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Existential Import in Cartesian Semantics

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The paper explores the existential import of universal affirmative in Descartes, Arnauld and Malebranche. Descartes holds, inconsistently, that eternal truths are true even if the subject term is empty but that a proposition with a false idea as subject is false. Malebranche extends Descartes’ truth-conditions for eternal truths, which lack existential import, to all knowledge, allowing only for non-propositional knowledge of contingent existence. Malebranche's rather implausible Neoplatonic semantics is detailed as consisting of three key semantic relations: illumination by which God's ideas cause mental terms, creation by which God's ideas cause material substances by a kind of ‘ontic privation’, and sensation in which brain events occasion states of mental awareness. In contrast, Arnauld distinguishes two types of propositions – necessary and contingent – with distinct truth-conditions, one with and one without existential import. Arnauld's more modern semantics is laid out as a theory of reference that substitutes earlier causal accounts with one that adapts the medieval notion of objective being. His version anticipates modern notions of intentional content and appeals in its ontology only to substances and their modes.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Philosophy,Charles Phelps Taft Research Fellow, Taft Humanities Center, University of Cincinnati, CincinnatiOH45221, USA

Publication date: August 1, 2011

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