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Summary Article: Meinong, Alexius (1853–1920) from Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Metaphysics

Born at Lemberg, in 1853, he studied philosophy at the University of Vienna under the supervision of Franz Brentano, devoting himself initially to Hume's works. He wrote his habilitation on Hume's theory of abstraction, thus placing himself in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, a tradition in which his philosophical influence flourished. Indeed, Moore and Russell were greatly impressed by the quality and scope of his ideas. After a brief period as Privatdozent at the University of Vienna, he moved to Graz, a beautiful city in the Austrian province of Styria (Steiermark) near the borders of Hungary on the east and former Yugoslavia on the south, eventually ascending to a Chair in the Philosophy Institute at the Karl Maximilians University. He spent the rest of his life in this enchanting environment working out his unique ontological views, and also creating one of the earliest laboratories in experimental psychology. Held in great esteem by the citizens of Graz – the street Meinonggasse is named after him – he died there in 1920.

The most distinctive principle in Meinong's ontological theory – the theory of objects (Gegenstandstheorie) – is the principle that there are objects which have no being. Those with a taste for paradoxical expression, he said, might prefer the statement that there are objects such that there are no such objects.

Meinong reserves the word “existence” for spatio-temporal objects and uses the word “being” (or “subsistence”) more broadly to apply also to abstract objects. The number 2, for example, has being even though it does not exist. Objects having no being – the non-subsistent objects – include both putatively concrete objects (the golden mountain) and putatively abstract objects (the first number divisible by O).

The principle that there are non-subsistent objects has non-trivial consequences when conjoined with the equally radical principle of independence which says that what an object is is independent of its being; together they imply that non-subsistent objects can have properties. Thus, not only is the humming-bird now at the feeder winged, but so are Pegasus and the winged wingless horse, even though the latter two objects lack being.

Meinong holds that the properties of an object fall into two classes, those which are part of its nature, that is, nuclear (konstitutorische) properties, and those which are not, that is, non-nuclear (ausserkon-stitutorische) properties. For instance, goldenness is a nuclear property of the golden mountain, but its beinglessness is not. This leads to another important principle, the principle of indifference, which says that neither being nor beinglessness is part of the nature of an object. Objects are identified by means of their nuclear properties; a and b are the same objects just in case they have all the same nuclear properties. To remove the apparent inconsistency generated by this principle of identification and the fact that the existent gold mountain and the golden mountain are not identical, Meinong invokes the highly complex doctrine of “watered down” counterparts of non-nuclear properties – watered down existence, for example – and counts them among the properties comprising the nature of an object. So, the existent golden mountain has watered down existence but the golden mountain does not, and, hence, they are not the same object even though neither of them has non-nuclear existence.

Two persistent misunderstandings of Meinong's ontological doctrine are that the world of non-beings (Aussersein) consists only of possible objects, and that the objects of that world are a kind of intentional object. But the fact that there are – for Meinong – impossible objects such as the round square is a repudiation of the former misunderstanding, and the fact that Meinong distinguishes sharply between objects such as the thought of Pegasus and Pegasus, only the former of which has being, refutes the latter misunderstanding. Meinong is a realist with respect to non-subsistent objects, not an intentionalist. (See realism.)

Meinong classifies objects into two broad and important categories, objecta and objectives (Objektive), on the one hand, and complete and incomplete, on the other hand.

Objectives are states-of-affairs-like entities that can have objecta as constituents, but objecta can never have objectives as constituents (see propositions, states of affairs). For instance, both the subsistent objective that Oslo is in Norway and the non-subsistent objective that Oslo is in Sweden have Oslo as a constituent, but the individual Oslo itself has no objective as a constituent. Objectives play an important role in Meinong's theory of truth, serving as the truthmakers (see truthmaker), and in his prophetic and masterful work, Über Annahmen (1902), they serve as the “objects” of at least some of what would later be called propositional attitudes.

Complete objects are objects such that for every property P they either have P or the complement of P – non-redness, for example, is the complement of redness. Incomplete objects are objects such that for some property P they neither have P nor the complement of P. Incomplete objects, strictly speaking, neither have nor lack being in the primary sense, though many of them may be said to have a kind of being (“derived being”). Meinong seems to think of many if not most incomplete objects rather like Platonic forms and speaks of them as being embedded in objects. They play a significant role in his theory of reference and in his general theory of knowledge.

In Über Möglichkeit und Wahrscheinhchkeit (1915) Meinong distinguishes between a narrower and a wider sense of negation and hence a narrower and wider sense of the principle of excluded middle. In particular, to deny that an (incomplete) object neither has P nor its complement, which constitutes a rejection of excluded middle in the narrow sense, does not conflict with the law of excluded middle in the wider (and classical) sense that every object has P or does not have P, because the fact that an (incomplete) object does not have the property P does not exclude the possibility that it also does not have the complement of the property P. So, for example, though it is true by logic alone that the ideal triangle either has the property of equiangularity or does not have that property (wide negation), it does not follow from the fact that it does not have the property of equiangularity that, therefore, it has the property of non-equian-gularity (narrow negation). This, Meinong believes, was the fundamental error in Berkeley's attack on Locke's abstract ideas.

Until recently it was widely believed that Meinong's theory of non-subsistent objects – and, hence, his general theory of objects – is untenable because Russell (1905) had shown that Meinong's theory yields both the conclusion that the round square is round and is square, and the conclusion that the existent golden mountain exists and does not exist. But Russell's arguments against Meinong's theory have been vigorously challenged in the last two decades (see, for example, Lambert, 1983), and, in fact, many provably consistent formal theories of non-existent objects, some of them close to Meinong in word and spirit, have been developed (see, for instance, Parsons, 1980). Indeed, modern examination of Meinong's theory of objects has shown the infelicity of Ryle's remark that Meinong's theory of non-subsistent objects is “dead, buried and not going to be resurrected” (Ryle, 1972, p, 7). On the contrary, in recent times Meinong's conception of non-subsistent objects has proved to have wide application in areas as diverse as the analysis of fictional discourse, on the one hand, and logic and the philosophy of physics, on the other.

See also fictional truth, objects and characters.

  • Über Annahmen (Barth Leipzig, 1902); 2nd edn. (Leipzig: Barth, 1910).
  • “Über Gegenstandstheorie,” in his Untersuchungen zur Gegenstandstheorie und Psychologie (Barth Leipzig, 1904), 1-50; trans. “On the Theory of Objects,” in Realism and the Background of Phenomenology, ed. Chisholm, R.M. et al. (The Free Press New York, 1960), 76-117.
  • Über Möglichkeit und Wahrscheinlichkeit (Barth Leipzig, 1915).
  • Lambert, K.: Meinong and the Principle of Independence (Cambridge University Press London, 1983).
  • Parsons, T.: Nonexistent Objects (Yale University Press New Haven, CT, 1980).
  • Russell, B.: “Meinong's Theory of Complexes and Assumptions,” Mind 13 (1904), 204-19, 336-54, 509-24.
  • Russell, B.: “On Denoting,” Mind 14 (1905), 479-93.
  • Ryle, G.: “Intentionality Theory and the Nature of Thinking,” in Jenseits von Sein und Nichtsein, ed. Haller, R. (Akademische Druck und Verlaganstalt Graz, 1972), 7-15.
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