A Modulation Account of Negative Existentials


Fictional characters present a problem for semantic theorists. One approach to this problem has been to maintain realism regarding fictional characters, that is to claim that fictional characters exist. In this way names originating from fiction have designata. On this approach the problem of negative existentials is more pressing than it might otherwise be since an explanation must be given as to why we judge them true when the names occurring within them designate existing objects. So, realists must explain the intuitive truth of such statements. Some realists have appealed to pragmatics to explain this, but have not developed these positions fully. What follows is an original account of negative existentials based on the pragmatic process of modulation. Modulation affects the meaning of ‘exists’ such that its extension is merely those things that exist physically. It is then argued that the modulation approach provides a more natural account of the intuitive truth of negative existentials involving fictional characters than an account based on conversational implicatures. Finally, the modulation account is defended against objections presented against similar accounts.

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  1. 1.

    See Kripke (2013), van Inwagen (1977, 1983), Salmon (1998), and Thomasson (1999) for such accounts.

  2. 2.

    I am not interested, here, in arguing for the specific status of the fiction operator. Plausibly, it could be a pragmatic phenomenon like that defended below for negative existentials. However, statements about fiction not explicitly mentioning the fiction could be elliptical for the sentence containing the fiction operator. On such an account the operator is a semantic operator causing the sentence it operates upon to refer to the proposition it expresses. This latter view is roughly that of Salmon (1998, p. 80).

  3. 3.

    Whether ‘Sherlock Holmes smokes a pipe’ is genuinely true according to the realist will depend on whether the sentence is elliptical on the longer sentence. A realist could claim that this sentence is strictly speaking false because a fictional characters is not the kind of thing that can smoke a pipe, but pragmatically conveys the truth that according to the Holmes stories Holmes smokes a pipe.

  4. 4.

    There is certainly controversy over whether some of these processes even occur and if they do what effects they have on communication. In particular the most controversial is that of free enrichment. See Stanley (2005) for criticisms of free pragmatic processes. See Carston (2002) and Récanati (2004, 2011) for defenses of free pragmatic processes.

  5. 5.

    Someone might attempt to explain this by using Gricean conversational implicatures. Our interest here is not over whether such an explanation can or cannot be given, but to provide a sketch of different pragmatic processes. For now, it is more important to understand free pragmatic processes rather than all the linguistic cases it is meant to explain. Others argue that these processes are completed through saturation and that free pragmatic processes fail to account for intuitive truth conditions. See Stanley (2002a) for such an account. However, Stanley’s arguments are somewhat out of date. Collins (2007) argues that generative syntax theory does not provide the support Stanley needs when he claims contextual variation in content can be accounted for by aphonic variables. See also Neale (2007) for alternative criticisms.

  6. 6.

    Clapp (2012) argues for a similar point.

  7. 7.

    Bach (1994) provides an alternative account of modulation, which arguably differs only terminologically.

  8. 8.

    Throughout, I focus on discourse topic as what triggers modulation, but as Récanati’s modulation account allows, other wide contextual phenomena can influence modulation. The use of modulation in accounting for negative existential should not be taken as excluding other wide contextual phenomena as triggering modulation, even in the case of negative existentials. Instead, the current focus on discourse topic provides straightforward way to explain the semantic content of negative existentials.

  9. 9.

    Given the standing meaning for ‘cut’ that follows, it is not obvious that Searle’s discussion of ‘cut’ poses a problem for a single meaning for both occurrences of ‘cut’. What follows is a way to accommodate Searle’s intuition if one shares that intuition.

  10. 10.

    This meaning for ‘cut’ comes from Récanati (2011, p. 40) following Higginbotham (1989, p. 467) following Hale and Keyser (1987).

  11. 11.

    Since there are two senses of ‘exists’ under consideration, why should we grant the assumption that e x i s t s 1 is its lexical meaning? Even if the most common usage of ‘exists’ is e x i s t s 2, e x i s t s 1 is primitive. We cannot define e x i s t s 1 in terms of e x i s t s 2, but the opposite is true. In addition we may even use Grice’s modified Ockham’s Razor that we ought not multiply senses beyond necessity here. If we were to take e x i s t s 2 as the lexical meaning of ‘exists’, ‘exists’ would be ambiguous and still require another lexical entry for e x i s t s 1. However, by a pragmatic explanation, we can account for both uses with a single lexical meaning.

  12. 12.

    I’m not interested in arguing that race is a social construct and therefore exists as an abstract artifact, but I’m going to assume it.

  13. 13.

    See von Solodkoff (2014) for more details on this objection and a more thorough response than the one provided here. Except for the differences that follow, von Solodkoff’s analysis of general negative existentials, including (7), is the same response I’d give.

  14. 14.

    Strictly speaking, the initial interpretation of Thomasson comes from Everett (2007).

  15. 15.

    I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for directing me to von Solodkoff’s (2014) account and encouraging me expound on differences between the two views, which I consider below.

  16. 16.

    Similar worries arise for Stefano Predelli (2002). Predelli proposes an analysis similar to the present view and explains how negative existentials could be explained in terms of ellipsis, saturation (indexicalism), and unarticulated constituents. However, the ellipsis and indexical approaches fall prey to the objections considered below in “Objections” and the determination of content and structure of the content on the unarticulated account is under-described, making it difficult to evaluate or compare with the present account.

  17. 17.

    For instance Salmon (1986, 1989, 1998) has argued that conversation implicatures explain the difference between what a sentence expresses and what a speaker means when using that sentence.

  18. 18.

    For a different criticism of realism about fictional characters, see Brock (2010).

  19. 19.

    Everett concludes that generalized conversational implicatures cannot account for the phenomena that the realist needs. Despite the current rejection of the approach based on conversational implicatures, Everett’s examples are suspect. Without getting into the details of Everett’s argument, the examples he presents as parallel to negative existentials exhibit a low degree of Gricean nondetachability. In this way, his examples are suspect because the implicatures generated depend more on the manner in which the semantic content is expressed than on the specific semantic content. Consequently, we should not expect the same phenomena to occur with other generalized conversational implicatures with a much higher degree of nondetachability.

  20. 20.

    Everett (2013) provides some insight into why he characterizes the view in this way. He says that some existence denials genuinely deny the existence of the purported entity. As examples he considers that the Russell set doesn’t exist, that monads don’t exist, that Socrates no longer exists, and that in some possible worlds George Bush doesn’t exist (p. 149). Although he may be right that each of these denies genuine existence of the relevant entity, given the relevance of discourse topic in communication, we should be uncertain about what these examples show. For instance the Russell set is an impossible object, and so the discourse topic where it is under discussion could vary. However, discussing monads and the existence of individuals across possible worlds, we can assume some serious metaphysics is under discussion. Hence the discourse topic where these claims are made is much different from ordinary contexts. In terms of possible worlds, it is not obvious that ordinary speakers have relevant intuitions regarding the truth of statements involving them. Finally, talk of existence of past entities, especially people, is not how speakers typically speak. We ordinarily speak of people as having lived. Discussions of these people using ‘exists’ are often related to a discourse topic regarding whether the stories about the individual are true.

  21. 21.

    A similar case can be made for ‘A mouse is small and the earth is small’ and its elided form where ‘small’ has different comparison classes in the unelided form, but cannot in the elided form. See below.


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Spewak, D.C. A Modulation Account of Negative Existentials. Philosophia 44, 227–245 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-015-9673-8

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  • Fictional characters
  • Negative existentials
  • Modulation
  • Pragmatics