I have thoughts. I think. But perhaps not very coherent ones. I don't know: let's see where this goes.
So, I read Tom Graham's review of the new edition of Graham Priest's Towards Non-Being (OUP 2018) in this week's TLS. Priest's book is an attempt to think with some philosophical rigour about non-existent things. Here's how Graham summarises the context, which is to say, the larger post-Quinean professional-philosophers' debate.
That some things—unicorns, the largest number, Sherlock Holmes—do not exist seems so obvious, and is so frequently taken for granted in our everyday discourse, that denying it would be ridiculous in any ordinary context. And so it may come as some surprise that since the beginning of the twentieth century this view has been among the least popular and most berated in anglophone philosophy. Many even claim that the position, so widely held by non-philosophers, is unintelligible, and the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle even went so far as to say that if it were not a dead view in philosophy, nothing was. To revive the view that some things don’t exist (known these days as “noneism”) and situate it as a plausible contender in current debates on existence is the aim of Graham Priest’s formidable 2005 book Towards Non-Being, which has now appeared in a significantly expanded second edition.I have not read Priest's book (though I may), but from Graham's review it seems his ‘solution’ to the Quinean problem is to posit inexistent things as sort-of existing in the distinct possible worlds that actualise them: a development, it seems, of ‘possible world semantics’. In some possible worlds Sherlock exists and in others he doesn't. Graham is quite impressed.
A fundamental motivation for the dominant view is that to lack existence, it seems, is to be nothing at all. Things, by contrast, are not ‘nothing’—they are things! If so, then ‘being a thing’ and ‘existing’ go hand in hand, and there cannot be ‘things’ that do not exist. Adherents of this view thus read the noneist's claim ‘some things don't exist’ as entailing the self-refuting ‘some things are not things’ and therefore to be self-contradictory. The dominant ‘Quinean’ approach to existence (named after the influential American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine) holds this position. For Quineans, all things exist—that's what it means to be a thing. But that does not mean that, for example, Sherlock Holmes exists. Rather they believe that since Sherlock isn't any kind of thing at all, the phrase ‘all things’ in ‘all things exist’ does not cover him. There is simply no ‘him’ for it to cover.
Matters are complicated for Quineans, however, by at least two aspects of our everyday discourse. Firstly, consider that many things appear to be true of supposed non-existents. It is apparently true, for example, that Sherlock Holmes is a popular fictional detective. And yet how can this be true of Sherlock, if there is in reality no Sherlock for it to be true of? Secondly, Many philosophers (beginning with Plato) have supposed that we can—among other things—think, talk, dream, argue and make television series about supposed non-existents (philosophers use the word ‘intentionality’ for this mysterious quality of ‘aboutness’). They have argued that for this reason non-existents must exist in some sense—otherwise how could we do all these different things to them? Quineans maintain that any features of our discourse that appear to commit us to the existence of non-existent things can be reconstructed in such a way as to make that commitment disappear. [Tom Graham, ‘Elementary’, TLS (23 Feb 2018), 7]
The theory does allow us to explain why it seems truer to say that Sherlock is a detective than to say that he is a fishmonger, for example. According to noneism this is because, in those possible worlds that realize the way that Conan Doyle's stories represent the world as being, Sherlock is a detective (and not a fishmonger). Furthermore, though non-existents cannot have any properties in this world that entail existence, Priest's noneism does allow that they can have certain ‘non-existence entailing’ properties here, among which are intentional one like ‘being thought about’. According to the theory, what we are doing when we think about Sherlock, for instance, is thinking about an object that exists in other possible worlds.Well alrighty. This seems cogent, although a trifle angelic-pinhead-disco-y. But it prompts a couple of reactions in me, and I'll notate them here.
The main thing is my peculiar perspective on this matter: my commitment to Fantasy and SF, as a writer, critic and fan (which last status of course preceded the other two). I baulk, I suppose, at the emphasis on possible worlds. Fantasy is necessarily predicated upon one or other impossibilities, after all. That's almost a thumbnail definition of the mode. It's possible a man might have set up a detective agency in late Victorian London. Its not possible that Gandalf could actually have fought an actual Balrog, because neither the magic he used nor the beast with which he grappled are possible things. But, it seems to me, this latter inexistent event is exactly as ‘real’ in any meaningful sense of the word in this context as that former one.
Two other thoughts. One is that I tend to think the philosophers get this whole question arse-backwards. So far as I can follow the debate, both Quineans and ‘Noneists’ consider the real world to be full of real things, and the inexistent world to be a kind of annex, or ratio-inferior, of that plenitude, for which little epicycle-like appendices to the larger theory of existent things are needful in order to make the whole consistent schema of nested Quinean spheres spin smoothly.
I honestly doubt if this is the state of affairs, at least where living-breathing humans are concerned. Reality is what it is, no question; but Fantasy is unconstrained by what-it-isness and expands in myriad more startling and satisfying and alarming directions. The point is: people care more, and quite a lot of people care very much more, about Fantasy than Reality. I don't mean in the schizophrenic sense of losing touch with reality. Almost everybody is adept at not doing that. But I do insist upon the point nonetheless. People care more about the fictional (inexistent) neighbours they watch on Eastenders and Coronation Street than they do about their actual neighbours, who actually live next door to them. People care more about Hogwarts than real schools. People care more about Wakanda than actual African nations. More tourists will discover a desire to visit New-Zealand-as-Middle-Earth than will want to go merely to New Zealand.
I say so not in any spirit of contempt at the bovine disengagement from reality of people in general. This seems to me simply an observation about human life, mine as much as anybody's. In fact I think it reflects the simple fact that Reality is something we must navigate and survive, where Story is something we have invented precisely such that we can care about it. And this has real-world consequences, all the time, some small, some large. People invest in ideologies and theologies, for example, that override their basic instincts towards logic, empathy, and even self-preservation. Al Capone wept as he watched Caruso sing Canio in Pagliacci, but stood stony-faced as his henchmen murdered actual, living, breathing people in front of him, on his orders. I've written elsewhere, and still think it's largely true, that Star Wars killed the space race: Apollo 11 was exciting, but the later Apollo missions were dull and functional and real; and when, in 1977, this exciting, thrilling irreal version of space travel came along, people switched allegiance. Simple as that. It is so much easier and so much more emotionally gratifying to care about Luke Skywalker than it is to care about Eugene A. Cernan and Ronald E. Evans. And we want to care. We want to care very much.
That leads to my second thought, which is where I go off the rails a little, I suspect. It's a hypothesis: that the inexistent (and therefore, for example, Fantasy) operates in an Aristotelian, or Thomas-Aquinas-esque, manner, where the existent (the real world or real things) operates in a Newtonian-Einsteinian manner. That, in fact, this distinction might be a way of approaching the logic of the irreal itself, and of fleshing out a theory of the discursive parameters of Fantasy as a mode. It's also an index of caring I think. It shapes the ways in which we articulate our passion for these inexistencies, the things we care about and the sorts of engagement we indulge in.
To be clear, and although people thought they were for a long time, real things are not Aristotelian mash-ups of substance and accidents. All those alchemists were barking up the wrong tree: lead does not share the same substance as gold, such that, if we could just find a way of tweaking its accidental greyness and leadenness, we could all be rich. That's simply not how the universe works. But it is how inexistent objects and entities work. That, at any rate, is my hypothesis.
A couple of in-the-news-at-the-moment examples of what I mean. James Bond is inexistent, a glamorous super-spy who has exciting adventures all around the world. He is, we could say, substantially a British spy, and not (to use Graham's example) substantially a Portuguese fishmonger. But he is only accidentally white. We could cast Idris Elba as Bond, and millions would flock to the cinema to see him, and take him as James Bond. Of course I'm not picking an ideologically neutral example, and there are people who insist that Bond is indeed substantially white. They're wrong, and basically racist, but the point is, even such people would recognise that the entity James Bond has accidents as well as substance: brown eyes or blue, a chunky frame or a more slender one and so on. They're just arguing over where the line is drawn. Or another example: Doctor Who is substantially a benign alien with the power to travel in time, and only accidentally old or young, male or female. When bigots complain ‘you can't cast a black actor to play Hermione Granger’ they're insisting that the character's skin-colour is part of her substance. They're not denying the accidents of the character, or they'd say ‘you can't cast an actor to play Hermione Granger’. When bigots complain ‘you can't cast a woman a Doctor Who’ they are both revealing their ideological bias, and their tacit commitment to a model of Aristotelian irrealism in which many aspects of Doctor Who can change but some others cannot without the entity in question stopping being Doctor Who.
So what I wonder is: to what extent might a poetics of fantasy as such be construed from this Aristotleian understanding of the nature of fantasy worlds, characters, tropes and styles? Banished from the real world by, well, reality itself, might substance-accident not have a place in the irreal? (Might, indeed, the appeal of that patently flawed and inadequate physics—and it persuaded lots of very clever people for thousands of years—be explicable because it so perfectly describes those inexistent entities of Story, Fantasy and Religion about whom we all care so much more than we do about rocks and stones and trees?) What might such a poetics look like, I wonder? I'll have a think about it.