UCSB Philosophy Blog

Members of the UCSB Department of Philosophy and anyone else are welcome to talk philosophy with us. Bring your own brain.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Do unicorns exist?

Do unicorns exist? If so, what are they? If not... what are they?


  • At 11:49 AM, Blogger Josh said…

    Good to see some action on the blog.

    Of course, "exists" is used in many ways. And I have recently come to realize that I don't really know exactly how I use the term normally. I don't know, for example, whether I want to say that, since Socrates is dead, he doesn't exist. That doesn't sound right. All I want to say is that he is dead... no longer living. "Exists" doesn't even seem appropriate.

    But, one thing that I am pretty confident about is that unicorns are fictional beings. So, I think it's impossible to run into a unicorn out in the wild (that is, an extended being--you could run into one, in some sense, by thinking or reading about them, I suppose). You know, you see shows and whatnot where people find out that "unicorns exists" or that "there really are unicorns." But, I think that's b.s. Certainly a horse with a spiral horn on its head is not a unicorn. It has to be some sort of natural kind of species. But, say you find a natural kind of species that look like white horses with golden spiral horns, etc. I think that calling them unicorns would just be that: calling them unicorns. And this would only be because they resemble the fictional beings. But, strictly speaking, they wouldn't be unicorns.

    It's like saying: "Dude, what if Darth Vader really existed?" What one really means is something like: "Dude, what if some person or being that was very similar to Darth Vader existed?" I mean, that's all I could get out of what the person said. So, I guess I'm thinking that being fictional is an essential property of unicorns and the like. That sounds right though. Shouldn't being fictional be an essential property of all fictional characters?

    So, I guess I would like to say that unicorns exist, but only if that just means that there are such fictional characters. But, of course, I don't think that unicorns exist in the sense that lions and tigers exist as natural species on non-fictional Earth.

    Stupid language. This is the problem with using the same words to refer to different things. It seems that we often do this on purpose as a matter of convenience or something. That's why we'd probably end up naming some species of animal "unicorns" that naturally have white all over and look like horses and have golden spiral horns: because, hey, deez thangs look like you-knee-corns!

    -Jay to the Mizz-ay

  • At 8:47 PM, Blogger the metaphysician said…

    I think we should first try to get clear on what kind of thing unicorns would be, if they existed.

  • At 10:04 PM, Blogger douglys said…

    I am sympathetic to the idea that unicorns do exist, i.e. they are fictional entities. And therefore there is not a possible world in which a real unicorn exists, etc. But I am much more confident in this type of analysis with fictional characters like Sherlock and Vader. I was trying to think why this is.

    One thing to notice is that even though (or if) the English word 'unicorn' was introduced as a fictional kind (i am not even sure if this is true) it doesn't necessarily follow that the meaning of 'unicorn' is still tied down to that initial dubbing. This should be uncontroversial. Conceptual drift happens. We all know about 'Madagascar' and the like.

    So it seems completely plausible to me that the word 'unicorn' in English has come to mean something like 'one-horned white horsey creature, etc.'. Such a scenario is not ruled out a priori. To determine whether or not such a drift has taken place we must consult our semantic intuitions. After all its up to us what 'unicorn' means; historic facts about a word cannot trump the intentions of a linguistic community.

    Perhaps this is what Kripke and others have shown. Like I said I have some sympathy with this conclusion, but I think there is room to have different views about unicorns than we do about Sherlock Holmes (or phlogiston).

  • At 10:44 PM, Blogger mjgrady said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 6:34 AM, Blogger mjgrady said…

    You: Do unicorns exist?
    Me: No.
    You: What are they?
    Me: Uh, I think you might not've understood my answer to your first question.

  • At 8:01 AM, Blogger the metaphysician said…

    I am sympathetic to Douglys' comment about "semantic drift." Take Santa Claus, for example. Originally, 'Santa Claus' referred to a historical figure--one St. Nicholas. It has subsequently come to refer to a fictional being who delivers gifts to good kids on Christmas, etc. So, here we seem to have an instance of semantic drift from history to fiction. I don't see any a priori reason why it can't happen in the other direction.

    But here is a disclaimer on the claim made in the previous sentence: I find it not incredible that, say, 'dragon' or 'unicorn' could refer to real (as opposed to fictional) species; but I DO find it incredible that, say,
    'Puff' or 'Pegasus' could refer to a real (as opposed to a fictional) dragon and unicorn, respectively.

    Does anyone else share my intuitions on this matter? If so, do you have any ideas on what might account for such a difference?

  • At 2:41 PM, Blogger Josh said…

    I think I may have sounded like I wasn't endorsing the semantic drift stuff. In fact, unlike The Metaphysician, I think that even 'Puff' and 'Pegusus' could drift. All I meant in my original post was that there is no possible world in which unicorns are non-fictional entities only insofar as the word 'unicorn' is currently tied down to the fictional things.

    I actually don't have any full theory about this, just some intuitions. Let me set down these intuitions, which I think run contrary to the other posters', and see what y'all think:

    (1) It could come to pass that words for fictional types (such as 'unicorns') and words for fictional proper names (such as 'Darth Vader') refer to non-fictional entities.

    (2) It could come to pass that words for non-fictional types (such as 'do-do birds') and words for non-fictional proper names (such as 'Michael Jordan') refer to fictional entities.

    * I am saying 'fictional' and 'non-fictional' here instead of the difficult, ambiguous terms 'existent' and 'non-existent'.

    * When I say that such things can come to pass, I don't mean that the "old" meaning of the words would necessarily be displaced by the "new" meanings. I want the claim to be open to that and the possibility that the words become ambiguous (i.e. there are just then two meanings for the words).

    Is either (1) or (2) false?


  • At 4:58 PM, Blogger douglys said…

    w.r.t. Josh: (1) and (2) are certainly true, but I think this is compatible with what the Metaphysicain said.

    "...I DO find it incredible that, say,
    'Puff' or 'Pegasus' could refer to a real (as opposed to a fictional) dragon and unicorn, respectively."

    Surley, the Metaphysician does not deny that in the future the word 'Pegasus' could refer to a real unicorn. He already allowed that 'unicorn' could refer to a real (as opposed to fictional) species. To agree with Josh's (1) Meta need only agree that it could come to pass that 'Pegasus' refer to a dog (this has probably already happened).

    I take it that the Metapysician's reluctancy to say that 'Pegasus' *could* refer to a real unicorn, is that he strongly believes that 'Pegasus' is the name of a fictional horse. I am not sure what kind of *could* this is here though.

    In Josh's sense of it could come to pass that the word 'Pegasus' refers to a real thing, I think every one agrees.

    In the epistemic sense that it could turn out that 'Pegasus' refers to a real thing, e.g. we were mistaken about the facts surrounding the origin and causal-historical chain of our current usage. In this sense, I think all agree that 'Pegasus' could turn out to refer to a real unicorn or horse for that matter.

    So that leaves the Metaphysician's claim as the claim that 'Pegasus' couldn't refer to a real unicorn, because 'Pegasus' is *in fact* a fictional name. It is the familiar counter-factual claim.

    My orginial point was that I am not sure if 'unicorn' in fact refers to a fictional kind. Likewise, one may make the claim that they are not sure if 'Pegasus' in fact refers to a fictional character. So perhaps the Metaphysician is just doubting the plausibility of such a claim. On this we agree.

  • At 1:50 AM, Blogger Luke Manning said…

    OK, time to enter the fray, and re-focus the question.
    First off, Pegasus was not fictionally a unicorn, he (it?) was a winged horse. Everybody knows that, but it's strangely easy to forget that when talking about this stuff.
    Second, semantic drift happens. Given enough time, probably just about any form of words could come to mean something which now we mean by another form of words. But the fact that a word could come to mean something else tells us nothing about what it does mean.
    Third, if it turns out that we're wrong about 'unicorn' or 'Pegasus' picking out fictional things (this is, perhaps, Brian's "epistemic 'could'" case), then I picked a poor example and we should just switch to another one. The point of the original post was to ask whether fictional things exist. We agree that there are fictional stories, myths and whatnot, and that some of these contain (in a yet-unanalyzed sense) individuals and species and whatnot, the sorts of things for which names often get direct-reference accounts in the post Kripke/Putnam scene. Pick one of those fictional individuals or kinds, e.g., Darth Vader or dragons or whatever. The question is: do they exist?

    Concerning Mitch's comment, I agree with the sentiment I think you were expressing, that somebody who asks for certain kinds of information about unicorns is just confused. In a certain sense, unicorns just aren't to be found, and part of knowing that they're fictional/mythical is knowing that. However, I think the "what are they?" question can be taken in a more sensible way, namely something like this: We do talk about unicorns, at least when we're telling stories about them, and we can even say that unicorns are a fictional species, that lots of preteen girls are obsessed with unicorns, that there are creepy people who have websites about supposed historical unicorn sightings, and so on; so what are we talking about here? It can't just be a nothing; for one reason, if we wanted to give a parallel account for centaurs, then unicorns would be trivially the same as centaurs (viz., nothing), the falsity of which I think we can take as a datum.

    If you couldn't tell already, I hold some version of what we could call the Kripke/Salmon view (as it's articulated mostly in Kripke's Locke lectures and Salmon's "Nonexistence"). A large part of that view is that fictional/mythical individuals/kinds are abstract objects, just like the stories and theories of which they are parts. Kripke would only want to say they don't exist if he found he had been mistaken about there even being a story/myth. The stories/myths exist; they were told/written by certain people, and so created. To say that, e.g., unicorns don't exist probably should be taken as a somewhat tendentious way of saying that they're mythical, not that they just don't exist, simpliciter.
    I say 'probably' because it's particularly hard to read these claims, and there are a lot of nuances in the various approaches to reading them. It's hard to tell someone charitably that what they're strongly inclined to say is literally false (i.e., that unicorns do exist), even if the theory behind that reading is well-motivated.
    I think this view very strong, unified, and well-motivated, but it may have significant problems somewhere. Matt suggested something like this one: The argument that (e.g.) fictional characters exist seems to run as follows:

    1. Stories exist (e.g., people write novels, which thereby come into existence).
    2. Some of these stories are about fictional characters.
    3. Those fictional characters are parts of the stories.
    4. If something exists, then its parts exist.
    5. Fictional characters exist.

    But we might want to deny either 3 or 4. Perhaps the stories exist, but the things they are about need not, either because those things aren't parts of the stories in an appropriate sense, or perhaps because existence somehow doesn't distribute in the fictional case. I think that's a reasonable objection, though I think that our related practices of talking about, e.g., Pegasus apart from the stories in which he occurs (as in literary criticism: "Pegasus was the most beautiful of the chimerical beasts, though not as well-developed as the sphinx") lend further support to the view that they are created just as much as the story/myth itself is, although perhaps the processes by which all these things are created differ from case to case. And so, perhaps creating a fiction doesn't always entail creating fictional individuals/kinds, even if the story is about those things (because, as it may be, the creation process for fictional individuals requires extra work after the creation of their story--e.g., reflecting on the story critically). But in certain cases, at least, (and especially for long-established fictional individuals like Pegasus and kinds like unicorns) I think we have several independent reasons (many of which I haven't mentioned here) to believe that fictional/mythical individuals/kinds exist, and that they are abstract objects. They are not, in general, the sort of things which they fictionally are; e.g., unicorns are not horned horses--they are a fictional species!

    Here's another thorny question (a pack of them, really): if we accept a direct-reference account for natural kind terms, is that the sort of account we apply for fictional natural kinds (like unicorns)? If so, has someone created an abstract object kind, or merely one abstract object (as they might in the case of Pegasus)? Must any specific mythical unicorns be created for there to be mythical unicorns? (Myth and fiction work almost exactly similarly in the kinds of cases we're discussing, I'm assuming.) Can you even name (i.e., think of) any individual unicorns? I don't know any widely-known ones; I tried to find some online but I came up with nothing of note.

    Finally, to bring it back to the original question, I agree that we're naturally inclined to say that unicorns don't exist, that there are no such things as unicorns, etc., and that denial of this might naturally be taken as a basic misunderstanding of how myth/fiction works. But what's the best way to take the sentence "Unicorns don't exist", if we can take for granted the utterer's reasonable general knowledge about the unicorn myths? Should we take it as saying that unicorns are mere possibilia, like golden mountains, that they are mere nothings, or in some other way? And how should we take "Unicorns exist" (or, perhaps, some roughly-equivalent assertion, if that one sounds too weird to be immediately evaluable by intuition)? Assuming that the utterer recognizes that they are a mythical kind, should we take it as the assertion that the kind was "discovered" to be "real" in some way, or that unicorns are abstract objects that are, according to the myths, horned horses, or just things we talk about (and so in our domain of discourse, whatever that counts for), or perhaps something else? What do we want to say about these guys?

    Thanks for the comments so far!

  • At 10:28 AM, Blogger douglys said…

    Luke pretty much covered it and cleared the waters. I agree.

    Let me try to confuse the issue with a dialogue. Let's say zeegers are ancient toys from Greece. Zeegers are hand-carved small wooden toys that resemble a mix between a zebra, gorilla and tiger (uh?). Here is a conversation two people might have about zeegers.

    A: Do zeegers exist?
    B: Yes, I have one on my shelf.
    A: No, no, I mean do they really exist?
    B: Yes, I have a real one on my shelf, honestly.
    A: I understand that you have that toy but I want to know if there are flesh and blood zeegers running around somewhere.
    B: Well, no, zeegers are wooden toys of ancient Greece. You have misunderstood what 'zeeger' means. It is as if you asked me if there are female bachelors running around.
    A: Dammit B, you know what I mean...just answer the question!
    B: Well, if you are asking if there are flesh and blood animals running around that share certain superficial properties with zeegers, then the answer is: No. At least I don't think so but it is completely possible (both epistemically and counterfactually). But such things would not be zeegers so your question is misleading.
    A: By heaven! You are quite right.

  • At 11:47 AM, Blogger Josh said…

    Yeah, Luke's argument seems solid and Brian's (douglys's) dialogue seems quite natural. I don't really see why our consensus here about fictional characters would really be disputed. Why would anyone want to object to the argument that Luke sketched? I could see someone wanting to deny the existence of abstract objects. But, then the objector's beef would be with abstract entities in general, not just fictionally based ones.

    I'm actually unsure about the nature of abstract entities, as they are often assumed to have a dubious platonic nature. But, that doesn't mean I want to deny that they exist. And why, anyway, be biased towards fictionally based abstract entitites? If you've got philosophical problems with unicorns, then you should equally have problems with numbers, universals, and more... at least so it seems.

    I think the controversy about this issue is not so much about unicorns as it is about the word 'exists'. As Brian's dialogue points out, there is a sense in which 'exists' is used to mean non-fictional, or tangible, etc. I think that upon understanding which sense of the word 'exists' one is using, there will be no philosophical dispute about the existence of fictional entities.

  • At 11:25 PM, Blogger mjgrady said…

    I take it there are at least a few lunatics in the world who believe in unicorns; viz., they believe that unicorns exist. This seems to present a problem.
    Given much of what's been said above, maybe unicorns do exist--they're just not flesh-and-blood entities. They're fictionalia/abstracta/possibilia/counterfactualia or whatever.
    But those things aren't the things (better?: "things") the lunatics are lunatics for believing in--they believe that there are physical creatures that are unicorns.
    So it seems to me that if one answers "Yes" to the first question ("Do unicorns exist?") and bases that answer on the fact that there exist, in fiction, unicorns, and therefore unicorns exist, then one is not answering the question satisfactorily; of course unicorns exist in fiction. Every thing exists in some sense. Should we answer "Yes" to every question of the form "Do(es) x exist?", so long as x isn't a round circle or an even prime greater than two or something [cough cough] like that?
    If one answers "Yes" to the first question and bases that answer on whatever evidence they have for the existence of the biological species Equus monoceros, then one answers incorrectly.
    If one answers "No" to the first question and bases that answer on the fact that there exist, in fiction, unicorns but does not take these entities to be the objects of the query, I think one goes some way to properly answering the question (cf. my first post).
    If one answeres "No" to the first question and bases that answer on the complete lack of evidence for the existence of the biological species Equus monoceros, then I take them to have answered correctly. For it looks to me (and I'm sure this'll get me into trouble) that if unicorns exist, they are biological and not merely fictional entities.

  • At 9:30 PM, Blogger chanukaa said…

    if a unicorn is a horse looking creature with a horn..then if you stick a horn on a horse..its a unicorn?? (e.g. Bouwsma, common language phil)


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