Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The meaning of Meinong

Bill Vallicella has an interesting defence of Meinong here. The statement

(1) There are items that have no being

is clearly self-contradictory. This is the reading attributed to Meinong by analytic philosophers (boo!) reading Meinong. But perhaps Meining meant this

(2) Some items have no being.

which (Bill argues) is not self-contradictory.

This argument entirely depends on the meaning of the word ‘being’. Bill’s claim that (1) is self-contradictory suggests he is reading it as expressing what ‘there are’ expresses. I.e. he would regard ‘there are blue buttercups’ as semantically equivalent to ‘blue buttercups have being’. Call this the ‘being/there are’ equivalence thesis. By contrast, his claim that (2) is not self-contradictory suggests he is reading ‘some’ statements as not expressing being. I.e. he would regard ‘some buttercups are blue’ as different both from ‘blue buttercups have being’ and ‘there are blue buttercups’. Call this the ‘some/there are’ non-equivalence thesis.

But what if I say

(3) There are no items that do not have being ?

Am I contradicting one who claims that some items have no being? Apparently not, for if according to Bill we are to read statements beginning ‘there are’ as expressive of ‘being’, then (3) does not deny (2) at all, indeed is perfectly consistent with it. I show this as follows. The statement

(4) ‘There are no X’s that are Y’ is equivalent to ‘any X that is Y does not have being’

follows from Bill's ‘being/there are’ equivalence implied above. I then substitute (4) into (3) to give

(5) Any item that does not have being, does not have being

Thus the statement that there are no items that fail to have being is apparently consistent with the statement that some items fail to have being. But that hardly seems correct. The natural reading of (3) is as the denial of (2), and hence its contradictoru. If one is true, the other is false.

Bill’s error (as I see it) is in denying the equivalence of ‘some’ and ‘there are’ statement. Is there really any logical difference between ‘there are blue buttercups’ and ‘some buttercups are blue’? Or between ‘there is a bridge crossing the river between Barnes and Hammersmith’ and ‘a bridge crosses the river between Barnes and Hammersmith’? I doubt it. But if we uphold ‘some/there are’ equivalence, and we uphold the ‘being/there are’ equivalence, we are led into contradiction again: if (1) is self-contradictory, (2) is.

Alternatively we could deny the ‘being/there are’ equivalence. But then we have the difficulty of what ‘being’ statements mean. We have no difficulty understanding ‘there are’ statements. You know what I mean when I say ‘there is a bridge crossing the river between Barnes and Hammersmith’. If you are stuck in Barnes and want to get to Chiswick via Hammersmith, it is very helpful to learn that statement is true, and you can act upon it accordingly. But ‘a bridge crossing the river between Barnes and Hammersmith has being’ is obscure, and not one a motorist can readily deal with. He either interprets it as meaning *there is* a bridge crossing the river. But that is no different from ‘some bridge crosses the river’ or ‘at least one bridge crosses the river’, and it follows a simili that (2) is self-contradictory. Or he regards it as altogether mysterious, and it follows that Meinong’s claim is mysterious and obscure. That is the dilemma.


uzza said...

This may be off topic, and if so I apologize, but we've been arguing over a similar thing. This syllogism of mine;

no gods exist
the universe is god
so, the universe doesn't exist

My debaters say you cannot make a syllogism that has contradictory premises. Who's right?

Edward Ockham said...

Greeting, Uzza.

In traditional logic, a singular proposition like 'Socrates walks' 'God is good' or in your example 'the universe is [a] god' is interpreted as a universal proposition. Thus

no god exists
every universe is a god
:. no universe exists

This is a syllogism in the first figure, 'Celarent', and is perfectly valid, so long as we interpret 'exists' as a predicate.

However, whether 'exists' is a predicate in Aristotelian is a good question.

In modern logic the syllogism above is valid

not for some x, god(x)
forall x, universe(x) implies god(x)
:. not for some x, universe(x)

However, the problem in modern logic is whether the definite description 'the universe' should be interpreted as a universal proposition (or something on the lines of Russell's theory of descriptions) or whether it is a singular term like 'Socrates'. If a singular term, then there is a problem because the conclusion would have to be expressed as

not for some x, x = u

which is contradictory.

uzza said...

Thank you for this awesomely good response. It confirms my ill-informed opinion, too. I defined 'the universe' as a set with only one member, so I used the universal quantifier. Also 'no gods' is the set of all gods, whatever that means, so the universe, Gaia, or whatever, is a member of that set, and it takes a universal quantifier. I wrote it as

no G is E
all U is G
no U is E

My detractors keep saying "the universe can't be god, because god doesn't exist"; they seem to be assuming existential import where I am not. Does that sound right?

uzza said...

Thank you.

Edward Ockham said...

And thank you. A further note - be careful about defining the universe as a set with only one member. 'The set containing only the universe' refers to the set containing the universe. But 'the universe' refers to the single element contained in that set.