This is not going to be an angst-filled, exisential post. Rather I'm puzzling over the use of the verb 'to be,' or, more precisely, why it puzzled twentieth-century philosophers so much. I've been re-reading Brand Blanchard's Reason & Analysis, and cannot really understand how analytical philosophers got their knickers so in a twist over this issue.

As Blanshard describes the problem, the worry these analytical philosophers had was that, if someone says, "The Loch Ness monster is a sea serpent," they seem to be granting "existence" to the monster, whereas, as they see it, the monster doesn't exist at all. In their view, this is the results of a linguistic confusion, the cure for which is to say things like, "The realm of real things does not contain a living creature such that that creature is reptlian, very long, aquatic, and lives in Loch Ness."

As I see it, when someone says, "The Loch Ness monster is a sea serpent," what they mean is, "I have the idea of a creature having the nature of a sea serpent living in a lake in Scotland." And, when they say, "But the Loch Ness monster doesn't exist," they're saying, "But that idea has no physical counterpart." The Loch ness monster exists in the world of thought, but not in the world of physical reality. Why is this a problem?

Does "Harry Potter" exist? In the sense that "Harry Potter" is taken to correspond to some real, physical, person, no he does not. But to the extent that he has made J.K. Rowling over a billion dollars (of real, "tangible" money) he certainly does exist. Why is this dichotomy a problem?

If I bear a grudge against my neighbor that is purely imaginary, we would seem to have s salient example of the sort of thing to which some anlytical philosophers wish to deny reality. But if that imagined grievance causes me to kill my neighbor, then isn't it, in fact, quite "real."

Or, let us take an example involving no physical entities at all. Imagine I have the idea of finding "the rational square root of two." This root exists now as an idea in my head. But, if I try to bring it into line with the standard rules of arithmetic, etc., I find it does not exist as a consistent idea within the world of mathematics.

(Post edited to be less "Ryle specific," per Sheldon's comment.)


  1. Gene, are you being fair to Gilbert R., one of my faves? Doesn't he say "things" exist in different ways. A university, for example, exists, but not in the same sense that its buildings and professors exist. He certainly doesn't deny its existence. I don't see why he would deny that the Loch Ness monster exists either, as long as the proper sense is intended.

  2. Sheldon, I think Gene's point is that this is a lot of verbage over something quite simple and not very confusing. When someone says 'Harry Potter is a wizard', the relevant question when someone asks if Harry Potter is "real" (depending on context, of course) is whether he is present in the physical world. The point is not that Ryle's presenation is incoherent, but that it is superfluous and seems motivated by a largely illusory problem. Had he focused on universals or "abstract universals" his discussion of such intangible concepts might have more meaning.

  3. Sheldon, I'm just quoting Blanshard's take on Ryle, but my larger point remains even if Blanshard has Ryle wrong, because there certainly were many analytical philosophers who were very worried about sentences likie "Satan does not exist."

  4. A. When I was a kid, I understood, e.g., that irrationals didn't exist among the quotients of integers, but that the number system could be richly extended to make room for them; same for complex numbers. For a while, I wondered why the number system could not be extended to provide solutions to equations of this kind: x+1 = x-1. The nonexistence of such an x is much sterner. They might well find a Loch Ness monster tomorrow; they will not find x.

    B. What do you make of a claim like "My dog is blue"? (I don't have a dog, never did have one.)

  5. I have no problem with Gene's point. I just think it doesn't apply to Ryle, the philosopher of common sense and plain language. It seems more applicable to Bertrand Russell, who could be pretty ridiculous for a smart man.

  6. Anonymous2:06 PM

    Well, according to Blanshard, it is presicely the "ordinary language" philosophers who were most concerned with this sort of thing.

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