Intentionality: Meinongianism and the Medievals

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  • CONSERVATIVE MEINONGIANISM

    T. Parent (Virginia Tech) parentt@vt.edu

    I have a certain tendency at this point to just throw up my hands. Perhaps one shouldnt try and give an analysis at all. But instead Ill try to say how, as far as I can guess, this kind of statement [with an empty name] got into our discourse. It does seem to me to be a genuine and unsolved problem, perhaps the worst in the area. Kripke (ms.), Lecture VI, p. 26. A frank recognition of the data, as inspection reveals them, precedes all theorizing; when a theory is propounded, the greatest skill is shown in the selections of facts favourable or unfavourable, and in eliciting all relevant consequencesThere is thus a rare combination of acute inference with capacity for observation Whatever may ultimately prove to be the value of Meinongs particular contentions, the value of his method is undoubtedly very great; and on this account if on no other, he deserves careful study. Russell (1904), pp. 22-3.

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    This paper defends Meinongs (1904) classic thesis there are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects, regarding fictitious and illusory objects.1 Some have wondered whether a thesis like Meinongs is even consistent (see Lycan 1979; 1994, Lewis 1990; van Inwagen 2003), but they allow that contradiction is avoided if there are is allowed different readings. And indeed, the view is not that there are unicorns in the same sense that there are people like you and I. Though the sense in which there are unicorns is not obvious, and this sense shall have central importance. 1. Overview

    As a rule, any Meinongian view is conservative in that it preserves the semantic intuition that speakers refer freely to non-existents. But a Meinongian also conserves other pre-theoretical beliefs. Douglas Lackey (1973) once expressed this particularly well in an introduction to some of Russells essays.

    In this [Russell-Meinong] controversy, Russell has usually appeared to be the apostle of common sense while Meinong has appeared a wild ontologizer hypostasizing entities at will. But Meinongs theory says Pegasus is a flying horse is true, while Russell says this assertion is false. The average man, if he knows his mythology, would probably agree with Meinong. (quoted in Kripke ms., LIII, p.1)

    The view developed here is also conservative in a third sense. Contra Meinong, nonexistents are not seen as mind-independent. (Thus, in defending Meinongs thesis I make no pretense to historical accuracy.) Instead, the view just admits the sense in which there are mind-dependent objects, fictitious and illusory objects being prime examples.2 Accordingly, the expansion in ones ontology is relatively conservative for a Meinongian.

    1 Equally, the view is that Everything is not always a correct answer to What is there?, pace Quine (1948). N.b., Meinongs nonexistents must be separated from his abstracta. (Here I intend to defend the former but not the latter.) His abstracta have a unique kind of being called subsistence; yet this is rejected by Noneist Meinongians like Routley (1988) and Priest (2005), who rather see abstracta as a type of nonexistent. My own view is closer to Meinongs; regardless, I wish to reserve the topic for another occasion. 2 Whether these are abstract or concrete is something I leave open.

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    Fourth, the view advertises a conservative ideology as well. The Meinongian quantifier is not taken as primitive; rather its range is defined as the set of mind-dependent entities. Also, the usual Meinongian talk of nuclear or encoded properties (as occurs in Mally 1912, Parsons 1980, Zalta 1983; 1988) shall be paraphrased away. Briefly, we will see that such talk is unnecessary, once we realize that property-instances of fictional/illusory objects are themselves fictional or illusory. A final conservative feature, though it is detachable from the view, is a kind of deflationist stance (to put it misleadingly3). As explained elsewhere (Parent MSa), this is a refusal to regard interpretations of terms (e.g., Hesperus denotes Hesperus, Hesperus denotes Venus, Hesperus denotes the morning star, etc.) as answering the most fundamental ontological questions. Rather, an interpretation is regarded as true in a more deflationary sense. This is the attitude I adopt in assigning a term a Meinongian object. None of the arguments below will require this attitude, but it is worth noting that such a deflated or perhaps instrumental Meinongianism is an option. The five conservativisms can suggest that Meinongs core thesis has been underestimated by philosophers, and my aim is to explain why it should be taken more seriously. Still, the discussion is silent on several matters that are crucial to Meinongian theory. For instance, the incomplete nature of fictional objects is not discussed (e.g., the indeterminacy in whether Santa has a mole on his left knee). Relatedly, there is no attempt to solve problems of individuation, made famous by Quines (1948) possible fat/bald man in the doorway. These topics are omitted not because they are unimportant, but because an author can only accomplish so much in a one paper.4 In the main, the paper instead builds to an objection to the most salient argument against Meinong, viz., the Argument from Parsimony. The Argument from Parsimony states that in countenancing non-existents, the Meinongian jettisons Occams Razor, the principle that one should not posit entities beyond what is necessary for empirical

    3 I prefer the label quietism, but deflationism is more familiar, and the differences are irrelevant here. 4 However, see Parsons op. cit. and Zalta op. cits. for an explication and defense of incomplete Meinongian objects. Also, see Priest (2005) for a Meinongian response to Quines possible bald/fat man.

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    adequacy. Parsimony is a familiar idea; it advises e.g., that if we can explain the workings of the universe without positing any deities, we should follow this more austere route. (Such advice may be contentious, but let us ignore that.) The complaint against Meinongianism, then, is that it rejects parsimony by subscribing to a bloated universe of non-existents, thereby offending the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes (Quine op. cit., p. 23). Accordingly, among philosophers the Parsimony Argument is seen as reflecting a more scientific attitude. But for starters, it is dubious whether scientists themselves apply parsimony principles so stringently.5 Physicists, for instance, posit a bloated universe of dark matter, and also take seriously the many worlds posited by Everett-mechanics. These hypotheses may be well motivated by the data; nonetheless, their advocates do not seem to yearn for the Quinean desert in quite the same way. Of special note here is the zerobrane, a brane posited by physicists as a zero-dimensional object. Since such an object occupies no region of spacetime, a zerobrane comes surprisingly close to being nonactual in the sense of Lewis (1986). However, this is merely intended to soften up the reader; I do not mean to accuse the Parsimony Argument of being unscientific. (Such a thing is hardly credible from a metaphysician.) Even so, a more effective case can be made against the Argument. The objection here is that the use of Occams Razor rests on an infirm assumption, namely: (EA) We can achieve empirical adequacy (or comparable

    empirical adequacy) without Meinongian objects. As we shall see, a Meinongian can cast meaningful doubt on (EA). Yet if such doubt exists, it is presumptive to use Occams Razor against Meinongian objects, since that would take (EA) for granted. In developing this line, Section I and II present linguistic data which an anti-Meinongian seems hard-pressed to explain. In Section III and IV, the Meinongian framework is presented, and it is shown how smoothly it accomodates the same data. The comparison between the two is what then creates non-idle doubt about (EA). Finally, Section V elaborates

    5 Maudlin (2009) raises a similar issue; check Occams Razor in the index.

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    why such doubt means that the Parsimony Argument is insufficient grounds to reject Meinongianism. Of course, doubt about (EA) is not enough to conclude Meinongianism eitherand indeed, there are more anti-Meinongian ways to accommodate the data than can be considered here. Thus, Kriegels (2003) adverbialism and Azzounis (2010; forthcoming) use theory are two important ideas that unfortunately must be bracketed. Also, Lewis (1968; 1973; 1986) possibilism is only discussed briefly (though it is confronted more thoroughly in Parent, MSb). Even so, the paper shows how the data challenges many prominent anti-Meinongian competitors, including descriptivism about empty names (Russell 1906, Searle 1958; 1983), negative free logic (Sainsbury 2005), Kripkes (1972) view, fictionalism (Rosen 1990, Sainsbury 2010), and pretense theory (Currie 1990; Walton 1990).6 But let me iterate that no individual datumnor the data collectivelyis meant as a knock-down argument against any competitor. Again, the goal is only to cast doubt on (EA), since that will be enough to undercut the force of the Parsimony Argument. Nevertheless, in the heat of an argument, it is easy to forget this relatively modest dialectical stance. So as a reminder, I shall often speak of the data as vexing* to Meinongs opponents. The * is meant to direct the reader to the fine printthat although anti-Meinongians have problems in accommodating the data, such problems may ultimately be resolvable. To come clean, however, some anti-Meinongian proposals shall be considered and rejected. Regardless, the vexing* terminology makes clear that other anti-Meinongian maneuvering may well remain possible.

    6 I should also note Thomassons (1999; 2003) artifactualism, as well as the abstractionist view found in, e.g., Wollerstoff (1980) and Salmon (1998). It may not be obvious, but it appears these views accept Meinongs thesis (and in the case of artifactualism, Thomasson conditionally agrees; see p. 15). They of course would depart from Meinong in other respects; still, they posit fictitious objects qua artifacts or abstracta, and then give Meinong-style explanations of the data. Surprisingly, Kripke (unpublished; 2011) might also be counted as a friend (though not Kripke 1972). For the view there seems to be artifactualist and/or abstractionist one, (yet he also holds a kind of pretense theory). Finally, I do not see myself as opposing van Inwagen (1977; 1983). For his existential quantifier (call it (Vx)) ranges over fictional objects. He vociferously rejects Meinongs quantifier (or rather, Meingongs explication of it), but (Vx) as a quantifier seems Meinongian enough as far as I am concerned. For it allows a reading of Meinongs thesis where it comes out trueroughly, where it reads as: (Vx)(x is fictional).

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    2. Negative Existentials.

    As is well known, one set of linguistic data that vexes* anti-Meinongians are true negative existentials such as:

    (d1) Pegasus does not exist.

    The problem here is often expressed along the following lines: A subject-predicate sentence is true only if the subject-term is meaningful, and a subject-term is meaningful only if it refers to something. But the subject-term in (d1) does not refer to anything. Thus Pegasus is not meaningful in (d1), and so (d1) itself is not meaningful. Therefore, (d1) is not even truth-apt, much less true. But apparently, (d1) is trueif you search the world high and low, you wont find Pegasus anywhere. This formulation of the problem seems unnecessarily contentious, however, since it is controversial whether a subject-term is meaningful only if it refers to some existing thing. Indeed, Pegasus would be precisely the sort of term which challenges this; it is apparently a meaningful term which refers to no existing thing. For that reason, I think it is better to characterize the problem in terms of reckoning with the following inconsistent triad. Where is a metavariable, and is a metavariable for proper names specifically,

    (1) If a sentence of the form ()

    is true in the actual world,

    then the open formula (/x)

    is satisfied by an actual object

    named by . (2) (d1) is a sentence of the form

    (Pegasus)

    and is true in the

    actual world.7 (3) The open formula

    ( Pegasus/x)

    is not satisfied by any

    actual object named by Pegasus.

    In this, there is no dubious condition on the meaningfulness; rather, the inconsistency just invokes the standard assumption that if the subject-

    7 Usually, exist is viewed as a quantifier, so that (d1) has the logical form ~(y) y = Pegasus. Yet the view that exist is a predicate has re-emerged with Azzouni (2004)

    and Fine (2009); so I leave open whether (x)

    is the negation of a quantified or unquantified formula.

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    term is a name, a sentence which is actually true requires an actual object to satisfy the open formula. But with negative existentials, that is apparently not the case. The Meinongian solution propounded here will distinguish two readings of actual as it occurs in (1)-(3).8 (More on this later.) A descriptivist, in contrast, rejects (2). For her, the logical form of (d1) does not include a proper name, but rather a definite descriptionso that (d1) is construed as something like The winged horse captured by Bellerophon does not exist.9 Understood in this way, the truth of (d1) then does not require the subject-term to denote an existing object. Rather, (d1) is actually true because no actual thing satisfies the description the winged horse captured by Bellerophon. Kripke (1972), however, put descriptivism largely on the defensive. Yet many philosophers still accept descriptivism for empty names and kind terms. The thought is that such terms cannot directly refer (since there is nothing to directly refer to), so their meaning must be fixed by a description. But in an important paper, Stuart Brock (2004) shows that Kripkes modal argument against descriptivism works just as wellnay, even betterin the case of empty names. Thus, suppose the descriptivist holds that Pegasus is equivalent to the winged horse captured by Bellerophon. Then the following are equivalent:

    (d2) Pegasus might have not been captured by Bellerophon.

    (4) Pegasus might not have been Pegasus. Yet whereas (d2) seems true, (4) is not. So apparently Pegasus is not semantically equivalent to the descriptor. Nevertheless, as Brock is aware, this may only show that the winged horse captured by Bellerophon is the wrong kind of descriptorit does not yet show that no descriptor is up to the task. In particular, one might

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