Nonexistent Intentional Objects: An Analysis

Auteur Adrien GLAUSER
Directeur /trice Martina Nida-Rümelin
Co-directeur(s) /trice(s) Maria Reicher-Marek
Résumé de la thèse

My project aims at developing a systematic approach to the problem of intentionality. The problem is about reconciling the intuition that we can represent – in the sense of having one's mind directed at – things that do not exist (i.e. Sherlock Holmes, the Yeti, the golden mountain, etc.) with the thesis that representing something requires bearing a relation to it. The problem is that things that do not exist lack properties, hence do not bear relations to other things; therefore either we can't represent things that do not exist, or nonexistent intentional objects exist after all.


Many philosophers during the 20th century tried to solve the problem by assuming that nonexistent intentional objects form a special kind of objects whose members one’s mind is necessarily related to whenever one is thinking about them. Following this idea, they have devised ingenious distinctions within the notions of existence, object and

property, with the hope of identifying with axiomatic precision the nature of that kind, the nature of its members and the criteria for distinguishing them individually and collectively. In short, they have assumed that the problem of intentionality was a matter of logic, ontology and metaphysics.


Putting the problem back in its psychological context, our Project questions the idea that nonexistent intentional objects form a special kind of objects. Arguing that the problem of intentionality is in fact a problem for correct singular representations of nonexistent intentional objects, i.e. correct mental representations as particulars of things that do not exist, the Project seeks to solve the problem of intentionality by rejecting the assumption that having one’s mind directed at something necessarily involves bearing a relation to it. Instead, the Project will develop the following thesis (hereafter, “the Thesis”): the concept of intentional content (the psychosemantics constituents of mental representations, equivalent to how subjects represent the objects they have in mind) can, if anchored in the appropriate psychosemantic framework, be developped in a non-relational way so as to explain how we can have correct singular representations of nonexistent intentional objects. The following corrollary is expected to follow: we do not need to assume that nonexistent intentional objects belong to special kind of objects, for talking of nonexistent intentional objects is merely an abstract way of talking of certain types of thoughts.


Our main hypothesis will be that what makes a mental representation about something as particular is a matter of its content being determined by a “singular mental file”. The determination relation will by analysed in terms of subjects retrieving referential presuppositions from their singular files and using them as implicit conditions upon the

“format” of their representations, to the effect that any singular representation depends on the mobilization of such a singular file. Making a critical use of the notion of a singular files as determining the correctness condition of representational mental states, the Project will also explore the relationships between singular representations and ascriptions thereof, focussing on how the singular character of the former reflects in the singular truth condition of the latter. This will hopefully pave the way toward workable solutions to the problem of correct singular representations of nonexistents while offering valuable insights on other puzzles at the intersection of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language.


Finally, the Project will measure the extent to which the resulting account of representations and mental content conflicts with the definitions and axioms of the aforementioned theories of objects, and the extent to which these definitions and axioms can be reinterpreted, explained or justified by our account. On the whole, what should emerge is an naturalistically tractable picture of nonexistent objects with broad implications for explaining how we succeed in thinking and talking of things that do not exist, and what makes such these thoughts and assertions often meaningful and correct.

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