From 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.