A reader wants me to comment on the analytic-Continental split. Perhaps I will do so in general terms later, but in this post I will consider one particular aspect of the divide that shows up in different approaches to existence. Roughly, Continental philosophers espouse the thick theory, while analytic philosophers advocate the thin theory. Of course there are exceptions to this rule: Your humble correspondent is an analytic thick theorist and so is Barry Miller. Whether there are any Continental thin theorists I don't know.
Why should analytic philosophers prefer the thin theory? Part of the reason, some will say, is that analysts tend to be superficial people: they are logically very sharp but woefully lacking in spiritual depth. They are superficial specimens of what Heidegger calls das Man, the 'they': lacking authenticity, they float along on the superficies of things. Bereft of a depth-dimension in themselves, they are blind to the world's depth-dimension. Blind to the world's depth-dimension, they are blind to existence. A Heideggerian might say that they are not so much blind as forgetful: they have succumbed to die Vergessenheit des Seins. The analysts, of course, will not admit to any such deficiencies of sight or memory. They will turn the tables and accuse Continentals such as Heidegger and Sartre of being muddle-headed mystics and obscurantists who commit school-boy blunders in logic. (Carnap's famous/notorious attack on Heidegger is a text-book case.)
So we have a nice little fight going, complete with name-calling. Perhaps a little exegesis of a passage from Sartre will help clarify the issue. I have no illusions about converting any thin theorist. I aim at clarity, not agreement. I will be happy if I can achieve an exact understanding of what we are disagreeing about and why we are disagreeing. When that goal is attained we can cheerfully agree to disagree.
So let's consider the famous 'chestnut tree' passage in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel, Nausea. The novel's protagonist, Roquentin, is in a park when he has a bout of temporary aphasia while contemplating the roots of a chestnut true. Words and their meanings vanish. He finds himself confronting a black knotty mass that frightens him. Then he has a vision:
It left me breathless. Never, until these last days, had I understood the meaning of 'existence.' I was like all the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, 'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must
[have] believe[d] that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be.' Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that that green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things I was miles from dreaming that they existed; they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface.
If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form that was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence
had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness. (p. 127 tr. Lloyd Alexander, ellipsis in original.)
This marvellous passage records Roquentin's intuition (direct nonsensory perception) of Being or existence. (It would be interesting to compare in a subsequent post Jacques Maritain's Thomist intuition of Being with Sartre's existentialist intuition of Being.) Viewed through the lenses of logic, 'The green sea exists' is equivalent to 'The sea is green' and 'The sea belongs to the class of green objects.' For the (standard) logician, then, 'exists' and cognates is dispensable and the concept of existence is fully expressible in terms of standard logical machinery. Anything we say using 'exists(s)' we can also say without using 'exist(s). To give another example, 'Dragons do not exist' is logically equivalent to 'Everything is not a dragon.' If we want, we can avoid the word 'exist(s)' and substitute for it some logical machinery: the universal quantifier and the tilde (the sign for negation) as in our last example.
But why would a man like Peter van Inwagen -- the head honcho of the thin theorists -- want to avoid 'exist(s)'? Because he wants to show that existence is a thin notion: there is nothing more to it than can be captured using the thin notions of logic: quantification, negation, copulation, and identity. He wants to show that there is no reason to think that there is any metaphysical depth lurking behind 'exist(s)' and cognates, that there is no room for a metaphysics of existence as opposed to a logic of 'exist(s)'; nor room for any such project as Heidegger's fundamental ontology (Being and Time) or Sartre's phenomenological ontology (Being and Nothingness).
And why does the thin theorist go to all this deflationary trouble? Because he lacks this sense or intuition of existence that philosophers as diverse as Wittgenstein, Maritain, and Sartre share, a sense or intution he feels must be bogus and must rest on some mistake. He fancies himself the clear-headed foe of obfuscation and he sees nothing but obfuscation in talk of Being and existence.
But as I have been arguing ad nauseam (so to speak) over many a blog post, published article and book, sentences like 'The sea is green' presuppose for their truth that the sea is an existing sea. Compare the reference above to an existing seagull. And, as Sartre has Roquentin says, "usually existence hides itself." It hides itself from all of us most of the time when we are immersed in what Heidegger calls average everydayness (alltaegliche Durchschnittlichkeit, vide Sein und Zeit), and existence hides itself from the logician qua logician all the time. For all of us most of the time, and for logicians all of the time, existence is "nothing, simply an empty form."
In fact, that is a good statement of the thin theory: existence is nothing at all, apart from an empty logical form. Sea, seagull, bench, tree, root -- but no existence of the sea, of the seagull, of the bench, etc. Sea, seagull, bench, tree, root, and some logical concepts. That's it.
"Usually existence hides itself." This invites mockery from the thin theorists. What? Existence plays hide-and-seek with us?! [Loud guffaws from the analytic shallow-pates.] To the existence-blind it must appear a dark and indeed incomprehensible saying. But of course to the blind that which is luminous must appear dark. Perhaps we can recast Sartre's loose and literary formulation in aseptic terms by saying that existence is a hidden and taken-for-granted presupposition of our discourse that for the most part remains hidden and taken-for-granted. Let me explain.
'The sea is green' and 'The green sea exists' are logically equivalent. But this equivalence rests on a tacit presupposition, namely, that the sentences are to be evaluated relative to a domain of existing items. The reason we can make the deflationary move of replacing the latter sentence with the former is because existence is already present, though hidden, in 'The sea is green.' 'The sea is green' can be parsed as follows: The sea is (exists) & the sea (is) green, where the parentheses around 'is' indicate that it functions as a pure copula, a pure predicative link and nothing more. The parsing makes it clear that the 'is' in 'The sea is green' exercises a dual function: it is not merely an 'is' of predication: it is also an 'is' of existence. Therefore, translation of 'The green sea exist' as 'The sea is green' does not eliminate existence as the thin theorist falsely assumes.
In material mode, the point is that nothing can have a property unless it exists. The sea cannot be green or slimy or stinky unless it exists. This existence of the sea, seagull, etc., however, is a presupposition that remains hidden as long as we comport ourselves in Heidegger's "average everydayness" manipulating things for our purposes but not wondering at their very existence. We have to shift out of our ordinary everyday attitude in order to be struck by the sheer existence of things. Perhaps the thin theorist is incapable of making that shift. But he really doesn't need to if he has followed my reasoning.
What the thin theorist does is to substitute logical Being for real Being. Note that I am not endorsing Sartre's theory of real Being: that it is an absurd excrescence, de trop (superfluous), unintelligible, etc. What I am endorsing is his insight that real Being is extralogical, that it is not a thin notion exhausted by the machinery of logic. Thus I am endorsing what is common to Sartre, Maritain, Wittgenstein, and others, namely, that existence is real not merely logical.
But what if you are one of those sober types who has never experienced anything like Heideggerian Angst or Sartrean nausea or Wittgenstein's wonder at the existence of the world? Well, I think you could still be brought by purely discursive methods to understand how existence cannot reduce to a purely logical notion. We shall see.