Existence, Ontological Commitment and Fictional Entities
Van Inwagen (Peter)
Source: M. J. Loux and D.W. Zimmerman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics (OUP, 2003)
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction1

  1. Meinong has famously (or notoriously) said, “There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects.” What could have led him to make such an extraordinary statement? He was, or so he saw matters, driven to say that there were objects of which it was true that there were no such objects by data for which only the truth of this extraordinary statement could account. These data were of two sorts: linguistic and psychological. The linguistic data consisted of sentences like the following and what seemed to be obvious facts about them:
      The Cheshire Cat spoke to Alice
      The round square is an impossible object
      Pegasus was the winged horse captured by Bellerophon.
  2. The obvious facts were these: first, each of these sentences is or expresses a truth; secondly, the result of writing ‘There is no such thing as’ and then the subject of any of these sentences is, or expresses, a truth. (I so use ‘subject’ that the subject of ‘the Taj Mahal is white’ is ‘the Taj Mahal’ and not the Taj Mahal. I use ‘there is no such thing as’ to mean ‘there is no such thing as, and there never was or will be any such thing as’.) Thus, for example, it is true that the Cheshire Cat spoke to Alice, and it is also true that there is no such thing as the Cheshire Cat. We have, therefore, the following general truth:
      There are true subject-predicate sentences (i.e. subject-predicate sentences that express truths when uttered in appropriate contexts) such that the result of writing ‘there is no such thing as’ and following this phrase with the subject of any of these sentences is true.
  3. These are the linguistic data. Reflection on these data suggests the following question. The proposition expressed by the offset sentence, the proposition that summarizes the linguistic data, is a semantical generalization, a proposition that asserts that there are linguistic items of a certain description (‘sentence’) that possess a certain semantical property (truth) – How can we express this same generalization in the “material mode”? How can we state it as a thesis not about the semantical properties of linguistic items but about the things those linguistic items purport to refer to? Well, strictly speaking, we can’t do this: ‘Rome is populous’ and ‘“Rome is populous” is true’ are not, strictly speaking, two ways of expressing the same proposition. Perhaps we should instead ask this: how can we express in a single sentence the general fact that is expressed collectively by the “whole” infinite class of sentences of which the sentences
      The Cheshire Cat spoke to Alice and there is no such thing as the Cheshire Cat
      The round square is an impossible object and there is no such thing as the round square
      Pegasus was the winged horse captured by Bellerophon and there is no such thing as Pegasus
    are three representatives? (This “single sentence” would not be a semantical sentence, for sentences of the type illustrated by our three examples are not semantical sentences; they do not ascribe semantical properties like truth or reference to linguistic items.) The sentence ‘There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects’ represents an attempt at an answer to this question, but Meinong obviously recognizes that there is something unsatisfactory about this attempt, since he does not baldly say that there are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects; rather, he says, “Those who were fond of a paradoxical mode of expression could very well say, ‘There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects.’” Um...yes – but suppose one was not one of those who were fond of a paradoxical mode of expression; what non-paradoxical mode of expression would one use in its place?
  4. One obvious suggestion is: ‘There are objects that do not exist’. But Meinong would object to this suggestion on grounds that are related to a peculiarity of his metaphysical terminology, for he holds that things that are not in space and time – the ideal figures the geometer studies, for example – do not “exist” (existieren) but rather “subsist” (bestehen), another thing entirely, or almost entirely, for subsistence is, like existence, a species of being. And this terminological red herring (in my view it is a terminological red herring) confuses matters. We had better leave the word ‘exists’ alone for the moment. But if we do not allow ourselves the use of the word ‘exists’, our question is unanswered: what shall we use in place of ‘There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects’? Perhaps we should turn to the question, what, exactly, is wrong with this sentence? What grounds did I have for calling it an “extraordinary” sentence; why did Meinong suggest that this sentence was paradoxical? The answer to this question seems to me to be simple enough: there could not possibly be objects of which it was true that there were no such objects: if there were an object of which it was true that there was no such object (as it), that object would be; and if it were (if I may so phrase my point), it would not be true of it that there was no such object as it. This point is inescapable – unless, of course, ‘there are’ has (and ‘es gibt’ has and ‘il y a’ has) more than one sense. For suppose ‘there are’ has two senses; let the phrase itself represent one of these two senses, and let the same phrase in boldface represent the other: there will be no contradiction in saying that there are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects. Or, at any rate, no contradiction that can be displayed by the simple argument I have just set out.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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