In the first place, the whole notion of existence comes up in connection with what we might call “negative existential” statements. A negative existential statement is a statement saying that something does not exist: For instance, that Socrates does not exist, or that dogs do not exist. These present an initial puzzle. On the one hand, if they are true, then it seems “Socrates” and “dogs” do not refer to anything, and so it’s not clear what could make the sentences true. On the other hand, they seem to be saying that something, “Socrates” or “dogs,” has the feature of “not existing.”
Now, this doesn’t immediately support Russell’s view on existence, but it does give one impetus to develop some sort of view that would address the question of negative existentials. It is interesting to see how Russell’s view deals with the problem. In the first place, ‘Socrates does not exist’ is simply meaningless according to Russell, since it doesn’t make sense to attribute existence to an individual, and so neither does it make sense to deny existence of an individual. On the other hand, since existence is a property of propositional functions, “dogs do not exist,” is easy to deal with: it is the same as saying ‘x is a dog’ is impossible. This involves no shady references to non-existent dogs or anything of that sort. One need only say that ‘x is a dog’ is never true.
With that said, it is not enough to point out that Russell’s view gives an answer to this question. Russell’s view is still prima facie implausible, and there might also be other positions available. Hence, Russell needs to give some direct arguments specifically for his view and arguments against alternatives. We will discuss just one of the arguments that Russell gives, which I call “the Transferability Argument.” The argument is quite subtle in fact, and it is rather complicated. But I think it is worth thinking through because it incorporates several interesting assumptions from logic and the philosophy of language.
Before delving into it, I want to define what we will call a ‘transferable predicate’. Russell does not use this terminology himself, but he uses the concept, and his argument is easier to state with this terminology. Now, a predicate F is transferable in my sense just in case (i) F can be meaningfully applied to some kind G, and (ii) for any kind G that F applies to, ‘G’s are F’ is true only if every individual x that is a G is also F. For instance, the predicate ‘green’ is transferable: It applies to a generic kind term like ‘men’, since we can say ‘men are green’, and ‘men are green’ is true only if each man is himself green. The predicate ‘green’ “transfers” to the individual men. The predicate ‘numerous’ on the other hand is non-transferable: While we can say ‘men are numerous’, it does not imply any particular man is himself numerous. Indeed, this last statement is meaningless.
With that said, Russell’s Argument from Transferability can be reconstructed as follows:
- (1’) ‘Unicorns exist’ is false, but meaningful. [Premise]
- (2’) If there is an individual sense of ‘exists’, then ‘exists’ is transferable. [Premise]
- (3’) If ‘exists’ is transferable, then ‘Unicorns exist’ implies ‘a exists’, for some proper name ‘a’ of some particular unicorn. [Premise]
- (4’) So, if there is an individual sense of ‘exists’, then ‘Unicorns exist’ implies ‘a exists’, for some proper name ‘a’ of some particular unicorn. [By 2’ and 3’]
- (5’) If ‘a’ is a proper name then ‘a is F’ is meaningful only if ‘a’ refers. [Premise]
- (6’) So ‘a exists’ is meaningful only if ‘a’ refers. [5’, Universal Instantiation]
- (7’) Suppose there is an individual sense of ‘exists’. [Supposition for Reductio]
- (8’) Then ‘Unicorns exist’ implies ‘a exists’ for some proper name ‘a’ of some particular unicorn. [By 4’ and 7’]
- (9’) If ‘unicorns exist’ is false, then ‘a’ does not refer. [Premise]
- (10’) So ‘a’ does not refer. [By 1’ and 9’]
- (11’) So ‘a exists’ is meaningless. [By 10’ and 6’]
- (12’) No meaningful statement can imply a meaningless statement. [Premise]
- (13’) So, ‘unicorns exist’ is meaningless. [By 8’, 11’, and 12’]
But this contradicts our assumption in (1’). Hence, we must reject our assumption in 7’:
- (14’) There is no individual sense of ‘exists’. [By 7’ – 13’ and Reductio ad Absurdum]
This is an extremely interesting and rich argument. It is the best reconstruction I can give of Russell’s argument. The argument is clearly valid. It has a total of six premises: 1’, 2’, 3’ 5’, 9’, and 12’. I think it is useful to isolate the premises so that we can see precisely the principles at work here:
- (1’) ‘Unicorns exist’ is false, but meaningful.
- (2’) If there is an individual sense of ‘exists’, then ‘exists’ is transferable.
- (3’) If ‘exists’ is transferable, then ‘Unicorns exist’ implies ‘a exists’, for some proper name ‘a’ of some particular unicorn.
- (5’) If ‘a’ is a proper name then ‘a is F’ is meaningful only if ‘a’ refers.
- (9’) If ‘unicorns exist’ is false, then ‘a’ does not refer.
- (12’) No meaningful statement can imply a meaningless statement.
The first premise is uncontroversial I assume. The third premise seems to follow from the definition of ‘transferable’. 12’ also seems straightforward: If, by hypothesis, p is meaningful, then it does not imply anything meaningless, and this is just what 12’ says. That leaves 2’, 5’, and 9’ as the crucial premises.
I take it that the motivation behind 2’ is that if ‘existence’ is just another predicate of individuals, like ‘green’, say, then it should be transferable in precisely the way they are. After all, how could it be that ‘frogs are green’ is true but that ‘green’ does not transfer to all of the individual frogs? But if ‘exists’ is just like ‘green’ then it should behave in the same way.
5’ seems to be motivated by the fact that we are supposing ‘a’ to be a proper name in Russell’s sense. Recall that, according to Russell, a logically proper name is a word whose meaning just is a particular object; in other words, the proper name ‘a’ is meaningful only if, and because, ‘a’ refers. So if ‘a’ is meaningless, then the whole sentence ‘a is F’ will be meaningless too.
Finally, 9’ is motivated by the fact that if ‘unicorns exist’ is false then there simply aren’t any unicorns for ‘a’ to refer to, and so ‘a’ cannot have a reference.
On the face of it, there is some reasonableness about all of these premises. However, I think there are worries for all of them. In the next post I will try to raise some of those worries.