Bertrand Russell’s objections to Meinong’s theory concerning non-existent objects is notable for dealing what could have been a fatal blow. In this essay, I shall examine and then critically assess the objections, Meinong’s reply to the objections, and whether they work or require supplementation. In §1 I will outline the main foundational principles from which Meinong’s theory obtains, and §2 sketches out the two main strands of Russell’s initial objections. Subsequently, §3 will evaluate the objections, including Meinong’s reply and will include the progress since the initial exchange between Russell and Meinong. I will conclude by showing that Meinong’s theory can work with some modification, namely by restricting the Characterisation Postulate.
1 - Meinong’s Theory
Meinong’s theory was formulated to account for the truth-value of statements concerning non-existent objects. That is, those objects which neither exist in the physical realm, nor in the realm of subsistence (such as mathematical concepts or moral ideals). Hence, his infamous non-existent, the round square
, is used throughout his paper. Meinong’s solution was to claim that “There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects”
This apparent contradiction was not warmly received by Russell, a staunch advocate for logical analysis and reduction. The claim, put forward by many commentators such as Nicholas Griffin, rests on three main principles. The first is the Freedom of Assumption Principle which grants us the freedom to assume properties onto non-existents, such as ‘round’ and ‘square’:
(FA): Anything whatsoever can be assumed
However, we also require some function that ensures that the properties we attribute to the non-existent have no bearing on its status as a non-existent object. For example, attributing contrary properties onto an object does not subtract from its status as an object. This Independence Thesis is formulated thus:
(IT): The essence of an object is independent of its being
Further, it is apparent that we need a principle from which we can establish the essence of a non-existent from those properties we attribute to it. For instance, the round square is both round and square. The Characterisation Postulate performs this function:
(CP): The essence of an object obtains from those properties attributed to it
Now that the framework has been established, let us examine Russell’s criticism.
2 - Russell’s Objections
It has been suggested that both Meinong and Russell were motivated by conflicting ideals, with Russell preferring to honour the virtue of parsimony afforded by reducing propositions using logic, whereas Meinong may have been motivated by a desire to have the names of non-existents genuinely refer to something, thus positing a realm where non-existents reside.
This conflict resulted in Russell’s claim that to make such a move was “intolerable”
Thus, Russell attacked the implications of the theory by highlighting their violations of logical law, and then from those violations perform a reductio
2.1 Violations of Logical Laws
Firstly, Russell illustrates that some Meinongian propositions can violate the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM), which stipulates that statements must be either true or false (Either p or not-p) and there is no middle ground in the matter. Russell illustrates with the proposition “…the round square is round, and also not round”,
a statement afforded to us through the functions of FA and CP.
Further, he highlights a violation of the Law of Non-Contradiction (LNC) which states that a set of propositions cannot contradict each other (such as p and not-p).
This is evident in Meinong’s claim that there are objects but it is also true that there are no such objects. These violations are not enough to sink Meinong’s theory as they could be dismissed as ideological criticisms, however Russell builds upon these issues for his chief objection.
2.2 The Chief Objection
Russell leads on from the apparent permissibility of contrary propositions and exploits the functions of FA to attribute any property he wishes, and CP to establish the essence of an object. Thus, he presents Meinong with the object existent round square
, which, by the aforementioned principles, must be as existent as it is both round and square.
Recall that IT serves the function of forbidding the essence of an object to bear on its ontic status, however this principle cannot prevent an objects ontic status being attributed as a property
. Therefore, Russell claims that he would prefer simply to say that “there is no such object as the round square”
, a claim that may avoid the murky terrain that Meinong has been left with.
3 - Evaluation of Russell’s Objections
Meinong’s theory may be salvageable and three options are immediately apparent. He needs a way to deny Russell the move of attributing ontic status as a property. Another option is to deny the move by insisting on some difference between the attributable term ‘existent’ and genuine ontic status. However, he also has the option of denying that the violations his theory permits are the serious offences Russell suggests they are. It is this latter option that he takes in addressing the violations.
3.1 The Violations
In addressing Russell’s concern, Meinong presented two distinct forms of negation: wide and narrow.
Where wide negation is vaster in scope ‘It is not the case that A is B’, and narrow is of the form “A is Not-B”. This is an important distinction for LNC and LEM as we now have both wide and narrow versions of these laws, with the wider versions of each being upheld and the narrow versions being free to violate.
For instance, Russell’s proposition “…the round square is round, and also not round”
violates only the narrow and is no longer problematic. This is because, as Parsons suggests, it is only intuition that tells us that something cannot be round and square, yet there is nothing that tells us that all square objects must necessarily fail to be round.
Russell need not accept such a distinction that permits minor violations of logical laws, with one commentator noting that Russell insists that if impossible objects (such as the round square) have some sort of being, they must be subject to laws of logic.
However, it has also been noted that Russell admits that even to deny the existence of impossible objects is to speak of contradiction.
This is an important clarification because while Russell may admit that impossible objects are contradictions, he can insist that any propositions concerning them must not violate logical laws, a principle that Meinong clearly violates.
3.2 The Chief Objection
Recall that Meinong has the option of insisting on a conceptual difference between Russell’s ‘existent’ and genuine ‘existence’. Meinong’s attempt to do so is initially dismissed by Russell who claims that he fails to see any difference, however we shall see whether such a distinction holds.
3.2.1 Two Forms of Existence
The first possibility is that Meinong may be insisting on a semantic difference between ‘existing’ and ‘existent’, where the former refers to an objects ontic status and the latter is only a characterising property. However, this is easily remedied as some authors suggest by changing the example to the existing round square
In this case, Meinong could uphold FA by granting the freedom to assume the property of existence but this ought to have no bearing on its ontic status as there is nothing in FA to permit such a move.
Just as there is nothing to prevent me from assuming that the present King of France genuinely exists, there is also nothing to prevent me from committing an error of misattribution. However, this neglects the CP function which also allows me to characterise the King of France as present. Thus, per Parsons, this may be an issue of whether we accept existence as a first- or second-order property.
3.2.2 Nuclear vs Extranuclear Properties
Meinong made a distinction between first- and second-order, or nuclear and extranuclear properties.
Nuclear properties are those are attributable (assumptible) under CP which adds to the essence of the object. Extranuclear properties do not constitute part of an objects nature, but apply to the set of nuclear properties, and are not assumptible.
This places a restriction on FA by permitting the freedom only to assume nuclear properties onto an object. However, this distinction fails account for the proposition “the existing round square is an ontological puzzle”
Despite the limitation on FA we still need a way of being able to refer to ‘existence’ as some property, which the restriction on FA forbids.
3.2.3 The Modal Moment (Two Forms of Existence redux)
Meinong claims, that for every extranuclear property, there exists some ‘watered-down’ nuclear counterpart where the difference between full-strength factuality (FSF) and watered-down factuality (WDF) is represented by the Modal Moment factor (MM).
Findlay likens MM to evidence, a necessary component of complete and absolute belief, and is incomplete without it.
Thus, like evidence we can state that the presence of MM is not assumptible. For propositions concerning ‘the existing round square’ we can say that ‘existing’ refers to a watered-down property as it lacks MM, thus prohibiting us from changing its ontic status.
4 Restriction of CP
It is evident that some restriction is necessary on Meinong’s three principles if his theory is to work. Meinong’s preferred option is to restrict FA by insisting that only watered-down versions of non-characterising properties can be attributed to an object. However, if we are to restrict any principle it seems CP is the most viable candidate here. By restricting CP, per Routley, so that the essence of a non-existent obtains only from nuclear properties, we avoid both the mess from positing extra modal functions, and Russell’s chief objection.
Thus the word ‘existing’ in “the existing round square is an ontological puzzle”
refers to a non-characterising property of the round square.
Bourgeois, V. Warren. "Beyond Russell and Meinong." Canadian Journal of Philosophy 11, no. 4 (1981): 653-66.
Findlay, J. N. Meinong's Theory of Objects and Values. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
Griffin, Nicholas. "Russell's Critique of Meinong's Theory of Objects." In Non-Existence and Predication, edited by Rudolf Haller, 375-402. Amsterdam: Dodopi, 1986.
Lindenfeld, David F. The Transformation of Positivism : Alexius Meinong and European Thought, 1880-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Meinong, Alexius. "The Theory of Objects." Translated by Isaac Levi, D. B. Terrell and Roderick M. Chisholm. In Realism and the Background of Phenomenology, edited by Roderick M. Chisholm. Illinois: Free Press Glencoe, 1960.
Parsons, Terence. Nonexistent Objects. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Perszyk, Kenneth J. Nonexistent Objects: Meinong and Contemporary Philosophy. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993.
Routley, Richard. Exploring Meinong's Jungle and Beyond : An Investigation of Noneism and the Theory of Items. Canberra: Australian National University, 1980.
Russell, B. "Review: Uber Die Stellung Der Gegenstandstheorie Im System Der Wissenschaften. By A. Meinong." Mind 16, no. 63 (1907): 436-39.
———. "Reviewed Work(S): Untersuchungen Zur Gegenstandstheorie Und Psychologie. Mit Unterstutzung Des K. K. Ministeriums Fur Kultus Und Unterricht in Wien Herausgegeben. By A. Meinong ". Mind 14, no. 56 (1905): 530-38.
Russell, Bertrand. "Ii.—on Denoting." Mind 114, no. 456 (2005): 873-87.
Swanson, Carolyn. Reburial of Nonexistents: Reconsidering the Meinong-Russell Debate. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011.
Alexius Meinong, "The Theory of Objects," in Realism and the Background of Phenomenology
, ed. Roderick M. Chisholm (Illinois: Free Press Glencoe, 1960), 83.
Meinong’s “On Assumptions” cited in Nicholas Griffin, "Russell's Critique of Meinong's Theory of Objects," in Non-Existence and Predication
, ed. Rudolf Haller (Amsterdam: Dodopi, 1986), 378.
Ibid.; Meinong, "The Theory of Objects," 82.
Griffin, "Russell's Critique of Meinong's Theory of Objects," 378; Meinong, "The Theory of Objects," 82.
David F. Lindenfeld, The Transformation of Positivism : Alexius Meinong and European Thought, 1880-1920
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 204-5.
Bertrand Russell, "Ii.—on Denoting," Mind
114, no. 456 (2005): 483.
B. Russell, "Review: Uber Die Stellung Der Gegenstandstheorie Im System Der Wissenschaften. By A. Meinong," ibid.16, no. 63 (1907): 533.
"Reviewed Work(S): Untersuchungen Zur Gegenstandstheorie Und Psychologie. Mit Unterstutzung Des K. K. Ministeriums Fur Kultus Und Unterricht in Wien Herausgegeben. By A. Meinong " Mind
14, no. 56 (1905): 533.
Cited in Carolyn Swanson, Reburial of Nonexistents: Reconsidering the Meinong-Russell Debate
(Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), 13.
Terence Parsons, Nonexistent Objects
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 40.
Kenneth J. Perszyk, Nonexistent Objects: Meinong and Contemporary Philosophy
(Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993), 240.
V. Warren Bourgeois, "Beyond Russell and Meinong," Canadian Journal of Philosophy
11, no. 4 (1981): 662; Russell, "Ii.—on Denoting," 456.
B. Russell, "Review: Uber Die Stellung Der Gegenstandstheorie Im System Der Wissenschaften. By A. Meinong," ibid.16, no. 63 (1907): 437.
Parsons, Nonexistent Objects
, 43; Swanson, Reburial of Nonexistents: Reconsidering the Meinong-Russell Debate
Perszyk, Nonexistent Objects: Meinong and Contemporary Philosophy
Parsons, Nonexistent Objects
Cited in Swanson, Reburial of Nonexistents: Reconsidering the Meinong-Russell Debate
Perszyk, Nonexistent Objects: Meinong and Contemporary Philosophy
, 237, 47; Richard Routley, Exploring Meinong's Jungle and Beyond : An Investigation of Noneism and the Theory of Items
(Canberra: Australian National University, 1980), 256,496.
Swanson, Reburial of Nonexistents: Reconsidering the Meinong-Russell Debate
Cited in J. N. Findlay, Meinong's Theory of Objects and Values
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 103.
Routley, Exploring Meinong's Jungle and Beyond : An Investigation of Noneism and the Theory of Items