Bigfoot and Sasquatch

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Mar 24 16:54:22 UTC 2006

At 9:56 AM -0500 3/24/06, Page Stephens wrote:
>Is there any word for words like Sasquatch, bigfoot, flying saucer, UFO,
>etc. which can be used in sentences but which have no relationship to
>anything which has been demonstrated to exist?
>This reminds me of an old story I once heard of about a seminar run by
>Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in which Russell said something
>like, "There are no pink hippopotamuses in this room." in order to make a
>point at which point Wittgenstein began opening desk drawers and doing
>other things in order to determine the truth value of Russell's proposition.
>I do not know it this is a true story or not but it pretty much accords
>with my ideas on the subject.
In fact, Russell did write up his argument from hippolessness against
the existence of negative facts.  This is from a book I wrote on

Russell apparently gave up his early (and well-founded) skepticism
about the eliminability of negation to become an enthusiastic warrior
for the cause.  At the time of his Philosophy of Logical Atomism
(1918: 211), he not only valiantly overcame his self-acknowledged
'repugnance to negative facts', but was even willing to fight in
their defense.  He reports having earlier triggered 'a near-riot' at
Harvard by arguing that there are indeed negative facts and finds
himself 'still inclined to think that there are'.  But he takes
Demos's (1917) diatribe seriously enough to direct a thoughtful
counterattack against it (211-14):

If I say "There is not a hippopotamus in the room", it is quite clear
there is some way of interpreting that statement according to which
there is a corresponding fact, and that fact cannot be merely that
every part of this room is filled up with something that is a not a
hippopotamus...It is simpler to take negative facts as
facts...otherwise you will find it difficult to say what it is that
corresponds to a proposition.
(Russell 1918: 213-4)

So I guess in your anecdote, Wittgenstein was just checking those
different parts of the room to see what they were filled up with.  In
this passage, though, the color of the absent hippopotamus does not
come into play.


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