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

March 5th, 2008


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On What There Is: Quine’s Theory of Ontology and Position on Universals

A universal describes a member of a class of mind-independent entities in reality that is not a particular thing, but an attribute, relation, etc. The realist position on universals posits that individuals share attributes with other individuals and that this commonality is manifested by the existence of universals. However, several philosophers have objected to this position, on the basis of objections because of the metaphysical strangeness or lack of necessity of universals, among others. In “On What There Is,” W. V. Quine addresses some of the logical and grammatical issues of ontology, and then relates them to the dispute over universals. Quine applies Russell’s theory of descriptions to form ontological propositions that entirely avoid referring to universals and invokes Occam’s razor to repudiate them as a result. One potential drawback to Quine’s approach is that he possibly fails to consistently apply Occam’s razor- as he applied it to the problematic singular descriptors- to the quantifiers (the “bound variables”) with which he replaces singular terms. Beyond that issue, however, Quine makes a convincing case against realist position on universals.

Before exploring universals, Quine discusses a series of preliminary concerns important for establishing his argument. He begins the article by declaring the problem of ontology to be finding the answer to a simple question: “What is there? ” Because of the evident fact that there is disagreement on these issues, the first part of his argument is dedicated to exploring the issues of rival ontologies, manifested in the form of a dispute between him and a pseudonymous philosopher, McX. If McX recognizes certain entities (has a different ontology), but Quine does not, Quine “cannot admit that there is something which McX countenances and I do not,” because it contradicts his initial rejection. Quine refers to this traditional Platonic predicament of non-being as Plato’s beard: “nonbeing must in some sense be,” Quine notes, “otherwise what is it that there is not? ”[1]

One instance of Plato’s beard in action is a disagreement between McX and Quine over the entity “Pegasus. ” McX contests that if Pegasus somehow were not, then the use of the word Pegasus could not possibly be talking about anything- but its usage does talk about something, rendering that position incoherent, resulting in the conclusion that Pegasus is. Because McX clearly does not believe that space and time contain “a flying horse of flesh and blood,” he must provide details about what Pegasus is if it is not that. Quine rules out the possibility that it is just an idea in the mind, pointing out that it is not what “Pegasus” is referring to when people deny it. [2]

Distinguishing Naming and Meaning, via Russell’s Theory of Descriptions

An essential point of contention between Quine and McX reduces to what Quine describes as a gap between naming and meaning, and whether an utterance can be significant or not if does not purport to name some entity existing in reality. In the case of Pegasus, McX argued that if Pegasus were not, then the word would convey nothing (in other words, it would be insignificant). Quine invokes Bertrand Russell’s theory of descriptions to resolve this issue, disentangling the ambiguities and fallacies caused by McX’s poor language use. In particular, the theory of descriptions functions as a means of rephrasing the articles “the,” “a,” etc. to create propositions with better-defined referents. For example, the propositions “the current Czar of Russia is cute,” can be true or false, but in both cases could imply that there is either a Czar of Russia who is cute or a Czar of Russia who is not cute. However, it could be the case- as it is- that there is no current Czar of Russia. Russell’s theory of descriptions would rephrase the original statement as “There exists someone who is Czar of Russia who is cute,” thus making clearer the propositional nature of the existence of the Czar, in addition to his cuteness.

Quine utilizes Russell’s famous “The author of Waverly was a poet” example in order to illustrate the lack of ontological commitment entailed by singular descriptors, by showing that the descriptor can be contextually rephrased into another statement with a truth value. McX falsely assumes that there must be some objective reference in the statement, “the author of Waverly was a poet,” for the statement to be meaningful.

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