1913 Russell vs. 1899 Meinong

This semester I am sitting in on Jim van Cleve’s perception seminar (which is covering theories from Malebranch and Arnauld up through more recent work by Noe and Gupta), and we wound up doing some readings from Bertrand Russell’s “Theory of Knowledge” (ToK), a work that was published in 1984 from a 1913 manuscript of Russell’s. In that work, Russell contrasts his approach to acquaintance with the equivalent element of Meinong’s theory. Both Russell and Meinong seem to be subscribing to a version of intentionalism (at least about acquaintance/presentation). So, as I understand their views, they both think that states of presentation have a subject as well as an object that is (at least sometimes) extra-mental.

Russell and Meinong here conflict on two fronts: i) they conflict on whether the object presented must exist, and ii) they conflict on whether the state possesses content that is distinct from its object and mental.

Meinong permits a mental state’s object to be non-existent, while Russell does not, and Meinong thinks that mental states have mental content distinct from their objects.

Here is Russell, quoting Meinong (from “Uber Gegenstande hohrer Ordnung un deren Verhaltniss zur inneren Wahrnehmung”), on the:
“That it is essential to everything psychical to have an object, will presumably be admitted without reserve at least in regard to that psychical material which will here exclusively concern us. For no one doubts that one cannot have a presentation without having a presentation of something, and also that one cannot judge without judging about something. People will probably also concede just as willingly that there is no presentation or judgment without content; but for not a few this readiness comes from the assumption that content and object are pretty much the same thing. I also long believed that the two expressions could be used indifferently, and that therefore one of them could be dispensed with. To-day I regard this as a mistake.”

And here is Russell’s characterization of the motivation for the Meinongian view about content and his reply to Meinong:
“The argument which has probably done the most to produce a belief in ‘contents’ as opposed to objects is the last of those adduced by Meinong, namely that there must be some difference between a presentation of one object and a presentation of another, and this difference is not to be found in the ‘act’ of presentation. At first sight, it seems obvious that my mind is in different ‘states’ when I am thinking of one thing and when I am thinking of another. But in fact the difference of the object supplies all the difference required.”

As Russell is presenting it, the argument here is something like this: When o1 is not identical to o2, there is some difference between the presentation of o1 to S and the presentation of o2 to S. Since both presentations involve the same relation (acquaintance), there must be some difference in the subject’s state (i.e. content) which differs between the two presentations.

Russell goes on to explain that the argument in question presupposes an “internal” theory of relations, saying, “[if] the complex ‘my awareness of A’ is different from the complex ‘my awareness of B’, it does not follow that when I am aware of A I have some intrinsic quality which I do not have when I am aware of B but not of A. There is therefore no reason for assuming a difference in the subject corresponding to the difference between two presented objects.”

This whole dispute was very perplexing to me, until I figured out that what is really going on is that Russell is thinking about this mental relationship as something like pointing, while Meinong is thinking about it as something like depicting.

To bring Russell’s thought out, we can consider the relation of pointing at. Suppose I stick my arm out, and the result is that I am pointing at a certain green couch. There is a difference between pointing at that green couch, as opposed to pointing at a certain red chair, but it does not follow that there is a difference intrinsic to me or my contribution to the pointing event in the two cases. To see this, imagine that I remain unchanged while someone else swaps the location of the chair and the couch. There is a different object of my pointing, but no difference in my contribution to the act of pointing.

But to think that this is an adequate reply to Meinong is to misunderstand the motivation for Meinong’s position. Let’s take the depicting analogy seriously, and consider depictions of what I will, for present purposes, assume to be non-existent entities.* Depiction A is a depiction of Pegasus, and depiction B is a depiction of Medusa. The two depictions have different objects. But this is not something we can explain by appeal to spatio-temporal, causal, or other physical relations obtaining between the depictions and their objects. Neither Pegasus nor Medusa is causally efficacious, spatio-temporally located, or physically related to me (alternately: whatever physical, spatio-temporal, or causal relations one stands in to me, the other does also). What’s more, it seems as though there does need to be an intrinsic difference in the depictions that explains why they differ with respect to their objects.** At the very least, intuitively, part of what makes something a depiction of Pegasus is the intrinsic features of the depiction.

How does this understanding of Meinong help blunt the Russellian criticism? Well, if a subject hallucinates a dagger, Meinong thinks that the object of the state is a non-existent dagger. But he sees a need to explain why the object of the state is a non-existent dagger rather than a non-existent alligator. Since this explanation cannot come, in his view, from external relations between the subject and the dagger or the alligator, there must be something about the mental state itself that secures the relevant object. Veridical cases differ from hallucination insofar as some existing object answers to the content of the mental state.

What can Russell say about hallucinatory states? I see three options: i) Russell could make the objects of presentation property complexes (which exist, but are not instantiated by anything), ii) Russell could be a disjunctivist, and maintain that hallucinatory states are simply not presentational, or iii) Russell could opt for the move considered by William Alston (in his 1999 article “Back to the Theory of Appearing”), and maintain that hallucinations involve presentation with misrepresentation, or in other words, that there is some existing thing, like a region of space or quantity of air, that one perceives as F, when it fails to be F.***

I think that option (i) will not work, though I include it as some of Russell’s comments (p. 41-44) seem to suggest a view in that neighborhood, insofar as the property complexes, existing in platonic heaven, do not seem to exhibit the right sorts of differences in external relations to the individual needed to use Russell’s internal/external appeals to deal with them. This is not a good place to try and settle the prospects for disjunctivism about perceptual experience, so I will not say much about it. Finally, option (iii) might work, but it pushes the problem back to one about the character of perceptual experience. We would be left with the question of what it is for an experience to present the x as F. Since some experiences of a given region of space or quantity of air present them as they are, an explanation is needed of what the difference consists in between those presentations, and the ones in which one or the other is presented as a dagger. This makes the problem harder for Russell, because he would be unable, in that case, to attribute the difference in the character of the presentations to a difference in their objects.

Given that I don’t find any of those options appealing, I am drawn to Meinong’s view (at least with respect to content), and my understanding of the division of labor on his view makes it much clearer a) why one might be sympathetic to his non-existent objects, and b) why, given his commitment to non-existent objects, and b) why, if he has a commitment to non-existent objects, he sees himself as needing to also postulate that states have contents that are distinct from their objects and mentalistic.

*I definitely do not intend to be taking the stance that this is the right way to think about the case, just that it will help illustrate what Meinong is proposing.
**In actuality, this is a fallacious step, insofar as one might appeal to a difference in the intentions of the person making the depictions, without any intrinsic difference in the depictions themselves, but this is not a direct problem for the analogy I am spelling out.
***Alston writes, of the hallucination case, “Thus it seems that if we are to save [The Theory of Appearances], we will have to find something that was appearing to Macbeth as a dagger, the handle toward his hand [. . .] And what might that be? There are various candidates. One is the air occupying the region where the dagger appears to be. Another is the portion of space apparently occupied by the dagger. A less plausible candidate would be the part of the brain playing a causal role in the production of that experience.” It is worth noting that this does not seem to be his settled view, but rather, a survey of some potential options available to a defender of the Theory of Appearances.

One Response to 1913 Russell vs. 1899 Meinong

  1. carlyndowdle says:

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