Strawson and Russell: No Unicorns!

Both Russell and Strawson want to resist the Meinongean claim that there are non-existent objects subsisting in what has been called an “ontological slum.” In his exposition of Russell’s views (pp 42-43), Strawson gives two arguments that a Meinongean might give for admitting such objects to our ontology and explains how Russell responds to them. In the remainder of the article he spells out his alternative response which he makes.  Both Russell and Strawson block the conclusions, but in different ways.

Sentence S, “The present king of France is wise” poses difficulties because it is significant even when there is no king of France, hence the following Meinongean arguments for a “subsisting” King of France:

The Significance and Reference Argument
(1) The phrase, “the king of France”, is the subject of of the sentence S
(2) If S is a significant sentence, S is a sentence about
the king of France.
(3) If there in no sense exists a king of France, the sentence is not about anything, and hence not about the king of France
(4) Therefore, since S is significant, there must in some sense (in some world) exist (or subsist) the king of France.

Russell’s Response: Deny (1). S is not really a subject-predicate sentence at all. When we analyze it we see that it’s true logical form is existential and general: “There exists one and only one x that is the King of France and x is wise.” Case closed.

Strawson’s Response: Contrary to Russell, S is a subject-predicate sentence. However the significance, i.e. meaning of a sentence is the body of rules and conventions that govern its use on different occasions.

The Significance and Truth Value Argument
(1) If S is siugnificant, it is either true or false.
(2) S is ture if the king of France is wise and false if the king of France is not wise.
(3)But the statement thqat the king of France is wise and the statement that the king of France is not wise are alike true only if there is (in some sense in some world) something which is the king of France.
(4) Hence, since S is significant, there must in some sense (in some world) exist (or subsist) the king of France.

Russell’s Response: Given my analysis, both “the present king of France is wise” and “the present king of France is not wise” are false. However this does not violate excluded middle (the principle that says that for every object,x, and every property, P, either x has P or x doesn’t have P). The reason is that both of those sentences are conjunctions whose first conjuncts are “There is one and only one x such that x is the present king of France.” That proposition is false hence both conjunctions which contain it are false. What is true is that it is not the case that the present king of France is wise but that’s something different from saying that the present king of France is not wise—note the difference in scope of the negation!

Strawson’s Response: Deny (1). Since reference fails in S, because there is no king of France, the act of attribution can’t even take place. Since we neither attribute or misattribute wisdom to the king of France, S is neither true nor false.