Monday, June 17, 2019

Meinongianism, Noneism, Radical Noneism


In this post, I would like to describe three closely related Philosophical theories, viz. Meinongianism, Noneism, and Radical Noneism. Collectively, we might refer to all of these schools of thought as belonging to the Philosophical field known as object theory, or item theory. I should also like to lay out the features of these theories that I find attractive and the reasons why I personally am a Radical Noneist.

Meinongianism is a wide ranging theory encompassing every subdiscipline of philosophy. Its comes out of the work of the severely underappreciated Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong. It is based on several important theses. Firstly, it holds that everything whatever is an object. This feature distinguishes Meinongianism from other schools of thought that either do not include objects at all, or do not take everything to be an object. Secondly, it holds that many objects do not exist, and among those objects that don't have existence, some have a lower form of being called subsistence (like numbers, universals, properties etc.) and others have a 'being-like' property called absistence (like fictional characters and impossible objects). Last but not least, it holds that nonexistent objects possess properties and true statements can be made about them.

We should quickly note that since nonexistent objects are given standing in Meinongian theory, the traditional philosophical subfield of Ontology is extended into Sistology. Sistology is the field of enquiry that investigates all objects, whether existent, or nonexistent; Ontology, as the field concerned with the study of all existent objects, is included within Sistology.


Noneism is a closely related theory that builds off of Meinongianism in 2 different ways. It agrees with Meinongianism in holding that everything whatever is an object. It also agrees that very many objects do not exist, but Noneism does not recognize the notions of subsistence and absistence. For the Noneist, if an object does not exist, then it does not have any kind of being at all (This idea goes back to the work of Thomas Reid). Noneism also holds that nonexistent objects can have properties and that true statements can be made about them. The other change that Noneism brings to bear upon Meinongianism is that it situates nonexistent objects within different worlds, both possible worlds and impossible worlds. So for example, Gandalf is a nonexistent object that is a part of the world that realizes the Lord of the Rings stories. Crucially for the Noneist, inconsistent objects, like the round square, are part of impossible worlds where the laws of logic are different.

Radical Noneism has exactly the same principles as Noneism, but with only one difference: namely, for the Radical Noneist, the actual world is inconsistent. This being the case, the Radical Noneist locates some inconsistent objects within the actual world.


Now to the benefits and drawbacks of the theories. Meinongianism has numerous theoretical virtues to it's credit, including scope, explanatory power, and adherence to the data. But more importantly, Meinongianism resolves a number of long-standing problems in Philosophy. The first of these problems does not have a name in the literature (as far as I am aware), but it concerns the paradox of describing something as not being an object. Gottlob Frege and Alfred North Whitehead are 2 notable Philosophers that ran into this problem. For Frege, the world is split up into 3 different kinds of things: objects, concepts, and names. Consequently for Frege, concepts and names are not objects. But this leads us straight into a paradox, as Frege himself recognized. For if we say that 'A concept is not an object', we are treating a concept as if it were an object. Frege was never able to get around this problem and was eventually forced to say that natural language does not allow him to properly express what he means in this case.

Whitehead ran into a similar problem. For Whitehead, there really are no such things as objects at all, only what he called 'processes'. But again, just as with Frege, if we say that 'A process is not an object', we are treating a process as if it were an object. There seems to be no way around this paradox for Whitehead.

However, Meinongianism is able to avoid this paradox entirely. Since Meinongianism takes everything whatever as an object, it simply does not run across the problems of Frege and Whitehead. Indeed, even things that are not objects are still considered objects by the Meinongian. So the Meinongian could perfectly well say that 'A concept is not an object', and he could perhaps speak truly by saying this, but he does not run into the paradox because he still takes concepts to be objects (even though they might not be objects).

The second longstanding problem that Meinongianism resolves is the so-called 'Paradox of Non-Being'. This is one of the oldest problems of Philosophy, going all the way back to the days of Parmenides and Plato. The basic idea behind the paradox is that, in order to say of an object that it does not exist, it would allegedly seem to be the case that the object must exist in order for us to say this. Or to put in a more memorable way: "Non-being must in some sense be." This problem has absolutely befuddled many of the greatest philosophers since the earliest days of the subject. But this problem does not even arise for the Meinongian, since he allows non-existent objects to have standing in his theory. Thus, the Meinongian can perfectly well say that a certain object does not exist, without thereby committing himself to the existence of that object.

Meinongianism also has another benefit. As we noted earlier, Meinongianism holds that true statements can me made about nonexistent objects. Thus, if we say 'Unicorns have one horn', we speak truly by saying this. This is quite natural, since if someone were to say 'Unicorns have 17 horns', we would most likely dispute that statement. But mainstream Philosophical theories do not believe that true statements can me made about nonexistent objects. For Parmenides and Plato, all statements about nonexistent objects are meaningless. For Frege and P.F. Strawson, all such statements are neither true nor false. For Bertrand Russell and contemporary Classical Logic, all such statements are false. But these theories are all incorrect. For we can perfectly well understand what is meant by saying 'Unicorns have one horn', to wit, it is ascribing the property of having one horn to every Unicorn. In addition, there have been times throughout history where people have thought that something exists, only to later find out that it doesn't. For instance, luminferous aether. This object was a standard feature of cutting edge scientific theory in the late 19th century. Many scientists did in fact think that such an object existed, only to eventually discover that it does not exist. Should we then say that when those 19th century scientists had made statements regarding the luminferous aether they were thereby talking nonsense? But they perfectly well understood the statements they were making about the aether, and surely it is incoherent to speak of understanding a meaningless statement, since there is quite literally no meaning there to be understood. So it is incorrect to say that such statements are meaningless. It is also incorrect to say that it is either false or neither true nor false; because we can actually provide evidence that Unicorns do have one horn, for example by consulting the relevant folk and mythological traditions and the relevant texts. Thus, Meinongianism admirably fits perfectly with the data on this point. Some people might respond to this by saying that merely consulting folk traditions and textual sources is not sufficient evidence to determine the truth-value of statements concerning nonexistent objects. However, if this were true, then all historical investigation of ancient people and cultures is thereby illegitimate, since in many cases these disciplines must rely on folk traditions and textual sources.

But Meinongianism has 2 major difficulties. The first difficult concerns how to make sense of subsistence and absistence. What does it mean to possess a 'lower level of being' than ordinary existence? What is meant by saying that absistence is 'being-like'? Also, quite apart from the interpretational difficulties involved with these notions, they complicate our logical theory by introducing two new primitives. We would do well to simplify the theory if at all possible. The second difficulty is in my opinion more damaging. Meinongianism locates every nonexistent object within the actual world (along with all the existent objects). But this leads to numerous problems, for take a nonexistent object such as Bigfoot. Even though this object does not exist, we can truly describe it as being located in the Pacific Northwest. But, and here is the kicker, if we were to conduct an exhaustive search of the Pacific Northwest, we would not find any such creature. The situation is similar with many fictional stories that take place in real locations in the actual world.

But there is also a more troubling facet of this problem, and that concerns impossible objects. Since impossible objects are given standing according to Meinongianism, and since impossible objects are located in the actual world, it follows that the actual world contains both incomplete and inconsistent objects. Whether this is considered to be a problem will of course depend on one's view of logic, but for many this implication would count against the theory. Thus it would seem that many nonexistent objects cannot be located in the actual world if they are to properly perform the needed work in logical theorizing.


Noneism does not run into the 2 aforementioned problems. Firstly, the Noneist does away with the notions of subsistence and absistence entirely. For the Noneist, an object either exists or it does not, full stop. This greatly simplifies our logical theory. Secondly, Noneism duly locates every object within either a possible or an impossible world (Note: This does not mean that every object is located in a unique world. Some nonexistent objects can be a part of the same world) Worlds, both possible and impossible, are another sort of nonexistent object for the Noneist. The role they play is in smoothing out the logical geography of Sistology. Since the Noneist locates Bigfoot within a possible world we can coherently say that 'Bigfoot is located in the Pacific Northwest', because what we mean by this is that if the possible world that contains Bigfoot existed, we would find Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest region of that world. Noneism also allows us to avoid the problem of impossible objects populating the actual world by placing those objects in the appropriate impossible worlds.

Noneism does have one glaring weakness though, and that is that it does not have anything to say about the logical paradoxes of self-reference. There are a large number of these paradoxes, but perhaps the most famous example of that of the Liar Sentence. Put quite simply, the Liar Sentence says the following: "This sentence is false". This immediately leads us into a paradox, for if the sentence is false, then the sentence is actually true (because it says that it is false). But if the sentence is true, then it is actually false (because it says that it is false). So the sentence seems to be both true and false.


One might think that the Noneist can accompany the Liar Sentence by locating it in the appropriate Impossible World, but this does not help matters because the Liar Sentence is surely a part of the Actual World, and the Noneist (like the Meinongian) does not allow for contradictions to inhabit the Actual World.

This where Radical Noneism comes in. As I mentioned earlier, Radical Noneism is exactly like Noneism, except that it holds that the Actual World is inconsistent. By doing this, it is able to accept that the Liar Sentence is both true and false in the Actual World. This means that Radical Noneism provides a uniform solution to the paradoxes of self reference, since they all have essentially the same logical structure as the Liar Sentence

Now Radical Noneism has one big limitation, namely, it does not provide a solution to the Paradoxes of Implication. However, dealing with these paradoxes takes us outside of the realm of object theory. In particular what is needed is a Relevant Logic, and in particular a Deep Relevant Logic (since the main systems of Relevant Logic do not solve Curry's Paradox).


So to conclude, we can see the appeal of all 3 of these theories. They are all very powerful and work very effectively in areas where mainstream philosophical theories have considerable difficulties. However, it is my opinion that Radical Noneism is the best of the 3. Radical Noneism, duly combined with a Deep Relevant Logic, promises to be a universal paradox solver and that cherished goal of many Philosophers, a true theory of everything.

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