On reference to the non-existent

Everyone recognizes some predicates simply need to be said of certain subjects. These necessary predicates are easier to see when they become more general: we might not see the reason why all lions are placental mammals, but most of us are pretty certain that lions need to be mammals and we see no way that they couldn’t be animals. To clarify the precise elements in play it helps to consider the same sort of predications when said of a dead individual or extinct species. To say that Caesar is a man or the triceratops is a dinosaur is true in one sense but seems false in another, since it seems that subjects must exist to have properties. But we accept Wittgenstein’s claim, repeated and clarified by Geach, that a statement can be true if it has a referent, i.e. something that either exists or has existed. This is not an arbitrary stipulation but follows from the fact that causal powers sometimes exist separately from the subject in which they first existed, in the way that the texts of authors can continue to instruct, amuse, or infuriate us long after the authors themselves have died. So likewise, a referent in the Wittgenstein-Geach sense can continue to tell us what was true of some subject even after the subject ceases existing. We can use this teaching on referents to extend and clarify our sense that a thing must exist to have properties: just as Caesar is a referent that allows for true or false things to be said of him, so too we can only say true or false things about Pegasus or Don Quixote for the same reason. Fictional characters allow for true or false predicates so far as they are instruments devised by some principal agent, that is, the historical author or group of authors who are principal causes allowing for the fictional character to be an instrumental one.

1 Comment

  1. Mashsha'i said,

    September 26, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    the subject must exist – and it does so either in the mind or outside it. but i think that for a subset of our necessary judgments, existence in the mind can’t be the ground of their being true. cf., https://kimiyagard.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/ithbat-al-%CA%BBaql-al-mujarrad-part-ii/


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