3

Okay so I’ve recently been (briefly) introduced to the idea of propositions containing non-existent entities. The classic example is, of course, “The present king of France is bald.” Here the referent is supposed to be the present king of France, and in affirming or denying the truth-value of the proposition, what we would be doing is affirming or denying whether he has the property of baldness. However, there is no present king of France, so then we use Russell's theory of definite descriptions to work around that issue, so that we don’t presuppose the existence of an entity (the present king of France), but rather, we first ask if there is some arbitrary x, such that x has the property of being the present king of France.

My question is this: what happens if we believe not that the individual is non-existent, but rather, if the predicate is non-existent? Take the proposition “Mary is beautiful.” Let’s assume that I believe that beauty is not a property of Mary, but rather, it’s a sort of a linguistic convention used by people to refer to their belief about a property of Mary, where a roughly equivalent proposition would be “Person X believes Mary is beautiful.” Here we have a referent, namely person X’s cognitive state of belief about Mary. (I'm denying the existence of beauty, because I'm only taking physical attributes like 'brown hair' and 'blue eyes' to have actual existence. Physical things, in other words.)

However, what do we say about the actual proposition “Mary is beautiful” if I am to deny the existence of such properties? Is there some way to work our way around it like Russell does for non-existent individuals? Or do we just say that the proposition lacks truth value, is meaningless, or what? Because if we say "Mary is beautiful" is false, and then conclude that "Mary is not beautiful," that does not seem right. Put another way, if we take the proposition "Mary is not beautiful" as being false (since it's not the case that she has the property of being not-beautiful), then in doing so we would (falsely) conclude that she is beautiful, wouldn't we? But that's obviously not true.

  • 1
    This problem sounds equivalent to the bald-King problem: it seems fair to interpret the statement as, "if there is such a predicate and being-beautiful, then it applies to Mary", just like the bald King of France. // If Mary is not beautiful is false, conversational implicature may be that Mary is beautiful; but the implicature is based on context, not on the logical structure of the proposition itself. Logically, it is very well possible that Mary is neither beautiful nor not-beautiful, but rather some third state. – Cerberus May 1 '14 at 1:52
  • I've been wondering about this too. If I say Socrates is a philosopher, if in some possible world Socrates does not exist, one could still argue that he is vacuously a philosopher, since you can't prove that he's not. But what if there are no philosophers in that world either? Then even a vacuous argument fails. You put your finger on the problem. There's no predicate. I am wondering what is the answer to this dilemma. Can there be propositions without truth values? I've never doubted the law of the excluded middle before, but lately I'm beginning to understand some of the problems with it. – user4894 May 1 '14 at 4:01
  • For some philosophers propositions are non-linguistic entities and they are the reference of sentences (the linguistic entities) : see in SEP Proposition. For Frege a "declartive" sentence has a sense (the content it express) and a reference : one of the two truth-values (the True and the False). If Mary is not beautiful, the reference of "Mary is beautiful" is the False. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA May 1 '14 at 18:01
  • I've been thinking - perhaps any proposition 'x has P', where P is a predicate with no extension (it's domain is empty), is necessarily false for all individuals, and that while it doesn't sound appropriate to say 'It's not the case that Mary is beautiful', it might be that this is actually the case. For some odd reason something just doesn't feel right in saying that though. Eh, I'll wait to see what others have to say. – Casey May 1 '14 at 21:32
  • 1
    What about the predicate "... is the current King of France"? We've already understood its role as a subject. Yet "My uncle Peter is the current King of France" appears to use that non-existant predicate, but in a meaningful way. – MSalters May 2 '14 at 17:18
1

I think that you hit the nail on the head with this sentence:

Or do we just say that the proposition lacks truth value, it's[sic] meaningless?

If in your example the property of beauty didn't exist then, the proposition I assert would be meaningless. The difference between the property "beauty" and the person "current king of France" is reference.

We can argue that if there was a current king of France then the current king of France is bald, because we have a reference point. We know what kings are, there have been kings before and so we can describe the non-existent current king because of this reference frame-set.

However because of the transitory nature of non-physical properties. These properties depend on how an individual person perceives the world to be defined; so they don't exist as a universal frame-set. Meaning, that for a non-physical property to have meaning it must be perceived or measured.

Lets examine salt as an example. Salt has the unique property of tasting like salt! It is it's own property! Which is why we say things like "Oh it was too salty" or "This has a nice sweet and salty flavor". If you were to meet someone who had never encountered salt (so in a sense someone for who the property salty doesn't exist), saying that something is salty would have no meaning for them. They have no reference, no perception, to draw on that would allow them to discern meaning from your description.

So TL:DR because non-physical properties draw meaning from being perceived, if they have never been perceived - i.e. don't exist - then you cannot say "if property X exists then it can be said that Y has property X" because X is meaningless.

Real life sentence, again using salty:
If I have never encountered salt and someone says "I like pretzels because they are salty", I have no point of reference from which to determine the meaning of the property salty. Hence the sentence is meaningless to me, and any other sentence that the person I am talking to uses to describe salty, I assert, will in turn be meaningless because of my lack of reference.

0

I have touched upon an aspect of this in the question "Is there a name for each individuls perceived sphere of reality?".

If "beautiful" does not have any meaning in your world-view, sentences such as "Mary is beautiful" cease to convey a propositional value for you.

Keeping this in mind, you're making a mistake with:

However, what do we say about the actual proposition “Mary is beautiful” if I am to deny the existence of such properties?

Contrast "what do we say" and "I am to deny". If you deny any meaning to the attribute beautiful, you are logically excluding yourself from the set of people denoted by "we". So, what "we" say becomes unresolvable to you. This is not necessarily catastrophic, and in fact, happens all the time. Bill Gates might say "Mary is tall". And, though he and I understand "tall" in exactly the same way, I may not know anyone called "Mary". So, the statement becomes unresolvable in my belief world.

0

I am confused by the beauty predicate you have suggested:

Let’s assume that I believe that beauty is not a property of Mary, but rather, it’s a sort of a linguistic convention used by people to refer to their belief about a property of Mary, where a roughly equivalent proposition would be “Person X believes Mary is beautiful.”

Is the phrase in quotes suppose to be a rough equivalent of the statement "Mary is beautiful," where person X is the speaker? If so, the definition of the beauty predicate is circular (i.e. it uses the word "beautiful").

It sounds as though you are trying to propose an account of beauty that explains away the beauty property, and replaces it with the speaker's opinion. A sceptical meta-ethicist (Mackie, Williams, etc.) will tell you that when you say "X is good," what you really mean is "I like X." (Of course it is a little more complicated than this, but this is the basic idea.) Similarly, we might argue that when I say "Mary is beautiful," what I really mean is "I like Mary's physical appearance." (Note that here we don't use the word "beautiful" in explaining beauty.)

If this is not what you are going for, then you will have to help me out. But if it is, I think we can answer your subsequent questions:

Is there some way to work our way around it like Russell does for non-existent individuals? Or do we just say that the proposition lacks truth value, is meaningless, or what?

I think the Russell comparison is helpful. Once Russell is happy to claim to that a non-existence claim is actually a claim that everything in the world fails to satisfy some collection of descriptions, he doesn't have to worry that non-existence claims are meaningless. They just mean something different than we thought they did. We now know what they really mean, and we can evaluate the truth value of that.

Returning to your case: a large number of philosophers would follow Kaplan's suggestion that sentences generally have meaning, but don't generally have propositional content (and consequently, truth value). It is particular uses that have propositional content (and consequently, truth-value).

So we could say that the meaning of "Mary is beautiful" is "The speaker likes Mary's physical appearance." The sentence does not have a truth value, but a particular use of it does: it will be true if the speaker likes Mary's physical appearance and false if s/he doesn't.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.