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Anselm: Four Senses of “Something”

In an intriguing text published in English as part of the Philosophical Fragments Anselm of Canterbury directly addresses an issue that even the best philosophers largely ignore. The broad issue is that in the course of defining or just using certain terms that are supposed to be the basic conceptual building blocks of our understanding of the world and of how we think and reason – terms like “substance,” “cause,” and “being,” for example – philosophers throw around any number of other terms which are supposed to help us understand those grand philosophical concepts, but, being themselves undefined, they just serve to perpetuate the unclarity, or worse. These other terms, what one might call “background terms,” teem through any number of philosophical texts even though their presence is in most cases not even acknowledged: “particular,” “individual,” “entity,” “nature” in the sense of “a nature,” “world,” “universe,” “thing,” and so on. One prominent member of the group of background terms is “something” (presumably aliquid) and in the aforementioned text Anselm at the very least acknowledges that its profligate use obliges one to at least some attempt at clarification.

Anselm’s definitions of "something" are:

1)   A thing that in fact exists or exists in reality. Examples are a stone or a log. Anything that is named by a name or thought in the mind is something if it in fact exists. Anselm says this is the correct use of “something.”

2)  A thing that does not truly exist. The name of something that does not truly exist signifies not the thing but a mental concept. Anselm’s example is a chimera, which does not exist in reality even though the mental concept of the chimera resembles the chimera.

3)   A thing that has a name but does not exist in reality and has no mental concept. Anselm’s examples are injustice and nothing. In Anselm’s Platonist ontology justice and presumably being are somethings in the first sense. "Injustice" and "nothing" are merely the names for justice and (presumably) being with a privative prefix. In other texts Anselm uses this distinction to get out of some theological tight spots.

4)   A thing that does not exist in reality and does not have a name or a mental concept. Anselm’s example is the non-being of the sun above the earth. This definition seems to be no more than suggested logically by the first three definitions. It is not, in fact, entirely satisfactory since the-non-being-of-the-sun-above-the-earth could be regarded as a name.

Anselm uses these definitions to solve a couple of problems. First, they provide a model of how we can use language to talk about a thing that doesn’t exist. This is important because if anyone, not to mention a philosopher, could only use “something” if he means a thing that exists “in reality,” he would barely be able to get off a single sentence. Secondly, they provide a clue about how we might regard errors or mistakes in language or our, so to speak, mental concepts.

What Anselm does not accomplish is to provide an adequate definition of “something.” For in defining the proper sense of “something,” he uses the background terms “reality,” “thing,” “exist,” and “truly exist.” The materialist proposal would be to gloss all these terms as “extended in space and having duration in time.” Anselm was not a materialist since he considered justice, for example, to be something in the first sense. However, because he did not accept (or would not have accepted) the materialist proposal, and because he did not define his background terms, like “reality” and “exist,” Anselm did not provide an adequate definition of “something” either. So he has not done much to further our understanding of what philosophers or scientists mean when they talk about things in general. This can be illustrated specifically using Anselm’s examples. He acknowledges that a stone exists in reality. Presumably the mental concept of a chimera also exists in reality even though the chimera does not and even though the reality of the mental concept of the chimera differs from the reality of the stone. Justice, according to Anselm, also exists in reality although the reality of justice is also different from the reality of the stone. However, these definitions give no hint as to what a stone, the mental concept of a chimera and justice have in common such that they exist in reality while the chimera does not. So, while Anselm’s distinctions provide a sort of useful orientation as to how we can use words like “something” meaningfully even though they do not stand for anything that exists “in reality,” he has not provided an adequate definition of “something.” And for that reason – and this should serve as an answer to anyone who says that an adequate definition was not Anselm’s goal – Anselm’s definitions do not really shed that much light on what we may mean when we use “something” to refer to a thing we do not believe “exists in reality” unless they are supplemented by a materialist or perhaps some other more generous gloss on what constitutes reality.

One can approach this objection to Anselm’s definitions from a different angle. In order to define “something,” Anselm must use terms like “thing,” “exist,” “reality,” etc. However, he does not define those terms. As a result he sets up a potential circle of definitions that he does nothing to break. This is a vexing issue and deserves more discussion in the context of those philosophers who address it in full awareness of its import.