Whose Existence? A Deflationist Compromise to the Fregean/Neo-Meinongian Divide

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The dispute between the Fregean and the Neo-Meinongian approach to existence has become entrenched: it seems that nothing but intuitions may be relied upon to decide the issue. And since contemporary analytic philosophers clearly are inclined towards
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     Argumenta  2, 1 (2016): 5-24 © 2016 University of Sassari ISSN 2465-2334  Whose Existence?  A Deflationist Compromise to the Fregean/Neo-Meinongian   Divide   Giuliano Bacigalupo University of Geneva  Abstract The dispute between the Fregean and the Neo-Meinongian approach to existence has become entrenched: it seems that nothing but intuitions may be relied upon to decide the issue. And since contemporary analytic philosophers clearly are in-clined towards the intuitions that support Frege’s approach, it looks as if Fre-geanism has won the day. In this paper, however, I try to develop a compromise solution. This compromise consists in abandoning the assumption shared by both Fregeanism and Neo-Meinongianism, namely that the notion of existence adds something to the content of a statement. To the contrary, we should think of ex-istence as a redundant notion. In other words, I will argue that we should be de-flationist about existence. Moreover, the kind of deflationism I propose relies on what I call the existence equivalence schema, a schema which follows the blue-print of the well-known truth equivalence schema. From such a perspective, we can say that Fregean philosophers rightly deny the status of a discriminating property to existence; and, conversely, Neo-Meinongians, too, rightly reject the view that existence is captured by quantification or expresses a universal property of objects. Finally, the argument that we should take a deflationist approach to existence builds upon an analysis of natural language (general) existential state-ments and their intuitive entailment-relations.  Keywords  : Existence, Frege, Meinong, Deflationism 1. Introduction There are few problems in philosophy on the solution of which there seems to  be an overwhelming consensus. One of these exceptions is the interpretation of the notion of existence: 1  within contemporary (one should perhaps add analytic) 1  In their statistical survey about what philosophers believe, Bourget & Chalmers (2014) draw attention to other, sometimes surprising, exceptions. Regrettably, however, they have not included in their survey the problem of existence. But they do record a consen-  Giuliano Bacigalupo 6 philosophy, almost everyone seems to follow Frege’s approach. Existence, ac-cording to this view, is essentially captured by particular, so called ‘existential’ quantification. Or, in other words, existence expresses the second-order property of a concept, namely that it has at least one instance. Or, again in different words, existence expresses a universal property, co-extensive with the property of being self-identical. 2  As Quine remarked, the appropriate answer to the ques-tion as to what exists should be adamant: everything. This does not mean that there is no alternative to the Fregean approach: the consensus is overwhelming but not universal. What I have in mind is the infa-mous Meinongian or, more precisely, Neo-Meinongian view of existence. Ac-cording to authors who follow this heterodox tradition, such as Routley (1980), Parsons (1980), and Jacquette (1996), existence should be deemed an almost or-dinary property of objects: the set of objects may be divided in two classes, those that exist and those that do not. 3  The problem with both approaches is that neither has an argument to back up its crucial presupposition. To wit, they have no argument to explain why ‘something is such and such’ should be equivalent to ‘there is something such and such’ as Fregean philosophers maintain (see McGinn 2001: 21, Mendelsohn 2005: 113); 4  Or why statements of the form ‘such and such a thing exists’ should  be considered on a par with statements of the form ‘such and such a thing is red’, as Neo-Meinongians claim (van Inwagen 2008: 58). Moreover, neither Fregean nor Neo-Meinongian philosophers have an argument to refute the op-posite approach. For a while, it was believed that Fregean philosophers had the upper hand since Russell (1905) and Quine (1948) presented compelling argu-ments against the discriminating property-view of existence. But Neo-Meinongian philosophers (first of all, Routley 1980 and Parsons 1980) were able to counter-strike, so that we are back to square one. Thus, it seems that the only way we have to take a stance on this issue is by relying on our intuitions—or, at least, some philosophers involved in the debate saw themselves forced to draw this conclusion (see Lewis 1990: 27-28; Perszyk 1993: 178; van Inwagen 2008: 54). 5  And since there is a consistent majority of philosophers whose intuitions speak in favor of the Fregean approach, this account should be the preferred sus with respect to the truth of classical logic, which, arguably, embeds a given view of existence, i.e. Frege’s. 2  One may want to draw lines between these formulations, so that they are not equiva-lent. For instance, one may want to stress how the second, but not the first and third one, commits us to the existence of concepts (see Branquinho 2012). In the present context, I put such considerations aside. 3  For the sake of simplicity, I am focusing on the kind of Neo-Meinongianism that relies on a distinction between nuclear and extra-nuclear properties (i.e., the one defended by Routley, Parsons and Jacquette). The line of reasoning of this paper, however, may also  be easily applied to other approaches that interpret existence as a discriminating property of objects, such as Zalta (1988) and Priest (2005). 4  Throughout the paper, I am assuming that the expression ‘there is’ is existentially load-ed. This is, for instance, rejected by Parsons (1980). To him, the unwarranted presupposi-tion of Fregeanism should be formulated as follows: statements of the form ‘there is something such and such’ are equivalent to statements of the form ‘there is something such and such which exists’. 5  To say that the rival theory is unintelligible, as Lycan (1979: 290) and Horgan (2007: 620) consider it to be the case with Neo-Meinongianism (see Priest 2008a), may also be seen as pointing towards an irreducible clash of intuitions.  Whose Existence? 7 one. But there is no need to point out how this is a very unsatisfactory way of settling a philosophical dispute. In what follows, I will attempt to break this stalemate. More precisely, I will try to argue for a compromise solution, or at least something that may be seen as a compromise: the notion of existence is neither a universal property nor a discriminating property of objects. The reason for this is that we should be de-flationist about existence and abandon the assumption that we may find out something like the nature of existence. To be more precise, what I am going to argue for is a version of deflationism which relies on what I label the existence equivalence schema  and its negative counterpart, the non-existence equivalence sche-ma . As with the deflationary approach to truth (and falsity), whose blueprint I am following, the equivalence schemata provide us with everything we can and should say about existence. The structure of the paper is as follows. First, I develop an argument that relies upon an analysis of quantified, i.e., general statements to support the de-flationist approach to existence. Second, I show how the same analysis may be applied to different sets of statements, and, most crucially, to a set of statements which involve modal notions. Third, I address the challenge raised by intention-al statements about indeterminate objects—a challenge which is notably exploit-ed by Neo-Meinongians in order to further their stance. Finally, I underline the difference between the version of deflationism defended in the present paper and the one recently advocated by Thomasson (2014). As the reader will have noticed, what is conspicuously missing from the pic-ture are singular statements, i.e., statements which are allegedly about definite ob- jects. The reason is that the author of this paper is an acolyte of a different heresy than the Neo-Meinongian one, namely descriptivism: I do not believe that there are such things as genuine singular statements; these are just hidden quantified statements. 6  If you like, you may thus think of this paper as proving—if any-thing—something about the notion of general existence. For any alleged notion of singular existence, a different account would have to be provided. 2. A Raw Intuition Let me start with a terminological remark. Throughout this paper, by ‘existen-tial statement’ I am referring to a statement in which the verb ‘to exist’ is em- bedded. Hence, my characterization is a strictly linguistic one. This I take to be the most suitable definition of existential statements since every statement which does not wear, so to speak, its existential character on its sleeve may be cast as a statement with the verb ‘to exist’. For instance, a statement such as ‘an existing dog is on the street’ is meaning-equivalent with the statement ‘a dog on the street exists’. Or the statement ‘there are some dogs’, where existence seems to  be expressed by the expression ‘there are’, is also meaning-equivalent to the statement ‘some dogs exist’. Finally, the same applies to statements in which the noun ‘existence’ is embedded: the statement ‘the existence of dogs is uncontro-versial’ may be rephrased as ‘it is uncontroversial that dogs exist’. Notice, more-over, that I am consciously leaving statements with a particular quantification out of this list: I am refraining from saying that ‘something is x’ is meaning-equivalent to ‘there are xs’ or ‘some xs exist’. Indeed, this is what Fregeanism 6  For a recent defense of descriptivism, see Orilia (2010).  Giuliano Bacigalupo 8 and Neo-Meinongianism are arguing about, so that we cannot and should not take it for granted. The other equivalences, on the other hand, I take to be theo-retically neutral. Now, even before getting started on any philosophical lucubration about existential statements, I assume we would all agree that there is something pecu-liar about existential statements. And, in fact, there have been many attempts at rationalizing this difference well before Frege and Meinong or the Neo-Meinongian philosophers. To give just a few illustrious names, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Franz Brentano have all tried to develop a philosophical theory which accounts for this peculiarity. The question with which I would like to start is thus the following: how can we give more substance to this shared in-tuition about the peculiarity of existential statements without bringing into play a given philosophical theory about them? Can we really do nothing better than say that this is our intuition? In other words, what I am looking for is some pre-theoretical intuition about the difference in the behavior of existential statements and non-existential ones, which may be the reason for our shared intuition about the peculiarity of the former—or, if not the   reason, at least a  reason. First, let us consider the two following existential statements: (1) Something red does not exist. (2) It is not the case that something red exists. It seems to me that there is a very strong connection between these two state-ments: if one of them is true, the same holds for the other, and conversely, if one of them is false, so is the other. At least  prima facie  , (1) and (2) mutually imply one another. Or, in more technical terms, the internal negation seems to be in-terchangeable with the external one. Let me provide a few more standard exam-ples to substantiate this claim. To say that something which is golden and a mountain does not exist (shorter: a golden mountain does not exist) is equiva-lent to saying that it is not the case that a golden mountain exists. To say that something which is round and square does not exist (shorter: a round square does not exist) is equivalent to saying that it is not the case that a round square exists (and so on and so forth). Someone may challenge the reading just advanced since it seems easy to point to a situation in which both (1) is true and (2) false. As it happens, the ac-tual state of things seems to be just the right one to accomplish this feat. We would all agree that, on the one hand, red dragons do not exist and, on the other hand, some red things, such as for instance traffic lights, do. Thus, why not as-sume that (1) is true because red dragons do not exist, while (2) is false because a red traffic light exists? However, I take this to be a misconstrual of (1). If some-one were talking about red dragons, he would have to make it explicit. Thus, he should not say ‘something red does not exist’ but rather ‘something which is a red dragon does not exist’. But this would be a very different claim than affirm-ing (1). The same point may be clarified in the following way. While having coffee with a friend of mine, we stumble upon the topic of redness, upon which I claim ‘something red does not exist!’ My friend then objects to my claim by pointing to the traffic light in front of the coffee shop. But then I go on to say that, of course, red traffic lights exist, but red dragons do not—which should be enough to make my claim warranted. What would my friend’s reaction to this explana-tion be? I suppose he would give me an incredulous stare and say something  Whose Existence? 9 along the following lines: ‘OK, what you really meant was that a red dragon does not exist. Yet this is a rather irrelevant remark to the topic of redness which we were just starting to discuss’. Let us now turn to a very similar pair of sentences which, however, are not existential: (3) Something red is not round. (4) It is not the case that something red is round. I gladly concede that this second pair, as probably the first, too, may sound awkward. Below, I provide a possible coffee shop scenario in which they may be uttered. Now, the difference between this second couple of statements and the first one is striking. Notwithstanding the very similar structure, we have lost the mutual—and for that matter any kind of—implication: the truth of (3) is com-patible with both the truth and the falsity of (4). Conversely, the truth of (4) is compatible with both the truth and the falsity of (3). For it could always be the case that nothing is red. In other words, internal and external negations are no longer interchangeable. True, someone may be tempted to interpret (3) as a hidden hypothetical, namely as really meaning that if something is red then it is not round. It may then be argued that such a hypothetical would indeed imply (4). Please set this interpretation aside: (3) should be read literally. An example of a literal reading of (3) and (4) is the following. I am still sitting in the same coffee shop as before and my friend points out that something red is round, namely the red traffic light. Without having any intention to contradict him, but just for the sake of conversation, I then say that it is also true that something red is not round, namely the red sports-car parked in the second row. This is the pre-theoretical linguistic intuition about the peculiarity of existential statements with which I wish to start my discussion. I would like to stress that I am very well aware that not everyone would share this intuition. This is especially the case with philosophers, whose intui-tions about existential statements have already been thwarted in one direction or another by their own theory about existence. Moreover, philosophers may stress that it is only on the background of a theory about existence that we may test the mutual implication of (1) and (2). For these reasons, I am labeling the intui-tion in question as the    raw intuition . Now, I assume that even those who reject the raw intuition or have qualms about it should be interested in why one may   have such an intuition. Thus, I will ask them to indulge me for a little while. I will come back to their worries at the end of section 2.3.  2.1. Fregeanism Having introduced you to the raw intuition, I would like to explore how a Fre-gean and a Neo-Meinongian philosopher might make sense of it. This, moreo-ver, will provide us with the opportunity to rehearse some theses and arguments of these two arch-enemies. Let us start with Fregeanism. According to this approach, we should go Procrustean and amputate (1) from our language. As classical logic (the formal arm of Fregeanism) teaches us, there is only room for a universal predicate of existence in our formal language, which may be defined by means of quantifica-tion and identity (Hintikka 1966): !"#$% & '()  *+#+ & $%  
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