Mere Possibilities: Metaphysical Foundations of Modal Semantics

Mere Possibilities: Metaphysical Foundations of Modal Semantics

Mere Possibilities: Metaphysical Foundations of Modal Semantics

Mere Possibilities: Metaphysical Foundations of Modal Semantics

Synopsis

It seems reasonable to believe that there might have existed things other than those that in fact exist, or have existed. But how should we understand such claims? Standard semantic theories exploit the Leibnizian metaphor of a set of all possible worlds: a proposition might or must be true if it is true in some or all possible worlds. The actualist, who believes that nothing exists except what actually exists, prefers to talk of possible states of the world, or of ways that a world might be. But even the actualist still faces the problem of explaining what we are talking about when we talk about the domains of other possible worlds. In Mere Possibilities, Robert Stalnaker develops a framework for clarifying this problem, and explores a number of actualist strategies for solving it.


Some philosophers have hypothesized a realm of individual essences that stand as proxies for all merely possible beings. Others have argued that we are committed to the necessary existence of everything that does or might exist. In contrast, Mere Possibilities shows how we can make sense of ordinary beliefs about what might and must exist without making counterintuitive metaphysical commitments. The book also sheds new light on the nature of metaphysical theorizing by exploring the interaction of semantic and metaphysical issues, the connections between different metaphysical issues, and the nature of ontological commitment.

Excerpt

I have been thinking about possible worlds and making use of the apparatus of possible-worlds semantics since I took a seminar taught by Saul Kripke in my last year of graduate school at Princeton in 1964–65. In my early work that used that framework, on the semantics for conditionals, the representation of propositional content, and the dynamics of discourse, I didn’t worry much about the metaphysical questions—about what possible worlds and merely possible individuals are, and whether it is legitimate to take them seriously. The idea seemed clarifying, and the semantic framework seemed to yield results, and that was good enough for one who prided himself on his lack of an ontological conscience. But I was puzzled (and ultimately chastened) by a remark by Larry Powers in an insightful commentary on an early paper of mine on propositions: “The whole idea of possible worlds (perhaps laid out in space like raisins in a pudding) seems ludicrous.” At the time, it had not occurred to me that one might think of possible worlds as parallel universes, but I came to see that if one is to reject this literal-minded interpretation of the term (which I soon learned was defended by David Lewis), one needs to say something about what these things are. I tried to do this in a paper, “Possible Worlds,” first published in 1976, but that paper is silent about a further question about merely possible individuals: How, on an actualist interpretation of possible worlds as ways a world might be, is one to account for the possibility that there be individuals other than those that actually exist? That is the main focus of this book.

Powers 1976, 95.

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