philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

What it means to state that Zeus does not exist


To: Damien B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What it means to state that Zeus does not exist
Date: 27th January 2010 12:36

Dear Damien,

Thank you for your email of 19 January with your essay for the University of London BA Logic module, in response to the question, 'Can one meaningfully say that Zeus does not exist? Justify your answer.'

There is some useful exposition here. I especially like the fact that you note Russell's 'clever' point that 'When you have taken account of all the feelings roused by Napoleon in writers and readers of history, you have not touched the actual man; but in the case of Hamlet you have come to the end of him.'

I think this deserves fuller treatment because it relates to a very important distinction which lies behind the Kripke/ Evans view of names. But more of that in a moment.

Russell would say that, without doubt, you CAN meaningfully assert that Zeus does not exist. But I'm not sure from what you say that you've got this point.

For Russell, the name 'Zeus' in, 'Zeus does not exist' is taken as shorthand for a description, or rather set of descriptions. I'm not too well up on Greek mythology, so I'll just follow Wikipedia: 'Zeus is King of the Gods (K), the rule of Mount Olympus (R) and the god of the sky (S) and thunder (T).'

The statement, 'Zeus does not exist' will then be equivalent to:

'Either there is no object which has properties K, R, S and T or more than one object does.'

Obviously, you can 'tweak' your definition of Zeus so that satisfaction of three out of the four descriptions would suffice for an object to be Zeus. Or, you can construct a more complex set of descriptions.

Intuitively, when you make a negative existential statement, the question arises which are the pertinent properties or descriptions whose satisfaction would suffice for the entity in question to exist. Sometimes there can be debate about this. Did Robin Hood exist? Suppose historians identify a historical character who a few of the things attributed to Robin Hood. For example, he won an archery competition, and he liked to wear a hood. Some people would be satisfied with this as proof of Robin Hood's existence, while others would feel that there is too much distance between the historical character and the man of legend. Would you say Robin Hood existed, if the champion archer never robbed anyone but merely gave some money away to the poor? What if he lived in Scotland rather than England? And so on.

This is the so-called 'cluster of descriptions view' of proper names associated with Russell and John Searle. (Frege is somewhat ambivalent about names, regarding the fact that some names in ordinary language lack bearers as a defect.)

On Kripke's view of names, if a name lacks a bearer, then no thought is expressed. Robin Hood is a good example to illustrate Kripke's theory: The name 'Robin Hood' refers to the individual who was originally 'baptised' with that name. Subsequent users of that name *intend* to use it for that individual. So it would be perfectly possible to discover that Robin Hood did exist, but that none of the things that are believed about Robin Hood are true. All that matters is that the link between the name and the object is preserved.

On the other hand, consider the name 'Zues' (from the title of the .doc file you sent me!). Can I meaningfully say that Zues does not exist? If no object was ever been baptised with the name 'Zues', then the statement, 'Zues does not exist' has no meaning. Perhaps someone started the 'chain of communication' as a rumour. Various things are believed about Zues, but none of it adds up to anything.

Then what about Zeus? As a matter of historical fact, no entity was baptised with the name 'Zeus'. But in this case, we have a lot of historical material which adds up to a great deal. What Kripke should say is that when we say 'Zeus does not exist' we are not using 'Zeus' as a proper name. In which case he can simply help himself to the Russellian analysis. No existing object uniquely satisfies the descriptions associated with the term 'Zeus'.

The most interesting question, however, relates to the idea of different 'domains of discourse': the real world, mythology, fiction etc. I think Russell has a point, which can be expanded using Locke's (and Kripke's) notion of 'real essence'. Napoleon is an existing entity with a real essence. He is more than the sum total of all the things believed about him. Whereas Robin Hood (supposing that he is merely a character of legend and nothing more) has no 'real essence' but only a 'nominal essence', i.e. a cluster of descriptions.

In view of this, it is misleading at best to talk of 'existence in the real world' as on a par with 'existence in mythology' or 'existence in fiction'. Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Santa Claus do not exist. No real object with a real essence corresponds to the descriptions associated with each of these three characters. To say that they 'exist' in legend, or fiction or etc. is just a manner of speaking.

All the best,