Thursday, April 21, 2011

To have and to hold

Thanks to the link that Peter van Inwagen sent, I was able to look at his paper “Creatures of Fiction”* which has a much clearer explanation and justification of his thesis that fictional characters can be such and such without having the property of being such and such. Caution: the paper was written in 1977, 34 years ago, and I don’t know if van Inwagen still holds the views expressed there.

The distinction is motivated by the problem of sentences such as “Some fictional characters are witches”. Van Inwagen holds that such sentences are true, and because he is an anti-Meinongian (or rather, as I have argued, because he holds Brentano’s Thesis), he holds that it is equivalent to ‘Fictional characters that are witches exist’, and so implies ‘Witches exist’. But witches don’t exist. Inwagen gets round the difficulty by asserting that predication has different senses. “Witches don’t exist’ has the conventional sense, meaning that nothing has the property of being a witch.  But “Some fictional characters are witches” has a non-standard sense, and does not imply that anything does have the property of being a witch, and so is consistent with "witches don’t exist".

He justifies this by an argument from analogy. His example is a Cartesian who holds that people are immaterial substances. Hence Jake, who is a person, is an immaterial substance. But the sentence “Jake is 6 feet tall” can’t be literally true, for an immaterial substance is unextended, and can’t be 6 feet tall. The Cartesian can get round this by claiming that in ordinary speech we often say "is" when strictly speaking we should say "animates a body that is": the predicate ‘is F’, when predicated of a person, really and strictly means "animates a body that is F". Thus what looks like predication in ordinary speech is not always predication. And so “Alexandra Medford is a witch”, said of the witch played by Cher in The Witches of Eastwick, does not imply that anyone has the property of being a witch. Thus (as I interpret Inwagen) there is no inconsistency between his view that Alexandra Medford exists, but that witches do not, for the following syllogism is invalid:

No one is a witch
Alexandra Medford is a witch
No one is Alexandra Medford

It is invalid because ‘is’ is equivocal in the major and the minor. In the major, it means ‘nothing has the property of being a witch’. In the minor, it is not the ‘is’ of predication, and thus is not equivalent to “Alexandra Medford has the property of being a witch”. Fallacy of equivocation. Thus we can consistently claim that Alexandra Medford exists, i.e. that someone is Alexandra Medford, that she is a witch, although she does not have the property of being a witch, and that no one has the property of being a witch.

My only reply to this (although I am sure there will be more to say), is to invoke Ockham’s other razor, which I discussed some time ago. To one who claims that the verb 'to be' is ambiguous in certain arguments, he objects that this is completely irrational, he says "for it amounts to destroying every argument form. For whenever it pleases me, I will say that 'to be' is equivocal in the premisses, and I will ascribe at will a fallacy of equivocation to every syllogism".

* American Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 14, Number 4, October 1977


David Brightly said...

Perhaps Ockham should be encouraged to hand in his second shiv under an edged weapon amnesty. For he wields it rather indiscriminately. When someone claims that 'to be' is ambiguous in some arguments he reacts that it destroys every argument. Surely the claim is that the ambiguity infects only those literary arguments involving statements that are best rendered using PVI's 'ascription' relation, typically those whose grammatical subjects are, on some analyses, non-referring proper names? This is work for a scalpel, not a razor.

Edward Ockham said...

I read through Creatures of Fiction carefully and I agree there is more to say about PVI's theory.

At the same time, I am not sure how far it reflects his mature view (it was written more than 30 years ago). He told me that his most comprehensive paper on fictional entities is in "Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities.", but that is unfortunately not available on that site.

David Brightly said...

Amazon lets you 'look inside' The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics and reveals about two thirds of EOCFE. It's enough, I think, to see that PVI's view has not changed since 1977, except that he now describes his stipulation that 'ascription' is closed under entailment as 'unwise'.

Edward Ockham said...

There's something clearly wrong with a philosopher who hasn't changed their view since 1977.

Edward Ockham said...

But I like the idea of a metaphysics 'handbook'. Rather like those scouting handbooks I (possibly you too) had as children, with weights and measures and useful facts about the universe and how to tie a bowline.

If the metaphysics handbook were small enough to carry around you could whip it out when caught in a taproom dispute with Randians, Creation Scientists or any other odd POV and quote them chapter and verse on various metaphysical facts. I shall enquire about purchasing one but (like all academic books) a bit steep at over £30.