Contrary to what many seem to think, I contend that (1) clearly false. If I am right, then we must ask why (1) seems (to some) to be obviously true. I will argue that the preoccupation in analytic philosophy with favoring a scientistic rationality against any form of magical thinking has, counterintuitively, led to an insensitivity to certain truths, and consequently, problematic philosophical intuitions.
In order to clarify the role (1) plays in philosophical thinking, I will need to briefly outline the Problem of Negative Existentials. Next, I’ll show why (1) is false, contrary to the philosophical intuitions appealed to by philosophers discussing the problem. I’ll then reflect on why analytic philosophers are so quick to accept a dubious statement like (1). I’ll suggest that the most plausible explanation is that philosophers who accept (1) as obviously true must be working within a worldview that artificially flattens anything associated with the magical. This makes sense within the system of rational thinking that analytic philosophy tends to embrace, yet the result problematic philosophical intuitions.
Analytic philosophers have been known to become exercised by the Problem (or Problems) of Negative Existentials. This collection of problems centers around the fact that we seem to be able to meaningfully and truly claim that nonexistent objects don’t exist, for instance, (2):
2. Pegasus does not exist.
Yet by referring to (or attempting to refer to) the nonexistent object, we appear to be presupposing that the nonexistent object exists. Recall the famous example:
3. The present King of France is bald.
The problem with this statement is not that it is false, but that it involves a presupposition failure: it presupposes that France presently has a king, which is false. But if (3) involves a presupposition failure, so should (2). Nevertheless, our intuition seems to suggest that whatever the problem with (3), it does not extend to (2); in uttering (2) someone can felicitously and successfully assert that Pegasus does not exist.
I will not attempt to solve any of the problems of negative existentials, present the candidate solutions, nor clarify further what the problems are or the different versions of them. I introduce the problem in order to clarify why (1) has been used as an example in philosophical writings at all. (1), like (2) is supposed to be, or at least seem to us to be obviously true. If there is a problem with (1), it is not that it is false, but rather, that there is a presupposition failure.
Yet there is a problem with this line of thought: it is far from evident that (1) is a true statement at all. After all, many people consider themselves to be witches. Many of these people do some of the things we might expect witches to do: they gather herbs, they perform rituals, they practice divination, and they even believe in and practice magic (though they may not all have the same understanding of what magic is). Further, throughout history people have taken themselves to practice magic.
One might think that this should be enough for us at least to hesitate before endorsing a claim like (1). Yet, as I’ve noted, the example is used not just as a claim of something that is likely true, but of a claim that is so uncontroversially true that it doesn’t even require an argument. In other words, it is supposed to be so obviously true that we can rely on intuition rather than argumentation or evidence to answer the question of whether witches exist. This might make sense if we could know that the meaning of ‘witch’ itself involves characteristics that no human could actually have, but to assume this meaning without argumentation would be putting the cart before the horse.
Other examples of uncontroversial negative existential statements tend to center on creatures or objects from fiction or myth, as in (2). Because Pegasus is mythical, any real creature that has some of the same characteristics, say a horse that, by some mutation, grew wings, would not really be Pegasus because (among other things) Pegasus is the name of a particular flying horse that never existed. The same cannot be said for witches; the concept of witches has its source in real people to whom modern-day witches have a causal connection (which is not to say that they are witches in the same sense as the people who were the source for our concept).
This disanalogy between Pegasus and witches is instructive. The strength of the intuition about (1) suggests that it is seen just as (2) would be: that because, like Pegasus, witches are associated with the magical or mythical, they therefore cannot have any more reality than Pegasus. In order for this view to get off the ground, there must be an implicit flattening of the category of the magical: that anything broadly associated with the magical must for that reason be nonexistent. This is, of course, very sloppy thinking. The strict distinction between the “real” and the magical or mystical is historically a very recent phenomenon (and in fact, we still frequently refer to experiences as “magical,” whether we mean that literally or not). To assume nonexistence of something that is merely associated with the magical as a matter of a gut reaction or intuition obscures truths that should be obvious, such as the fact that witches do in fact exist.
This example is used with some frequency since Peter Van Inwagen used the example in “Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities” in 2003, though significantly earlier, in 1970, E.W. Beth used it as an example of a way of cancelling a presupposition when someone says something like, “All witches are dangerous” (123). I came upon it most recently in Sainsbury and Tye (2012).
Beth, E.W. Aspects of Modern Logic. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing, 1970.
Sainsbury, Mark and Michael Tye, Seven Puzzles of Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Van Inwagen, Peter, “Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities,” in The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, edited by Michael Loux and Dean Zimmerman, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.