Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The strange case of the missing non-existent objects

Let me tell you—briefly—about strange case from the history of philosophy.

Alexius Meinong (1853-1920) was an Austrian psychologist and systematic philosopher working in Graz around the turn of the 20th century. Part of his work was to put forward a sophisticated analysis of the content of thought. A notable aspect of this was as follows. If you are thinking of the Taj Mahal, you are thinking of something, and that something exists. Similarly, if you are thinking of Father Christmas, you are thinking of something—but that something does not exist. (Sorry.) Similarly, you can fear something, worship something, admire something; and that something may or may not exist. A very commonsense view, you might think—and so it is.

It was a view shared by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) in 1903; but in 1905 something interesting happened. Russell proposed a theory (known now as his theory of definite descriptions), according to which names like “Father Christmas” were shorthand for descriptions, such as “the old man who comes down the chimney at Christmas bringing presents”. And to say that Father Christmas does not exist, is not to attribute non-existence to a non-existent (obviously) object; it is just to say that nothing (or, to be precise, no unique thing) satisfies that description. Russell, then, came to reject Meinong’s view. It wasn’t so much that Russell’s theory did a good job of handling examples such as the above: when you apply Russell’s theory to claims such as “I am thinking of Father Christmas”, it patently gives the wrong result. Rather, said Russell, Meinong’s view offended against a “robust sense of reality”.

Alexius von Meinong. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Alexius von Meinong. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Russell’s influence on the 20th century logic and the philosophy of language was, of course, substantial, and his view about Meinong persuaded many. In 1948 the American logician Willard van Orman Quine (1908-2000) wrote a paper entitled “On What There Is”, in which he caricatured Meinong as the fictional character McX—not that there is any evidence to suggest that Quine had actually read Meinong. But the paper sealed Meinong’s fate. As Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) put it in 1973, Meinong’s theory is “dead and buried, and not going to be resurrected”.

The victors, as the saying goes, get to write the history. Meinongianism became a term of abuse. He was a fruitcake, a momentary aberration in the history of Western philosophy, which was soon righted by Russell and Quine. The history, I note, is completely wrong: most of the great medieval logicians, like Jean Buridan and Paul of Venice, invoked non-existent objects in contexts of the kind in which Meinong was interested—not to mention Aristotle himself. Still, most contemporary logicians don’t know much about the history of logic. And for better or worse, the view about Meinong became unquestioned orthodoxy. It was certainly the view that I myself held when I was a young philosopher in the early 1970s.

Now to the strange thing. In the last 30 years, Meinong’s view has been making a comeback. Several philosophers have been involved in this, but the most important for me was the late Australasian philosopher, Richard Routley (or Sylvan, as he became). It was arguing with Richard for many years that persuaded me that the arguments against Meinong’s view were poor, and that it had a simplicity and common sense, in contrast to which other views limp. So I changed my mind, and became a Meinongian—or noneist, as Richard called it.

Why has this change taken place? A hard question. Undoubtedly many factors are involved. Certainly, one important one is that the arguments against noneism are, indeed, bad. Another is that Russell’s theory of descriptions, as applied to names, is now itself history, despatched by Saul Kripke’s onslaught in the 1970s.

Russell in 1938. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Russell in 1938. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But there is, I think, more to the matter than this. Philosophers (myself included) like to pride themselves as rational—driven simply by the force of reason and argument. But fashion plays more of a role in the discipline than we might like to admit. Often, old philosophical views are not refuted; people simply get bored with them, and want to strike out in new directions. Conversely, a discarded view can make a comeback, because these new directions are more congenial to the view—and it cannot be denied that developments in modern logic have helped the Meinong-revival.

Then there is power and prestige. The English-speaking philosophers I have mentioned were all in centres of academic power: Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford. Their students themselves often came to hold positions of influence in English-speaking universities, and carried the doctrines of their mentors with them. But then there is generation-change. Just as young people want to assert their independence from their parents by rejecting their views, so a new generation of philosophers want to stamp its authority on the subject, and you can’t do that simply by reproducing the past.

Anyway, whether the explanations I proffer are right or wrong, noneism is certainly making a comeback—and the advances in the techniques of formal logic are making it possible to articulate and investigate the view with a sophistication unavailable to Meinong himself. My own preference is to employ semantics using possible and impossible worlds.

It must be said, in fairness, however, that anti-noneism is still the orthodox view amongst English-speaking philosophers. But, in my view, what we are witnessing is something of a sea-change on the matter. And when it has taken place, it will not be Meinong’s views which appear to be a momentary aberration in the history of Western philosophy, but those of Russell and Quine.

Featured image: House by vargazs. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen

    This article contains a very depressing statement: “most contemporary logicians don’t know much about the history of logic”.

    Those who do not know history are doomed to repeating that course until they pass; or something. This sounds like yet another case where we have arrogantly assumed that a particular way of viewing a problem is ‘out of date’; or irrelevant to the ‘modern world’; or simply wrong!

    Unfortunately, we do not know enough to be able to be ‘right’ with sufficient regularity to be able to judge our own stories about our thoughts, our selves and our universe. Most scientific fields deal with this by describing their means of describing how ‘stuff’ works as theories – but even then, we forget it all too often, while others hijack the word to say “you’re just making guesses” as if a theory that has withstood rigorous examination is the same as one that I floated for the first time this morning, to account for why my left buttock seemed less itchy than the right.

    Discarding well-considered ideas simply because of ‘fashion’ is risky in any pursuit where A + B does not necessarily equal C. (And no, in this example I am NOT referring to the speed of light in a vacuum.)

    “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes” – as Mark Twain appears not to have said.

  2. Kay

    With a psychology background I tend to think that philosophy itself is concerned MOSTLY with non-existent things. However, giving those things a quasi-existence as thought-objects and as part of the semantics of a particular language, allows them to be treated as existing, material objects. I have no idea how Chinese or Khoi people think or talk about such things either. How would they argue for or against the logic of them within their own systems of meaning?

  3. Dr. Edward Freeman

    Both comments are the non sequitur in the extreme. The first one is completely missing the point that loading the quantifiers of first-order predicate calculus with existential import has historically obscured the nature of the ontological inquiry. Most analytical philosophers indeed do not know the history of logic (of ontology). As for the second comment, it does not deserve an answer above what has been said about it.

Comments are closed.