Nonexistent objects

PegasusFrom time to time I like to bring to people’s attention pieces of technical writing in philosophy that I think deserve a wider audience than the academic one. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on nonexistent objects, by Maria Reicher, is one of these.

It’s fairly long (28 pages in the pdf version), which is standard for SEP entries, and parts of it are difficult to follow for people without the necessary background. Still, it’s worth taking a look at as a general entryway into the issues raised by objects that don’t exist, and yet about which we talk as if they had attributes.

Just to be clear, Reicher is referring to things like Zeus, Pegasus, Sherlock Holmes, Vulcan, the perpetual motion machine, the golden mountain, the fountain of youth, and the round square. How can anyone not be interested in these?

Here is how Reicher introduces the problem: “to be able to say truly of an object that it doesn’t exist, it seems that one has to presuppose that it exists, for doesn’t a thing have to exist if we are to make a true claim about it?” Not to go all Clinton on you, but it turns out that it depends on what, exactly, one means by “exist”…

The entry introduces the logic of nonexistent objects, gives the reader the necessary historical background (turns out that much of the modern literature is one response or another to classic work by Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong (1853–1920)), presents a number of problems posed by nonexistent objects, and finally examines the major contemporary theories on offer.

Among the many things one learns from the entry is that both Kant’s view that “exists” is not a real predicate and Frege’s view that it isn’t a predicate of individuals need to be abandoned — and remember that Kan’t view was advanced in the context of his rejection of the famous ontological argument for the existence of God.

The following excerpts will give you a taste of what to expect in Reicher’s article:

“Either ‘Pegasus’ denotes something, in which case ‘Pegasus does not exist’ is false; or ‘Pegasus’ does not denote anything, in which case ‘Pegasus does not exist’ is not even meaningful, let alone true.”

“The Meinongian grants that flying horses do not exist, but this does not imply that there are no flying horses. According to the Meinongian, there are flying horses, and they belong to the class of nonexistent objects, and Pegasus is one of them.”

“The ‘so-being’ of an object is the totality of the object’s properties apart from the object’s existence or non- existence. The principle of independence says, thus, that an object may have any properties whatsoever, independently of whether the object exists or not.”

And so forth. One of my favorite sections comes when Reicher discusses Bertrand Russell’s objections to Meinong’s theories. For instance:

“According to [one version of Meinong’s account], there is an [nonexistent] object that is both round and square, but such an object [according to Russell] is ‘apt to infringe the law of contradiction,’ since it would be both round and not round. … Meinong did not deny that the round square infringes the law of contradiction. Instead, he replied to Russell’s first objection that the law of contradiction holds for existent objects only.”

The section on current theories covers four different “strategies” to deal with nonexistent objects. I will mention here only Reicher’s treatment of my colleague Graham Priest’s “other worlds strategy.”

Reicher summarizes the approach this way: “[other worlds strategies] assume merely possible and even impossible worlds. All worlds (possible as well as impossible ones) share the same domain of discourse. But not all objects of the domain exist in all worlds. Thus, Pegasus does not exist in the actual world, but it exists in a variety of merely possible worlds (namely in those which are such as represented by the Greek mythology). According to the other worlds strategy, nonexistent objects literally have the properties through which they are ‘characterized’ — but they have these properties not in the actual world but only in those worlds in which they exist.”

As Reicher explains, there are problems with this proposal, beginning with the fact that Graham doesn’t provide a principled explanation of which properties are and are not existence-entailing.

The entry concludes without a clear winner (though there are some more obvious losers), so it looks like modern logicians still have a lot of work to do to provide philosophical accounts of nonexistence.

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16 thoughts on “Nonexistent objects

  1. That sure is a long article. I don’t see the difficulty. Is this approach touched upon? Pegasus does not exist, but the idea of Pegasus exists. Fantasies exist as fantasies, not as objects. The set of non-existent objects is (or maybe just includes) the set of fantasies. We can agree that the Unicorn ‘has’ one horn, but differ on whether or not it has split hooves.

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  2. You brought up Pegasus. (He has wings, but what color is he?) The position stands. Non-existent object do not exist and cannot be treated as objects; however, the idea of a non-existent object exists as an idea. But I see I shall have to read it all.

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  3. I got a few pages in before I realized what’s missing from the Reicher article. Metaphysics never gets explicitly mentioned though it’s named in the bibliography and critical to the discussion. There’s only a certain kind of metaphysics where this discussion can happen. It’s connected to the question of “What’s first of all given?”, “Objects?” An easier question to deconstruct than “Does Zeus exist?” is “Do constellations exist?” for example.  We see that constellations are contingent on the activities of people rather than the abstract description of firery balls of light in space.

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  4. Donald, ah, yes, that brings up the question of the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics, as well as the kind of ontological commitment one makes when engaging in logical discourse.

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  5. Massimo, I read the entry. Frankly it’s all logic and beyond me. What strikes me is the great concern to avoid paradox and contradiction like the plague, while in real life non-existent objects are embraced and even ubiquitous — in fiction, and entertainment and in thinking about the past and the future. So it would seem that paradox and contradiction are not nearly so dangerous as logic takes them to be. The big question should be then, why aren’t they? Where do logic and life part ways?

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  6. Thanks Thomas!

    Astro, well, logic has what some people call “internally generated problems,” just like math. Paradoxes do have consequences in logic (and hence in computer science), as well as in math (and hence in science), but much scholarship in these fields isn’t really concerned with the troubles (or lack thereof) that lay people might have while reading about Pegasus.

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  7. Interesting that you should specify ‘reading’ about Pegasus. Let me transcribe an aphorism that appears on the first page of Barthes’ ‘Pleasure of the Text’. “Imagine someone … who abolishes within himself all barriers, all classes, all exclusions … by simple discard of that old specter: logical contradiction; who mixes every language, even those said to be incompatible; who silently accepts every charge of illogicality, of incongruity; who remains passive in the face of Socratic irony… Such a man would be the mockery of our society: court, school, asylum, polite conversation would cast him out: who endures contradiction without shame? Now this anti-hero exists: he is the reader of the text at the moment he takes pleasure. Thus the Biblical myth is reversed, the confusion of tonguesis no longer a punishment, the subject gains access to bliss by the cohabitation of languages working side by side …”

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  8. “Pegasus does not exist, but the idea of Pegasus exists.”

    This approach, if I understand it correctly, seems to me to create more problems than it solves. So, the sentence ‘Pegasus exists’ would be meaningful if the name ‘Pegasus’ refers to the idea of Pegasus, but then it’s true that Pegasus exists, not false. But that’s not the right result, since we want to say that the sentence is false. Further, sentences like ‘Pegasus has wings’ come out as false on that approach, which is again seems to be the wrong result, since we want to say that it’s true.

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  9. No, ‘Pegasus exists’ is false. ‘Pegasus does not exist’ is true. ‘Pegasus has wings’ is neither true nor false. We understand it to really mean ‘Pegasus is the name of a mythological character supposed to have wings’. In normal speech sentences can be neither true not false, and often are understood as abbreviations for larger concepts. When we understand P to be mythological we also allow statements about him to be neither true nor false. We consciously suspend our loosely held strictures about veracity. Rules cannot be suspended in logic, but can be in real life — unless in juridical proceedings. It appears also that a sharp distinction is being made about existence/non-existence which is artificial unless one subscribes to a strict form of materialism. Surely there are degrees of reality, degrees to which a statement holds water? Do not logic and materialism seem to go hand in hand, as for instance in a figure like Russell?

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  10. Astrodreamer, I may have misunderstood you. When you said, ““Pegasus does not exist, but the idea of Pegasus exists”, I took you to be saying that the name ‘Pegasus’ refers to our idea of Pegasus. If that were so, then since the idea of Pegasus exists, the claim ‘Pegasus exists’ would be true, and its denial false. Further, since ideas cannot have wings, the claim ‘Pegasus has wings’ would be false. But it seems I misunderstood you.

    Still, I wonder about this claim:

    “We understand it to really mean ‘Pegasus is the name of a mythological character supposed to have wings’.”

    While this may be true in many, even most cases, it doesn’t seem right. For take cases of children talking about Santa Claus, or someone who mistakenly thinks that Pegasus is real. I take it that they can speak about Pegasus or Santa meaningfully, just as we can. But if that’s right, then it seems as if they do so without the implicit fictional operator you’re suggesting is there all along. Or, take someone who thinks that Barack Obama doesn’t exist — say, he’s a conspiracy theorist who thinks that the government is a set-up, and that aliens actually run the world. It seems as if he refers to Obama when he uses the name ‘Obama’ nonetheless (perhaps through some causal chain of use).

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  11. efd12015, we may be approaching a disagreement as to whether existence is or is not a predicate. I would consent to putting Pegasus in quotes as “Pegasus” : the former does not exist, the latter does. I think this inscribes the differentiation that we make to avoid contradiction. As for children who believe that Pegasus and Santa Claus exist, their statements to that effect are false, but I would not myself be quick to correct them. I don’t think I follow your Obama example. We’ve been talking about non-existent objects, not existing objects denied.

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