Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Le Verrier's Vulcan and Pierre Menard's Quixote

Phoenician Bill objects to my argument yesterday about singular concepts. Why do we need singular concepts? Why can’t we represent “Vulcan does not exist” as “The concept Small, intra-Mercurial planet whose existence explains the peculiarities of Mercury's orbit is not instantiated”, which involves a general, not a singular, concept?

I reply: see my post last year, also replying to some Phoenician quibble, and in particular the point about the Borgesque thought experiment*. Suppose I write an explicitly fictional story about a planet which I call ‘Vulcan’, unaware of the planet whose real existence was postulated by Verrier. And suppose that in my story Vulcan is a small, intra-Mercurial planet whose existence explains the peculiarities of Mercury's orbit. Then I am not talking about the Vulcan of LeVerrier. Reference to my Vulcan requires acquaintance with my text. Reference to LeVerrier’s Vulcan requires acquaintance with his writing, or writing about his writing which ‘borrows’ the Vulcan reference. As I said:
It is this specific connection to items of information, texts etc. that guarantees the acquisition of individual concepts by different people, and their successful use to make individuating reference. What guarantees that we are thinking about Julius Caesar is the right kind of relation to a certain set of texts – not a relation to any existing person, which is irrelevant. What guarantees that we are all thinking about Frodo is exactly the same kind of relation. The existence of the individual referred to, and even their causal relation to the text, is irrelevant.
This is very important.

*I did not mention it in the post, but I was alluding to Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, published in 1939.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

Bill's big mistake in that argument was calling "Small, intra-Mercurial planet whose existence explains the peculiarities of Mercury's orbit" a concept. One he gave you that, the rest of the descent into unreality was simple.

2:14 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>Bill's big mistake in that argument was calling "Small, intra-Mercurial planet whose existence explains the peculiarities of Mercury's orbit" a concept.

What is the problem with 'concept'? He means the concept corresponding to the expression in quote marks - it's a well understood convention, what's the problem?

6:11 am  
Blogger Anthony said...

>> What is the problem with 'concept'?

The word "planet" refers to a concept. The word "Mars" refers to an entity. That's why the latter is capitalized, and the former is not.

"Small, intra-Mercurial planet whose existence explains the peculiarities of Mercury's orbit is not instantiated" is a hypothetical entity. It is not a concept, as it is not an abstraction of anything.

8:13 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

(And yes, I know you don't agree with this. But Bill, if he wants to argue that there are no singular concepts, shouldn't have conceded that "Small, intra-Mercurial planet whose existence explains the peculiarities of Mercury's orbit" corresponds to any concept at all.

8:17 pm  

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