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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 2)

March 5th, 2008


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Under Russell’s translation, however, the statement is changed to “Something wrote Waverly and was a poet and nothing else wrote Waverly,” thus shifting the burden of objective reference from the descriptive phrase to what is referred to by logicians as a “bound variable” (“something”). Bound variables- words such as “something,” “nothing,” and “everything”- are not names of specific entities, but refer to entities generally with a meaningful ambiguity. [3] The significance of the quantifiers does not require the presupposition of any preassigned objects. To be, according to Quine, is “to be the value of a bound variable” (emphasis added). With quantifiers in mind, Quine asserts that the notion of statements of nonbeing defeating themselves “goes by the board. ”[4]

To reinforce his point, Quine anticipates and alleviates a potential problem with converting names to descriptors. In the “Pegasus” example, the word- a supposed name- cannot be processed immediately by Russell’s theory, and it must be rephrased to apply (e. g. “Pegasus was” becomes, perhaps, “Something was a winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon, and nothing else was that”). To make alleged names subordinate to Russell’s analysis, the word must first be translated into a description. Even if there is no evident definition or descriptive translation, an irreducible attribute of being Pegasus can be applied, granting the use of predicates “is-Pegasus” or “pegasizes,” resulting in the possible descriptor “the thing that is-Pegasus/pegasizes. ” In summary, all (alleged) names can be converted to descriptions, and by Russell’s theory of descriptions, those descriptions can be eliminated. Quine thus concludes,

We need no longer labor under the delusion that the meaningfulness of a statement containing a singular term presupposes an entity named by the term. A singular term need not name to be significant. [5]

The Debate over Universals

At this juncture, Quine recognizes the need to address universals because of the introduction of predicates like “pegasizes,” having now dealt with the issue of rejecting the presupposition that Pegasus must in some sense be if it is said not to be. McX begins his argument for universals by citing the pre-philosophical common sense of recognizing that there are red houses, red sunsets, red roses, etc. The houses, roses, and sunsets have something in common, and that this commonality is all McX is referring to when he speaks of an attribute. That there are attributes is as “obvious and trivial”[6] as the fact that there are red houses, red sunsets, and red roses; no less does Quine expect from McX’s or anyone else’s ontology, which is basic to one’s conceptual scheme. Under McX’s conceptual scheme, the statement “there is an attribute ‘redness’” must follow from “there are red houses, red sunsets, etc. ”[7]

Under a conceptual scheme different to McX’s, argues Quine, it is possible to admit the existence of red houses, roses, and sunsets while simultaneously denying that they have anything in common. “Redness” can be true of each of them individually, but there is no requirement that there must be some entity called “redness”; it could be that the houses, roses, and sunsets are all red irreducibly. Thus, there is no comparative gain in the explanatory power of McX’s theory provided by all entities given under the name “redness. ” Incidentally, Quine notes that a potential argument for McX’s ontology was pre-empted by the earlier discussion of the difference between names and descriptions, and how the latter can be significant without becoming the former. Because of this, McX is unable to argue that in order for predicates like “red” or “is-red” to be meaningful, they must be names with the objective reference of a single universal entity.

In response, McX grants the distinction between naming and meaning, and cedes that “is red” and “pegasizes” are not names of attributes. With that, he counters that “meanings” are still universals, perhaps even things similar to the attributes he posits, whether named or not. Quine acknowledges this objection, explaining that he can only satisfy it by refusing to ontologically admit meanings, but he also explains his lack of hesitation in doing so: refusing meanings does not entail the absence of meaningfulness of words and statements. This is evidenced by the fact that McX and Quine can agree perfectly upon classification of linguistic forms as the meaningless and the meaningful, though McX’s criteria for meaningfulness includes the “having” (in one sense) of an abstract entity he labels a “meaning.

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