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Reference to the Non-Existent

  • A. M. Honoré (a1)

Can we refer to objects which do not exist? Searle says that we cannot. He postulates an ‘axiom of existence’ such that, if an object does not exist, we cannot refer to it. This ‘axiom of existence’ could be taken simply as a way of defining the notion of ‘reference’; we would not count a reference to a non-existent object as a ‘reference’ in the philosophical sense; or perhaps it might count as a reference but not as a ‘successful’ or ‘consummated’ reference, to use the terminology which Searle sometimes adopts. Whichever way we take Searle's doctrine I wish to argue that it is objectionable. The conceptual scheme he advocates obscures the truth. But I do not deny that there is a temptation to resort to it, and I hope to show that, where lawyers have yielded to the temptation, pernicious doctrines have resulted.

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1 Searle, Speech Acts (1969) 77.

2 Searle, 82.

3 Cheshire and Fifoot, The Law of Contract (6th ed.) 192.

4 McRae v. Commonwealth Disposals Commission (1951) 84 C.L.R. 377.

5 Speech Acts, 77 n. 1.

6 We must guard against saying that the identified object must satisfy the description. Identification despite misdescription is a common phenomenon which demands a separate analysis: as in ‘Aristotle who seduced Alexander's wife’. The topic is one of considerable legal importance.

7 Cf. Strawson, Is Existence Never a Predicate: I Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofia (1967) 5 (along different lines).

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
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