Friday, July 02, 2004

Hugh McCann Reviews My Book

Forthcoming in Review of Metaphysics

Vallicella, William F. A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated. Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002, xi + 281.

This book offers an extended argument that the existence of contingent things is grounded in and hence accounted for by a paradigm existent, which is none other than existence itself–in effect, the ipsum esse subsistens of traditional philosophical theology. Much of the focus is on the nature of contingent existence, which the author contends is a genuine determination of real individuals, though not a property in the usual sense. This implies rejection of a number of other accounts of individual existence, which are refuted in detail in the first five chapters. Chapter II argues that existence is not a first-level property of things that have it –- in particular, not a property that divides a realm of Meinongian objects into those that exist and those that do not. Chapter III is directed against theories according to which an entity and its existence are one and the same. These are rejected on the ground that they must either misrepresent contingent things as necessarily existing, or deny that contingent existence is anything at all, which violates our intuition that to say a contingent thing exists is to attribute something to it, even if not an ordinary property. Chapter IV is dedicated to showing that contingent existence is not a second-order property–that is, a property of properties. General statements of existence (“There are tame tigers”) may perhaps be understood as second-order statements about what properties are instantiated. But not singular claims, for to treat a statement like “Socrates exists” as second order commits us in the end to haecceities –- which the author rejects, as either violating the distinction between abstract and the particular, or committing us in turn to the identity of indiscernibles, which faces powerful objections. Finally, there is the view that individual existence is a matter of being contained by some relevant domain -–rejected in chapter V because, among other reasons, it leads to the manifestly false result that the maximum world, which contains all other existents, does not itself exist.

The author’s own theory of contingent existence is developed mainly in chapters VI and VII. At its heart is the claim that contingently existing individuals are to be understood as concrete states of affairs or “facts” of the general form a’s being F. These are to be distinguished both from Fregean facts (i.e., true propositions) and from the states of affairs postulated by Roderick Chisholm –- both of which are abstract. By contrast, these are concrete realities: on this view Socrates is actually a complex state of affairs, whose constituents are the individual that is Socrates and the set of universals that characterize him. Metaphysics has need of such entities anyway, the author argues, as truth-makers for propositions. But they also make possible an account of contingent existence as a genuine feature of contingent entities, though not a first order property of them. Rather, says the author, the existence of ordinary individuals is simply the contingent unity of their constituents –- something we must postulate, since Socrates is clearly more than just the sum of his constituents. So the existence of Socrates is just the unity of the individual and properties out of which he is constituted; the nonexistence of Pegasus, by contrast, is just the absence of such a unity in his case. The author proceeds to argue that the existence (that is, unity) of the state of affairs that is any contingent individual can only be accounted for in terms of the action of an external unifier. This too involves rejecting a number of alternatives, perhaps most saliently theories that treat concrete states of affairs as ontologically basic, and their “constituents” as mere abstractions from them. This view is rejected on the ground that it makes the unity (existence) of a fact necessary to it, whereas in order to ground contingent truths, concrete SOA’s must exist contingently. Accordingly, there is no accounting for the unity of individuals except in terms of an external unifier -– a paradigm existent that the author argues in the final chapter has the character of a transcendent spiritual agent.

There are, to be sure, troubling aspects to this theory. One concerns the entities it treats as composing concrete individuals. The author argues, plausibly, that if the existence of the individual is to be explained via the unity of its components, those components must have independent reality. In the case of the properties, this leads simply to the familiar though debated position that universals have an existence transcending the individuals they characterize. In the case of the constituent “individual” the situation is more difficult, in that the author rejects bare particulars, and instead speaks of the individual component of Socrates as a mere potentiality for determination by properties, something that has “being” but not existence–a claim with an odd ring, especially in view of the author’s rejection of Meinongianism. Still more disturbing is the identification of individual existence with the unity of a concrete individual’s constituents. The author holds (p. 160) that it is natural to take such a view once we begin to treat ordinary individuals to be concrete states of affairs. Granting, however, that an individual cannot exist unless its essential components are unified, one may wonder whether to speak of their unity is to capture the sheer thereness we associate with existence -– not to mention the fact that this identification seems to make the argument for an external unifier a little too easy.

Difficulties notwithstanding, however, this is a very useful book indeed. The ground covered is immense. The author’s knowledge of the past century and a half of philosophizing about the problem of existence is encyclopedic, and his criticisms are incisive and to the point, even where proponents of the view under scrutiny may not be entirely convinced. In short, this volume belongs on the reading list of anyone interested in these issues. One could hardly fail to learn from it.

Hugh J. McCann
Texas A&M University