesn’t exist, while others believe that one exists as an idea.

TARSKI: And what are you trying to propose?

GRICE: Nothing. Just tell me what you mean by “present,” “king,” “France,” and “bald,” and then I’ll tell you whether or not it’s true. (pause)


TARSKI: Not a chance.

QUINE: That’s even more confusing.

KRIPKE: You guys are all missing the target. Why don’t we just go and check whether the rigid designator for the present King of France is bald?

RUSSELL: Impossible!


TARSKI: Where?

KRIPKE: Yeah. It just so happens that he’s right here in this ivory tower, as we speak.

RUSSELL: No way.

KRIPKE: Behold! The current placeholder for the Present King of France! (Enter PLATO, holding a sign that says he’s the present King of France, wearing a hat to cover his head)

STRAWSON: (whispers) Isn’t that Master Plato?


KRIPKE: Present King of France, please remove your hat.

PLATO: (mumbles to himself, as he bows before the audience and removes his hat, thus revealing his bald spots).


GRICE: Agreed.

TARSKI: Definitely true.

CARNAP: Of course.

FREGE: Works for me.

ROUSSEAU: (rolls eyes) Here we go again.

QUINE: I’m convinced.

RUSSELL: Oh, Come on!! (Exeunt)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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