Our Czech friend Lukas Novak sent me a paper in which, drawing upon John Duns Scotus, he rejects the following principle of reference:
(PR) It is impossible to refer to that which is not.
In this entry I will first pull some quotations from Novak's paper and then raise some questions about the view he seems to be endorsing.
I. Novak's Scotistic View
Scotus’ position can be simply characterized as a consistent rejection of the PR . . . . According to Scotus, the objects of any intentional relations . . . simply are not required to have any ontological status whatsoever, or, as Scotus puts it, any esse verum. The “being” expressed by the predicates exploited by Francis, like “to be known” (esse cognitum), “to be intelligible” (esse intelligibile), “to be an image of a paradigm” (esse exemplatum), “to be represented” (esse repraesentatum) and the like, is not real or true in any way, irrespectively of whether the relation involved concerns God or man.
[. . .]
It is not necessary to assume any esse essentiae in objects of knowledge: instead, Scotus speaks of “esse deminutum” here, but he points out emphatically that this “diminished being” is being only “secundum quid”, i.e., in an improper, qualified sense – this is the point of Scotus’ famous criticism of Henry of Ghent laid out in the unique question of dist. 36 of the first book of his Ordinatio. If you look for some real being in the object of intellection that it should have precisely in virtue of being such an object, there is none to be found. The only real being to be found here is the real being of the intellection, to which the esse deminutum of the intellected object is reduced:
[. . .]
In other words: if we were to make something like an inventory of reality, we should not list any objects having mere esse deminutum. By speaking about objects in intelligible being we do not take on any ontological commitment (to use the Quinean language) over and above the commitment to the existence of the intellections directed to these objects.
[. . .]
And now the crucial point: it is precisely this intelligibility, imparted to the objects by the divine intellect, what [that] makes human conceiving of the same objects possible, irrespectively of whether they have any real being or not:
[. . .]
In other words: the most fundamental reason why the PR is false is, according to Scotus, the fact that a sufficient condition of the human capacity to refer to something is the intelligibility of that something. This intelligibility, however, is bestowed on things in virtue of their being conceived, prior to creation, by the absolute divine intellect. This divine conceiving, however, neither produces nor presupposes any genuine being in the objects; for it is a universal truth that cognition is an immanent operation, one whose effect remains wholly in its subject (and so does not really affect its object) – in this elementary point divine cognition is not different. Accordingly, objects need not have any being whatsoever in order to be capable of being referred to. (emphasis added)
II. Some Questions and Comments
As a matter of fact we do at least seem to refer to nonexistent objects and say things about them, true and false. Alexius von Meinong's celebrated goldner Berg, golden mountain, may serve as an example. The golden mountain is made of gold; it is a mountain; it does not exist; it is an object of my present thinking; it is indeterminate with respect to height; it is 'celebrated' as it were among connoisseurs of this arcana; it is Meinong's favorite example of a merely possible individual; it -- the very same one I am talking about now -- was discussed by Kasimir Twardowski, etc.
Now if this seeming to refer is an actual referring, if we do refer to the nonexistent in thought and overt speech, then it is possible that we do so. Esse ad posse valet illatio. But how the devil is it possible that we do so? (PR) is extremely plausible: it is difficult to understand how there could be reference to that which has no being, no esse, whatsoever.
If I understand Novak, he wants a theory that satisfies the following desiderata or criteria of adequacy
D1. Possibilism is to be avoided. We cannot maintain that the merely possible has any sort of being.
D2. Actualist ersatzism is to be avoided. We cannot maintain that there are actual items such as Plantingian haecceities that stand in for mere possibilia.
D3. The phenomenological fact that intentionality is relational or at least quasi-relational is to be respected and somehow accommodated. No adverbial theories!
D4. Eliminativism about intentionality/reference is to be avoided. Intentionality is real!
D5. Nominalist reductionism according to which reference is a merely intralinguistic phenomenon is to be avoided. When I refer to something, whether existent or nonexistent, I am getting outside of language!
Novak does not list these desiderata; I am imputing them to him. He can tell me if my imputation is unjust. In any case, I accept (D1)-(D5): an adequate theory must satisfy these demands. Now how does Novak's theory satisfy them?
Well, he brings God into the picture. Some will immediately cry deus ex machina! But I think Novak can plausibly rebut this charge. If God is brought on the stage in an ad hoc manner to get us out of a jam, then a deus ex machina objection has bite. But Novak and his master Scotus have independent reasons for positing God. See my substantial post on DEM objections in philosophy, here.
Suppose we have already proven, or at least given good reasons for, the existence of God. Then he can be put to work. Or, as my esteemed teacher J. N. Findlay once said, "God has his uses."
So how does it work? It is sufficient for x to be an object of thought or reference by us that it be intelligible. This intelligibility derives from the divine intellect who, prior to creation, conceives of such items as the golden mountain. But this conceiving does not impart to them any real being. Nor does it presuppose that they have any real being. In themselves, they have no being at all. God's conceiving of nonexistent objects is a wholly immanent operation the effect of which remains wholly within the subject of the operation, namely, the divine mind. And yet the nonexistent objects acquire intelligibility. It is this intelligibility that makes it possible for us finite minds to think the nonexistent without it being the case that nonexistent objects have any being at all.
That is the theory, assuming I have understood it. And it does seem to satisfy the desiderata with the possible exception of (D3). But here is one concern. The theory implies that when I think about the golden mountain I am thinking about an operation wholly immanent to the divine intellect. But that is not what I seem to be thinking about. What I seem to be thinking about has very few properties (being golden, being a mountain) and perhaps their analytic entailments, and no hidden properties such as the property of being identical to an operation wholly immanent to the divine intellect. An intentional object has precisely, all and only, the properties it is intended as having.
Connected with this concern is the suspicion that on Novak's theory the act-object distinction is eliminated, a distinction that is otherwise essential to his approach. He wants to deny that merely intentional objects have any being of their own. So he identifies them with divine conceivings. But this falls afoul of a point insisted on by Twardowski. (See article below.)
My merely imagined table does not exist in reality, 'outside' my mind. But it also does not exist 'in' my mind as identical to the act of imagining it or as a proper part of the act of imagining it, or as any sort of mental content, as Twardowski clearly saw. Otherwise, (i) the merely imagined table would have the nature of an experience, which it does not have, and (ii) it would exist in reality, when it doesn't, and (iii) it would have properties that cannot be properties of mental acts or contents such as the property of being spatially extended.
My point could be put like this. The typical merely intentional, hence nonexistent, object such as the golden mountain does not have the nature of an experience or mental act; it is an object of such an act. But if merely intentional objects are divine conceivings, then they have the nature of an experience. Ergo, etc. Novak's theory appears to fall into psychologism.