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W.V.O Quine: On What There Is (Summary) (Part 4)

March 5th, 2008

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Critique

One potential shortcoming in Quine’s argument lies in his approach to singular terms- their elimination and replacement by quantifiers- as an application of Occam’s razor. As was explained, if singular terms can be done away with, then their supposed implications about existence vanish. Hence, by using a singular term, one need not acknowledge the existence of the entity described by the term in order to be speaking meaningfully. Yet, if quantifiers could be done away with in the same manner, would they not be also subject to ontological elimination? One such possible elimination arises from combinatory logic, which was initially intended as a means of clarifying the role of quantifiers in logic by their elimination, much as quantifiers were intended to clarify existential statements by a similar process. In her book Philosophy of Logics, Susan Haack notes, “Quine concedes that his criterion doesn’t apply directly to combinatory logic, but observes that it can be applied indirectly, via the translation of combinatory into quantified formula. ”[9] This may only be an evasion of the demand that the elimination of quantifiers places on their ontological status (via Occam’s razor). Even without delving into deeper discussion, it is a possibility worth mentioning, as it questions the validity of one of Quine’s necessary steps in reasoning.

Assuming that this problem with Quine’s methodology is somehow irrelevant to his general reasoning or can be answered appropriately, Quine’s dismission of the necessity of universals, as part of a common trend in dismissing the imaginary problems of Plato’s beard, is quite effective. Indeed, something appears highly flawed about the presupposition that denying the existence of an entity somehow presupposes that entity in the same sense that affirming that entity’s existence does. Quine accurately assesses logical possibilities (though not in those exact words) as meaningful, but does not make the error of “stealing” the concept of existence by making it a predicate.

For the non-Quinean, how much can Quine’s reasoning be used to make a more decisive case against the realist position on universals? On an absolute basis, Quine seems hesitant to commit himself ontologically,[10] and does not rule out the possibility of an ontology containing universals; he merely rules out the possibility of a poorly-reasoned ontology containing universals. To utilize Quine’s argument from an objectivist standpoint, there is not much that can be meaningfully done in the discussion of universals besides Occamite elimination, as is true with any other unnecessary multiplication of entities. In communication and in action, often times a person consistently holding the realist view on universals and a person not holding the view are totally indistinguishable, except in their assertions about the nature of universals. Lacking positive proof of a position or falsification of its negatory position, an appeal to Occam’s razor is the only logical argument left to pursue.


[1] P. 135

[2] Here, Quine briefly introduces a subtler-minded pseudonymous philosopher- Wyman- who advances the argument that Pegasus is simply an unactualized possible. Hence, when it is said that “Pegasus is not,” what is really meant is that Pegasus does not possess the property of actuality; in other words, it is an entity that is already understood to be. Wyman’s definition of the word “existence” entails that “Pegasus” has spatio-temporal connotations if “Pegasus exists,” but that “exists” does not (it merely refers to actualization). Quine then moves on to discuss some problems with unactualized possibles. This discussion is not directly necessary for his discussion of universals, except in as much as unactualized possibles can be looked at as entities in a similar manner to universals.

[3] What Quine means by “ambiguity” in this instance is that the quantifiers are subject non-specific on their own and only necessitate the satisfaction of arbitrarily-stated conditions in a proposition, not that they are poorly defined in usage.

[4] P. 137

[5] P. 138

[6] P. 139

[7] Ibid.

[8] Quine uses “significant” as interchangeable with “meaningful. ”

[9] Haack, Susan. Philosophy of Logics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

[10] At the very least, his hesitation is reflected in this article.

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