You can’t get a question more basic than: what is existence? Presumably existence isn’t a thing (an individual), so it must be a property of things. Surely indeed it must be a property of everything!
But we can’t experience a thing’s existence (over and above the properties it has). Could we be being misled by the subject-predicate form of the existential statement ‘the tulip exists’ into thinking it is logically identical to ‘the tulip is red’?
But surely we are right to think that ‘the tulip exists’ is true if the tulip exists, and false otherwise – i.e. that the sentence does have subject-predicate form?
If we do think this we get these problems:
- the predicate ‘exists’ is redundant – that the words ‘the tulip’ have meaning tell us that there is (i.e. there exists) a referent.
- if a name gets meaning because of its referent then it seems nonsensical to say, of the referent of a name, that it doesn’t exist.
But ‘Santa Claus doesn’t exist’ is surely true? If so it must have meaning.
There are two ways to escape our problem:
- non-existing things do exist;
- existential statements are not ordinary subject-predicate statements
Why, we might ask, can’t we allow two different senses of ‘exists’? So I exist, but Santa Claus merely is. Alexius Meinong (1853-1920) made such a claim, and it has also been made by contemporary philosophers such as Zalta.
This deals well with fictional objects, and it allows us to make sense of attributing truth-values to sentences such as ‘Santa Claus has a white beard’. It also explains how we can fear or want something that doesn’t exist (mental states are about something, even if their putative object does not, in fact, exist) and it allows us to talk of future and past beings.
So Meinong’s theory has explanatory force, and this is undoubtedly a reason for, as Meinong put it, overcoming our ‘prejudice for the actual’.
Problems for Non-Existent Things
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) insisted we should maintain a ‘robust sense of reality’. Meinong, Russell points out, insists that (a) every set of properties has being even if it doesn’t exist, and (b) existence is a property. Meinong is therefore committed to the existence of an object with the properties of being an existing golden mountain.
But no such mountain exists. Saying it has being does not save Meinong. If existence is a property, and there is an object for every set of properties, then he is committed not just to the being of a golden mountain but to its existence.
Quine also rejected Meinong’s theory because non-existent objects have no determinate conditions of identity. Is the (imaginary) fat man in the doorway, asked Quine, the same as the (imaginary) tall man in the doorway? How can this man/these men have any sort of being if there is no determinate answer to this question?
Non-existent objects are also ‘gappy’. Does Sherlock Holme have three buttons on his overcoat? Given Conan-Doyle says nothing about this, the question has no answer.
Finally William of Ockham (1285-1347) says that it is a virtue in a theory not to multiply entities unnecessarily: the ontological abundance of Meinong’s theory must be avoided.
But is there a theory simpler than Meinong’s that explains everything that his theory can explain?
Russell denies that existence is a property of individuals. Instead it is a property of other properties. Russell thereby assimilates singular existential statements to general existential statements which attribute existence only to properties.
Consider ‘cats exist’. This does not say, redundantly, of an individual cat, that it exists. Rather it says, of the property being a cat, that it is instantiated. ‘Dragons don’t exist’ does not say, paradoxically, of an individual dragon that it doesn’t exist. It states that the property of being a dragon is not instantiated.
But how can we assimilate singular existential statements to general ones?
Russell says we should understand ordinary proper names as disguised definite descriptions. Definite descriptions are claims to the effect that there is something that uniquely satisfies some set of properties.
On Russell’s story ‘Marianne’ has meaning not by referring to me, but in stating that there is something that uniquely satisfies the description ‘the DoS in Philosophy at OUDCE’. This denies that ‘Marianne exists’ is a subject-predicate statement and thereby avoids the problems listed above. Russell’s theory solves the problems generated by Meinong’s theory, but rejects non-existent objects.
Problems for Russell’s Theory of Descriptions
There are two problems for Russell’s theory:
- The Semantic Problem: if a sincere use of ‘Marianne’ means ‘the one and only Dos in philosophy at OUDCE’, then I cannot inform you that Marianne is the DoS in P at OUDCE.
- The Modal Problem: if ‘Marianne’ means ‘the one and only the DoS in P at OUDCE’, then how can it be true that I might not have got my job or that I might not have been called Marianne?
The price of accepting Russell’s Theory of Descriptions is a theory of ordinary proper names that makes some information redundant, and that prohibits us from tracking individuals across possible worlds.
So is existence a property of individuals? Or is it a property of properties? What do you think?