TSE didn't allow his dissertation to be published until 1964, one year before his death. At the time of publication he is recorded as saying something like "I can no longer pretend that I understand any of it" (I can't find the exact quote - Rick??).
I've read the dissertation, and I tend to agree with TSE on this one.
While his dissertation on the topic of epistemology (e.g., "what we know and how we know what we know"), there are many sections (and conclusions) in the dissertation that I did not expect. To give you a taste of it, let me first note that around 1915 a raging debate was occurring among philosophers about the linguistic meaning of certain sentences (which TSE wanted to discuss in part of his dissertation).
Bertrand Russell was at the center of one such debate centering around the seeming innocent sentence, "The present King of France is bald." If you Google this sentence you'll get LOTS of hits. Here's one from Wikipedia (It's a bit long, but I need to set the stage for TSE's rebuttal that follows):
France is presently a republic, and has no king. Bertrand Russell pointed out that this raises a puzzle about the truth value of the sentence "The present King of France is bald."
The sentence does not seem to be true: if we consider all the bald things, the present King of France isn't among them, since there is no present King of France. But if it is false, then one would expect that the negation of this statement, that is, "It is not the case that the present King of France is bald," or its logical equivalent, "The present King of France is not bald," is true. But this sentence doesn't seem to be true either: the present King of France is no more among the things that fail to be bald than among the things that are bald. We therefore seem to have a violation of the Law of Excluded Middle.
Is it meaningless, then? One might suppose so (and some philosophers have) since "the present King of France" certainly does fail to refer. But on the other hand, the sentence "The present King of France is bald" (as well as its negation) seem perfectly intelligible, suggesting that "the Present King of France" can't be meaningless.
Russell proposed to resolve this puzzle via his theory of descriptions. A definite description like "the present King of France", he suggested, isn't a referring expression, as we might naively suppose, but rather an "incomplete symbol" that introduces quantificational structure into sentences in which it occurs. The sentence "the present King of France is bald", for example, is analyzed as a conjunction of the following three quantified statements:
1. there is an x such that x is presently King of France
2. for any x and y, if x is presently King of France and y is presently King of France, then x=y (i.e. there is at most one thing which is presently King of France)
3. for every x that is presently King of France, x is bald.
More briefly put, the claim is that "The present King of France is bald" says that some x is such that x is presently King of France, and that any y is presently King of France only if y = x, and that x is bald.
This is false, since it is not the case that some x is presently King of France.
The negation of this sentence, i.e. "The present King of France is not bald", is ambiguous. It could mean one of two things, depending on where we place the negation 'not'. On one reading, it could mean that there is no one who is presently King of France and bald. On this disambiguation, the sentence is true (since there is indeed no x that is presently King of France).
On a second reading, the negation could be construed as attaching directly to 'bald', so that the sentence means that there is presently a King of France, but that this King fails to be bald. On this disambiguation, the sentence is false (since there is no x that is presently King of France).
Thus, whether "the present King of France is not bald" is true or false depends on how it is interpreted at the level of logical form: if the negation is construed as taking wide scope it is true, whereas if the negation is construed as taking narrow scope it is false. In neither case does it lack a truth value.
So we do not have a failure of the Law of Excluded Middle: "The present King of France is bald" is false, because there is no present King of France. The negation of this statement is the one in which 'not' takes wide scope. This statement is true because there does not exist anything which is presently King of France.
In TSE's thesis, he makes a long argument against this analysis, ending with the rather startling conclusion, "the 'present King of France' is already partially real".
Here's the relevant excerpt from TSE's thesis:
. . . And notice that the contrast is not at all that between the solid reality and the idea. This is to confuse denotation with meaning. 'Chimeras do not exist.' This proposition does not say: Ideas chimeras do not exist. The chimeras to which existence is denied are not the chimeras 'in my head' but the real chimeras. But surely, it will be objected, we do not say: Real chimeras are unreal! Yet that is in my opinion, just what, from the point of view of metaphysics, we do say, and any other statement would be meaningless. The explanation so far as there is one, is simply this. The phrase, 'real chimeras' can be taken in two ways: (1) the chimeras which are actually experienced; (2) chimeras which are 'real'. The word 'real' has in (1) meaning, and in (2) denotation. On the other hand in order to have meaning in (1) it must denote something which in experience is actually judged to be real in sense (2), and in order to have denotation in (2) must have meaning in actual experience. By substituting alternately we get:
Chimeras such as are experienced, are not real.
Real chimeras (i.e., such as would satisfy all the conditions of
reality) are not experienced — not met with in experience.
Here by denying the predication of denotation of meaning and vice versa we seem to escape contradiction. But the evasion is only momentary. For the phrase 'chimeras such as are experienced' denotes real chimeras, and the phrase 'real chimeras' means chimeras which are actually experienced. Can we say that the non-existent chimeras are real chimeras in denotation and imaginary chimeras in meaning? We have some idea of that to which we deny existence, and the idea, we have seen above, is so far as it is ideal as well the reality which it intends, and we must say similarly of the denoting phrase, that so far as it denotes it denotes a real object.
What has been said of the status of ideas, in a previous chapter, will thus apply to a certain extent to denoting phrases. In each there is the moment of objectivity, so that it implies its own fulfillment in reality, as an object of practical experience. Idea and phrase both denote realities, but the realities which they denote are so far as idea or phrase denotes, identical with the idea or the phrase. It is a mistake, I think, to treat the word as something which barely points to the object, a sign-post which you leave behind on the road. The word 'chimera' or the idea 'chimera' is the beginning of the reality chimera and is absolutely continuous with it, and the 'present King of France' is already partially real.
-- Tom --