Reference to the Non-Existent

A. M. Honoréa1

a1 All Souls College, Oxford.

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.