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Can one meaningfully say that Zeus does not exist?


To: Cynthia G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can one meaningfully say that Zeus does not exist?
Date: 10th June 2009 10:38

Dear Cynthia,

Thank you for your email of 4 June, and your essay which I received by post on 5 June, in response to the University of London Logic question, 'Can one meaningfully say that Zeus does not exist? Justify your answer.'

You expressed concern that the essay is only around 1000 words. This is about the length that you would be able to write in an actual exam.

However, apart from practice essays for the examination, I would like you to try to write at greater length -- 2000-2500 words is the target to aim for -- because this will stretch you. It is evident here that although you have considered the three main lines of inquiry ('No object, no thought', different ways of 'existing', theory of descriptions) there is not a lot of evidence that you have done any research beyond reading introductory surveys of this topic.

I will not attempt to write the essay for you. However, there are points to make under each heading.

Mill is often criticized for his view of proper names on the grounds that he fails to tackle the question of the 'route to reference', by contrast, e.g. with the 'causal theory of names' proposed by (the earlier) Gareth Evans or Saul Kripke's 'chain of communication' theory (in 'Naming and Necessity'). This is somewhat unfair, in that Mill wasn't really concerned with this question. He is simply pointing to the obvious fact that names do not depend on any stated descriptive content. They are labels pinned on things (the criticism is that he fails to explain how this takes place).

On Kripke's view, the claim is that when we are dealing with 'rigid designators' (roughly the equivalent of a Russellian 'proper name') then the absence of renders the statement meaningless. There is no thought expressed. This may seem counterintuitive in the case of Zeus, but all that shows is that 'Zeus' is not normally intended to be used as a rigid designator.

However, consider the scenario, say, where you have (think you have) beliefs about Herbert, your friend who always has tea with you after work. 'Herbert' is in fact a figment of your imagination, an on-going hallucination. Something very fundamental has misfired in your referential intentions, with the consequence that your statement, 'Fred liked the fairy cakes I served him yesterday' does not express a thought, even though you think it does.

I don't know what your intuitions are about this example. I would accept, on principle, that it is possible to think you are thinking a thought when you are not. A good example would be Wittgenstein's argument against the possibility of a private language.

You give relatively short shrift to the second alternative, which involves saying that Zeus exists as a mythological character but not as a spatio-temporal particular. This view, associated with Meinong, has found some proponents amongst contemporary philosophers. However, your argument that the claim is 'self-contradictory' begs the question.

What the argument shows is that we cannot use the distinction between different levels or modes of existence to account for going into or going out of existence. Then you would be involved in a contradiction. However, there is no contradiction in admitting different kinds of entity into your ontology -- numbers, abstract objects, properties, fictional characters, mythological beings, possible worlds -- in addition to spatio-temporal particulars. Then we can parse 'Zeus does not exist' as 'Zeus is not a spatio-temporal particular'.

There is a price to pay, if we want to carry this through consistently. Philosophers have argued, e.g. over whether numbers exist. On this view, there can never be an argument. Anything you can meaningfully refer to 'exists', the only question is what kind of entity it is. Herbert exists, only you falsely believe that Herbert is a spatio-temporal particular when in fact Herbert is a hallucination in the mind of CG. -- You can understand Russell's comment that view lacks a certain 'robust sense of reality'.

The third alternative, that 'Zeus' is not a name but rather a term whose meaning is given by some definite description, is (despite your worries) very much relevant to this question. John Searle proposed a modification to Russell's account of names as descriptions, in which there is no single description which gives 'the' meaning of a name. This view has become known as the 'cluster of descriptions' theory (and is criticized by Kripke in the article referred to above).

My comment here is that I don't see why we should be forced to choose between two (or more) 'theories' of how proper names refer. Suppose one accepted the Kripkean view of proper names. It would still be the case that there are many examples where we do mean precisely to say that there is no entity corresponding to a given description, as in your example of Zeus=the unique controller of everything that happens in the sky. However, if you think about the variety of situations in which we say that something 'doesn't exist' it is clear that these are very much dependent on context, the topic of conversation, the hearer's expectations and so on.

It is false to conclude from the fact that we often talk in this way, that the meaning of names is 'given by descriptions', as Searle claims and Kripke denies. It would be more true to say that in a variety of contexts, what appears to function semantically as a name is in fact functioning as shorthand for descriptions. But it would be invalid to infer that what happens sometimes might or logically could happen always.

I would in fact be perfectly prepared to embrace the view that all three approaches discussed are valid in the appropriate context. The debate is just one example of philosophers' over-enthusiastic tendency to propose all-or-nothing 'theories'. I have no problems at all in being branded a shameless eclectic.

All the best,