Sunday, 19 June 2011


So, I was reading an article by G E Moore on whether existence is a predicate or not. 'I think it would be good to begin,' he says, 'with one particular use of “exist”— ‘tame tigers exist’.

Moore takes this example from his contemporary William Kneale, who ‘thinks that there is some very important difference between the way in which “exist” is used here, and the way in which “growl” is used in “Tame tigers growl;” and that it is a difference which does not hold e.g. in the use of “scratch” in “Tame tigers scratch” and the use of “growl” in “Tame tigers growl”.’

The sentence “Tame tigers growl” seems to me to be ambiguous ... it might mean “All tame tigers growl,” or it might mean merely “Most tame tigers growl”, or it might mean merely “Some tame tigers growl.” Each of these sentences has a clear meaning, and the meaning of each is clearly different from that of either of the two others ... but I do not think that there is any ambiguity in “Tame tigers exist” corresponding to that which I have pointed out in “Tame tigers growl.” So far as I can see, “Tame tigers exist” and “Some tame tigers exist” are merely two different ways of expressing exactly the same proposition. That is to say, it is not true that “Tame tigers exist” might mean “All tame tigers exist”, or “Most tame tigers exist” instead of “some tame tigers exist.” It always means just “Some tame tigers exist,” and nothing else whatever.
Alright, alright, get on with it.
I have said that it is never used to mean “All tame tigers exist”, or “Most tame tigers exist;” but I hope it will strike everyone that there is something queer about this proposition. It seems to imply that “All tame tigers exist”, and “Most tame tigers exist” have a clear meaning, just as have “All tame tigers growl”, or “Most tame tigers growl;” and that it is just an accident that we do not happen ever to use “Tame tigers exist” to express either of those two meanings instead of the meaning “Some tame tigers exist”, whereas we do sometimes use “Tame tigers growl” to mean “All tame tigers growl”, or “Most tame tigers growl” instead of merely “Some tame tigers growl.” But is this in fact the case? Have “All tame tigers exist” and “Most tame tigers exist” any meaning at all?
Since the answer to this question strikes me, very patently, as ‘yes, of course’, I’ll need to dwell a moment further on why Moore thinks the answer is ‘no, certainly not’ (more precisely, he calls them ‘puzzling expressions, which certainly do not carry their meaning, if they have any, on the face of them’). He thinks that his view ‘can be made clear by comparing the expression “Some tame tigers don’t growl” and “Some tame tigers don’t exist”’, since ‘the former, whether true or false, has a perfectly clear meaning’ where the latter doesn’t.
“Some tame tigers exist” has a perfectly clear meaning: it must means “There are some tame tigers.” But the meaning of “Some tame tigers don’t exist” if any, is certainly not equally clear. It is another queer and puzzling expression. Has it any meaning at all? And if so, what meaning? If it has any it would appear it must mean the same as “There are some tame tigers that don’t exist.” But has this any meaning? And if so, what? Is it possible that there should be any tame tigers that don’t exist?
He goes on to show that if this statement has no meaning, then ‘all tame tigers exist’ is equally meaningless. I’m less interested in that right now; it’s his insistence that “Some tame tigers don’t exist” doesn’t mean anything, or rather his concession that it might:
I have admitted that a meaning can be given to “Some tame tigers do not exist” ... the meaning which such an expression as “Some tame tigers do not exist” sometimes does have, is that which it has when it is used to mean “Some tame tigers are imaginary” or “Some tame tigers are not real tigers.” That “Some tame tigers are imaginary” may really express a proposition, whether true or false, cannot I think be denied.
Indeed not; Tigger, Princess Jasmine’s pet tiger in Disney’s Aladdin and Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes stand as proof that “Some tame tigers are imaginary”. Moore, writing before the creation of any of these instead chooses the ‘imaginary unicorn’ of Through the Looking Glass (which, alas, he calls Alice Through the Looking Glass). At any rate, he wants to insist that ‘exist’ in this sense (the sense that ‘either some real people have written stories about imaginary tigers, or are having or have recently had hallucinations of tame tigers, or perhaps are dreaming or have dreamed of tame tigers’) is not the ‘comparatively simple meaning’ of exist in the phrase ‘some tame tigers exist.’

It’s not clear to me why ‘simple’ (or even ‘comparatively simple’) deserves its eminence in Moore’s system of values, but leave that on one side for a minute. I want rather to think about two other wrinkles. The strength of Moore’s argument is that we recognise that the statements ‘President Obama exists’ and ‘Dumbledore exists’ (or, to stay on the windy side of the idiomatic, and to quote an actual example, ‘’David Lodge lives’ and ‘H G Wells’s Mr Britling lives’) signify in different ways. But the rather, I presume deliberately, naïf way that Moore defines existence (the sense ‘of which a man might have seen it, pointed at it, and said with truth “this is a tame tiger and it growls”’), seems to put the emphasis on particulars; where the Russellian logic that Moore goes on to own as his own, where the truth ‘x is y’ depends upon the linkage of an individual and a class or set—‘x’ the specific example, and ‘y’ the set (so ‘Avraam is Greek’ actually means, says Russell, ‘Avram is a man and Avraam belongs to the set “Greeks”’). But it seems to me that where individuals, in their vast multiplicity, have the sort of common-sense point-to-it-and-say existence that Moore is working with, sets do not. Not that sets don’t exist; but more precisely that sets are features not of the world but of human consciousness. Specific tigers exist ‘in the world’, irrespective of humankind; but the classification of tigers into various sets (‘indian tigers’; ‘man-eating tigers’ and so on) speaks to something in our heads—something, moreover, of exactly the same logic as unicorns, honour, nationality, and all that Foucaudian-Borgesian imperial catalogue of beautifully imaginary classifications.

This, of course, is hardly an original observation; but it is a significant one nevertheless. Moore goes on to discuss things that don’t exist in the sense ‘could not exist. Since imagination seems to be playing a large part in this narrative, I wonder if it would be possible to challenge this venerable philosophical concept, that of the logically impossible thing, as representing precisely a lack of imagination? Richard Taylor thinks ‘the idea of necessary non-existence, or better, impossible existence, presents little difficulty. We can apply this notion to anything such as a square circle, which is non existent by its very nature’. But it seems to me that it is only ever possible to talk of non-existence in particular, not general, terms. So we can say that a unicorn does not exist in the real world, but we cannot say that it is necessarily non-existent—for the genetic engineering to add wings to a white horse are only around the corner. Or less flippantly: we might say that a right-triangle whose two smaller angles do not add up to the right-angle at other corner is ‘necessarily non-existent’, relying on what seems to us the excellent Kantian basis that we have simply restated, in negative terms, the very definition of a right-triangle. But this won’t do; somebody will come along and point out that the angles of the right-trangle that can be drawn linking London, Bristol and Liverpool has less that 180-degrees because of the curvature of the earth. So we must say ‘ah, but I meant a right-angle drawn in a perfectly flat mathematical plane’, and by doing so we have taken the step away from the world as it actually is into the imaginary realm of pure mathematics. Or to put it another way: a kind of philosophical Maxwell’s demon, who comes up with ingenious exceptions to our proudly asserted logical impossibilities—a hairy-headed bald man (a bald man with a beard!), the present king of France (there is a man living in Switzerland who indeed claims that title as his right, believing the French Revolution legally illegitimate!), and so on—you can see the sort of thing I mean ... that such a kind of demon must be posited in the case of the statements about necessary impossibility. In the case of each exception, your instinct will be to correct the demon (‘by “hairy headed”, I mean somebody with a full head of hair on his crown, not a beard ...’ and the like), and the demon’s instinct, imp of perversity as this creature is, will be to pick holes, to come up with conceivable exceptions no matter how bizarre or impossible, and the asymptote of this mode of thinking will be: you end up specifying something so very precisely, so very particularly, that you are in effect performing a kind of photographic negative of Moore’s pointing at a tame tiger and saying ‘that is a tame tiger’: you will be in effect saying ‘this very particular, specific and individual thing is impossible.’

So, quite apart from the profound oddness of this, being driven to individual specificity in order to demonstrate non existence (‘it is this specific thing, the thing at which I am in a manner of speaking pointing, that does not exist...’) you end up removing the ‘necessary’ from the ‘necessary non-existence’. It is possible to specify the non-existence of individual items, but not of sets of things, except in the case where the set (‘the particular triangle I am imagining right now in my brain’) is a single-subject set.

Or to put it another way: to talk of the necessary non-existence of a multitudinous class of things is to say that these kind of things have never, do not and never will exist; which is in fact to say something about the limitation of your own imagination, not just in the sense that you are confessing to your inability to imagine hippogriffs, triangles whose angles do not add up to 180-degrees and so on, but in the meta sense that you cannot imagine a situation in which the rules of logic themselves do not obtain.

All this is trivial enough, in everyday terms; but gains a little intellectual traction, perhaps, as a gloss on the ‘existence’ portion of the ontological argument for God. When we talk about the existence of God, are we talking about the exist of something specific, or as the ‘set’ of God-things? Hmm; more on Moore, er, anon.

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