Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Russell on Existence in TPLA I: Why Care?

In the next few posts I'm going to talk about Bertrand Russell's views on existence as one finds them in his The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (TPLA for short). (Note: I have already written the posts, so I will actually deliver!)

In TPLA Bertrand Russell offers a brief but intriguing account of the notion of existence. Russell holds forcefully to the view that existence cannot be said to apply to individual objects – at least, not without descending into nonsense. According to Russell we cannot meaningfully say this or that particular thing exists; instead, only types or kinds of things can be said to exist.

I will first try to make clear what, exactly, Russell’s views on the matter of existence are, at least insofar as he talks about it in TPLA, and I will clarify his technical terminology along the way. I will then attempt to lay out what are, so far as I can tell, Russell’s arguments for his views, as well as some of the problems concerning existence that motivate him to have a view in the first place. After questioning the soundness of Russell’s arguments I will lay out an alternative view that deals with some of the problems of existence he has identified. This alternative view of existence is more similar to that held by the majority of people before him, including the medieval Scholastics. Ironically, it turns out that this view is actually similar to some of what Russell says about propositions and propositional functions (as well as his own earlier view before TPLA).

Before I begin, however, I’d like to explain why I think it is worthwhile to think about Russell’s views on existence and to bother to critique them. After all, Russell gave the Lectures for TPLA nearly a hundred years ago, and hardly anyone would agree with the precise details of his account of existence (let alone his general metaphysic).

It is probably true that Russell’s precise views are not generally accepted, and arguably parts of his technical “machinery” are archaic. Nevertheless, Russell’s spirit lives on. Russell’s claim that existence is not a predicate of individuals and that existence should ultimately be defined in a “higher-order” way, in terms of quantification, has been widely accepted by many prominent philosophers.  Indeed, the slogan that “existence is what is expressed by ‘existential quantification’” is standard orthodoxy nowadays. (See, for instance, Frege’s  Foundations of Arithmetic sec. 53, Quine’s “On What There Is,” C.J.F. Williams’ What is Existence?, and Peter van Inwagen’s “Being, Existence and Ontological Commitment,” just for a few examples.)

So, aside from the fact that Russell was a great thinker, and the general guideline that it is worthwhile to interact with great thinkers, we should think about his views on existence because views like his are held in one form or another even today.

[Part II is here.]

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