Philosophers Ride Unicorns To Work


I usually teach two books in my “Contemporary Philosophy” class: A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, and Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Ayer’s book nicely illustrates the limits of verificationist semantics, the problems with phenomenalism, and the futility of trying to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy. Kripke’s book shows how metaphysics survived – and ultimately exploited – the “linguistic turn” taken by 20th century analytic philosophy. One thing that both books have in common, however, is at least a passing concern with unicorns.


Ayer uses the sentence “Unicorns are fictitious” to illustrate how surface grammar can systematically mislead philosophers into spouting metaphysical nonsense (e.g., that since ‘unicorns’ seems to be the subject of this sentence, they must “have a mode of real being which is different from the mode of existing things”). Kripke, on the other hand, uses his scientific essentialism to argue that unicorns not only do not actually exist; they could not even possibly exist.

Well, we were talking about Ayer’s discussion of unicorns in class today, and Shannon, one my sharpest students, later tweeted me that “‘Back to the unicorns’ is something one only hears in Harry Potter or philosophy classes”, to which I responded with “Indeed…”, followed by the title of this post.

This got me thinking, though: just how extensively are unicorns used in the philosophical literature? (There’s a book to be written here, if it hasn’t already been published). To get a rough idea, I did a quick search of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite resources), and found that the mythological creatures trot onto that particular stage in no less than twenty-nine – count ’em, 29 – different topics! Here’s a link to the list, for all of you unicorn junkies out there.