Selection from Milton Munitz, Contemporary Analytic Philosophy:


The paper "On What There Is" deals with ontology, for this indeed is how Quine would characterize that branch of philosophy; it seeks to determine the basic types or kinds of `things there are'. In order to clarify what this comes to, he begins by mentioning a few examples of answers to this question that have been offered by various philosophers in setting out their own ontologies -answers that, far from being universally accepted, have generated much controversy. There are some philosophers who claim we must acknowledge the being of nonexistent entities. Some would give such ontologic status to individuals named in fiction or myth (e.g., Pegasus); others would draw a distinction between actual entities and possible ones, giving the latter a special status among things there are; finally, there is a long and influential tradition of philosophers who draw a fundamental contrast between the realm of particulars and that of universals, the latter, it is said, enjoying objective and timeless reality. Quine makes clear his distinct lack of sympathy for any of these types of ontology. He points to the faulty grounds and misleading considerations on which they have been based, and shows how one may avoid accepting their conclusions. In addition to the foregoing he offers what he thinks is at least a clear and neutral criterion for determining what are a philosopher's ontological commitments. This criterion would give us an important means for sorting out the point at which differences and rivalries among ontologies emerge.

Let us consider, first, the philosophic view that claims that corresponding to the use of every singular term (e.g., a proper name) and as giving that term its meaning, there is an entity having some type of being, though not necessarily one of actual space-time existence. Quine invents the names 'Mc X and 'Wyman' to represent the class of those philosophers who would uphold such a position. Take the case of Pegasus.

If Pegasus were not, McX argues, we should not be talking about anything when we use the word; therefore it would be nonsense to say even that Pegasus is not. Thinking to show thus that the denial of Pegasus cannot be coherently maintained, he concludes that Pegasus is.

Pegasus, Wyman maintains, has his being as an unactualized possible. When we say of Pegasus that there is no such thing, we are saying, more precisely, that Pegasus does not have the special attribute 0f actuality. Saying that Pegasus is not actual is on a par, logically, with saying that the Parthenon is not red; in either case we are saying something about an entity whose being is unquestioned.

There are several grounds on which Quine voices his dissatisfaction with the kind of ontology that claims, as in the above, that there are individual entities whether possible, fictional (and so nonexistent, or otherwise that are being named and so have being wherever any singular term is used. Two of his' principal objections are the following.

One objection has to do with the lack of any clear criterion of identity by which one may identify and distinguish within the domain of individual possible entities one such possible individual from the others. "No entity without identity" is a much-quoted slogan coined by Quine to sum up his position here.

Take, for instance, the possible fat man in that doorway; and, again, the possible bald man in that doorway. Are they the same possible man, or two possible men? How do we decide? How many possible men are there in that doorway? Are there more possible thin ones that fat ones? How many of them are alike? Or would their being alike make them one? Are no two possible things alike? Is this the same as saying that it is impossible for two things to be alike? Or, finally, is the concept of identity simply inapplicable to unactualized possibles? But what sense can be found in talking of entities which cannot meaningfully be said to be identical with themselves and distinct from one another? These elements are well-nigh incorrigible. By a Fregean therapy of individual concepts, some effort might be made at rehabilitation; but I feel we'd do better simply to clear Wyman's slum and be done with it .

For Quine, a second objection to the ontology of 'Wyman' and 'Mc X is that it rests on the fallacy of equating meaning and naming. Such a philosophy presumes that if a singular term is meaningfully used it must name something, that there must be something for the name to designate or refer to. This view, Quine points out, is an error that was classically exposed in Russell's Theory of Definite Descriptions. The technique of analysis employed in that theory showed how one can transform a sentence containing a singular term into a sentence in which, without loss of meaning, that singular term is no longer present; what remain are only quantified variables, predicate (descriptive) expressions, and relevant logical constants. There is no need to posit an entity to correspond to or be named by the singular term (e.g., name or definite descriptive phrase), since the singular term has been eliminated in reparsing the sentence in accordance with the devices and rules of the predicate calculus.

When a statement of being or nonbeing is analyzed by Russell's theory of descriptions, it ceases to contain any expression which even purports to name the alleged entity whose being is in question, so that the meaningfulness of the statement no longer can be thought to presuppose that there be such an entity.

Quine further points out how, for example, this Russellian approach, which he accepts, can be effectively used to avoid having to say there is an entity named by `Pegasus'.

Now what of `Pegasus'? This being a word rather than a descriptive phrase, Russell's argument does not ,immediately apply to it. However, it can easily be made to apply. We have only to rephrase `Pegasus' as a description, in any way that seems adequately to single out our idea: say, `the winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon'. Substituting such a phrase for `Pegasus', we can then proceed to analyze the statement `Pegasus is', or `Pegasus is not', precisely on the analogy of Russell's analysis of `The author of Waverley is' and `The author of Waverley is not'.

In order thus to subsume a one-word name or alleged name such as `Pegasus' under Russell's theory of description, we must, of course, be able first to translate the word into a description. But this is no real restriction. If the notion of Pegasus had been so obscure or so basic a one that no pat translation into a descriptive phrase had offered itself along familiar lines, we could still have availed ourselves of the following artificial and trivialseeming device: we could have appealed to the ex-hypothesi unanalyzable, irreducible attribute of being Pegasus, adopting, for its expression, the verb `is-Pegasus', or `pegasizes'. The noun `Pegasus' itself could then be treated as derivative, and identified after all with a description: `the thing that is-Pegasus', `the thing that pegasizes'.

In criticizing those who confuse meaning and naming, Quine makes it clear that in his own use of `meaning' in this context he would fall back on Frege's distinction between sense and reference. A term may have sense (i.e., `meaning' as Quine uses this latter term) without necessarily having a reference, i.e., without there being some entity which it names or to which it refers.

What about those ontologies that claim that among the kinds of things there are one should include universals? Are there "such entities as attributes, relations, classes, numbers, functions"? In examining this traditional controversial question, Quine singles out the case of attributes (qualities, properties) and shows why in his opinion there is no need to posit such entities. (He does not, in "On What There Is," give a fullfledged discussion of all the other varieties of claims in behalf of universals; nevertheless one readily detects, from the example he does discuss, his general reluctance to `countenance' universals of any kind in his own ontological commitments.) There are those who, like McX, say that, since there are red houses, red roses, red sunsets that have something in common, namely their redness, it is unquestionably true that there is such an attribute-redness. To this claim Quine offers the objection that the use of the abstract noun `redness' does not commit us to saying there is a special entity (a universal), redness, being named by this noun; nor, of course, would he allow that the use of the general term `red' as a predicate obliges us to posit some special entity, a universal, which it names or to which it refers.

On the first point, Quine denies that we must treat an abstract noun as a name for an entity, since we can always regard it as replaceable by a predicate expression that is either true of or false of the individual object it would describe, without itself designating some special type of individual entity.

One may admit that there are red houses, roses, and sunsets, but deny, except as a popular and misleading manner of speaking, that they have anything id common. The words `houses', `roses', and `sunsets' are true of sundry individual entities which are houses and roses and sunsets, and the word `red' or `red object' is true of each of sundry individual entities which are red houses, red roses, red sunsets; but there is not, in addition, any entity whatever, individual or otherwise, which is named by the word `redness', nor, for that matter, by the word `househood', `rosehood', `sunsethood'. That the houses and roses and sunsets are all of them red may be taken as ultimate and irreducible, and it may be held that McX is no better off, in point of real explanatory power, for all the occult entities which he posits under such names as `redness'.'
As for the claim that the predicative use of a general term such as `red' also commits us to saying that it names an entity (the universal, redness), Quine points out the confusion involved. Once again, to say this is to overlook the important difference between naming and meaning. It does not follow that because a general term used predicatively is meaningful, its meaningfulness consists in its serving as a name for an entity.
McX cannot argue that predicates such as `red' or `is-red', which we all concur in using, must be regarded as names each of a single universal entity in order that they be meaningful at all. For we have seen that being a name of something is a much more special feature than being meaningful. He cannot even charge us-at least not by that argument-with having posited an attribute of pegasizing by our adoption of the predicate `pegasizes'
Finally, Quine rejects any attempt to introduce universals under the heading of `meanings' as that which general terms allegedly designate. He denies that we need such a category of entity as `meanings' altogether. We can get along perfectly well by making the-necessary distinction between what is meaningful and meaningless (difficult as the clarification of these terms may be) without having to admit as required for such clarification that there are some "special and irreducible intermediary entities called meanings. "

It is one of Quine's central purposes in his paper "On .What There Is," as we have just seen, to point out certain typical differences among philosophers in their views of what kinds of entity there are, and not only to indicate his disagreement with some of these views but also to hint at the direction toward which he would gravitate in stating his own preferences for a sound ontological theory. Quine has another purpose in view as well. It is to formulate a clear criterion or standard, based on the use of logic, by which one could determine in an explicit and perspicuous way at what point differences in ontologies emerge. This is Quine's celebrated criterion of ontological commitment It is a criterion that takes advantage of some of the familiar notational devices and distinctions of the predicate calculus.

The articulation and use of the criterion of ontological commitment has served as a focal point in Quine's approach to philosophy. In giving this entire topic the prominence he does, Quine has made a major contribution, as an analytical philosopher and logician, toward overcoming the prevailing hostility to `metaphysics' that pervaded analytical philosophy during the period when it was dominated by logical positivism. This is not to say that Quine would encourage a return to cultivating metaphysics of the sort the positivists condemned. Quine is just as hostile to the excesses of `speculative' and `transcendent' metaphysics as were the positivists, yet his views may be taken as subscribing to the cautionary advice that one should not throw out the baby with the bath water Rather than stress, as the positivists did, a wholly negative and water. approach, Quine takes a positive stance with respect to the importance and need to cultivate sound ontological views. It does not follow that because some species of metaphysical writing is to be condemned, therefore the entire discipline is also to be shunned. Quine would revitalize and rehabilitate metaphysics as ontology. This can be done by reconstructing the formulation of the questions with which ontology deals in accordance with the guiding principles of modern logic. We could then be clear about what can be profitably inquired into, where legitimate differences arise among competing ontologies, and how one might proceed to try to resolve these differences. Of course, Quine's proposals have by no means been greeted with universal acceptance. On the contrary, much controversy continues to swirl about what he may be thought to have accomplished. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that he did succeed in restoring to respectability and central importance an area of traditional philosophic concern that other analytic philosophers had been prepared to abandon altogether. For this Quine deserves full credit, regardless of whether one comes finally to agree with him either about the formulation he gives to his criterion of ontological commitment or with his choices of such commitments to mark his own ontological viewpoint.

What, then, is the criterion of ontological commitment? To state this, we must remember above all that Quine is steeped in the Frege-Russell tradition of the new logic. For all his modifications, here and there, of that heritage, Quine remains convinced of the great power and intellectual value of calling upon the resources of modern logic in order to state the `depth-grammar' of language wherever that language is used to convey our attempts,-to give a cognitively true account of the world in which we live. Quine, following Frege and Russell, sees the power of logic to introduce clarity and precision into -our language when that language is stripped of irrelevancies and obfuscations. In particular, he shows the great power of the use of the predicate calculus, at the heart of which, as we had seen earlier in connection with Frege, is the use of the methods of quantification, i.e., the use of bound variables to express forms of generality.

If, then, given some stretch of discourse (whether in everyday language, science, or in the writings of philosophers), we seek to determine the ontological commitments embedded in such discourse, the first thing we must be prepared to do is re-write the relevant statements to disclose their underlying logical patterns. This would involve employing the universal and particular (`existential') quantifiers, various logical constants (negation, identity, conjunction, and so on), and constants or variables to represent various singular terms or predicate expressions. The quantifiers (which translate the use of such ordinary expressions as `everything', `something', `nothing') are used to bind variables.*
*In sentence `(x) Fx', the brackets ( ) serve as an expression in which the gap is filled by a variable for the universal quantifier, and the entire sentence is read `for all x, Fx'. Similarly, in the sentence `(Ex) Fx' the expression `(gx)' stands for the particular quantifier, and the entire sentence wo d be read `for at least one (for some) x, Fx'. The variable x, in both these examples, which is inside the scope of the quantifiers, is said to be bound by the quantifier. Where a variable occurs in a sentence that is not so bound, as e.g., y is in `(Ex) Fx.Gy', it is said to be free. A sentence containing one or more free variables is known as an open sentence. A closed sentence is one in which there are no free variables.

The variables `range over' a domain of possible values. Quine would say this is made evident by translating every statement of ordinary language, science, or philosophy (not already in this form) with the aid of the `canonic notation' of the formulae of first-order statements. The best way to understand what this comes to is to go back to Frege's basic distinction between objects on the one side and concepts (along with relations and functions) on the other. A first-order quantified proposition is one in which the bound variables range over individual objects. These objects, as making up the domain of possible values over which the quantified individual variables range, may be of any type one chooses to distinguish in one's ontology, including the making of a broad distinction between concrete and abstract objects. For Quine, the differences among ontologies have to do primarily with what kinds of objects are said to make up `what there is', and so are represented by different types of individual variables. Thus, for Quine, it is enough for purposes of clarifying one's ontological commitments to make use of first order quantifications where the quantified variables range over one or more types of individual objects. In such first-order generalizations, predicate expressions (concepts), since they do not name or rep resent objects, are not quantified. Also, of course, various logical constants do not designate -or name special kinds of objects, And so do not appear as quantified variables. Thus all expressions (quantifiers, bound variables, predicate expressions, and logical constants) assume their proper place in logically `re-parsed' sentences. Given such sentences, we are then in a position to see where ontological commitments are present. They are to be found in the range of values allowed for and governed by its bound variables. Quine's famous statement, "To be is to be the value of a variable," may accordingly serve as a slogan' to sum up the criterion of ontological commitment.

We may say, for example, that some dogs are white and not thereby commit ourselves to recognizing either doghood or whiteness as entities. `Some dogs are white' says that some things that are dogs are white; and, in order that this statement be true, the things over which the bound variable `something' ranges must include some white dogs, but need not include doghood or whiteness. On the other hand, when we say that some zoological species are cross-fertile we are committing ourselves to recognizing as entities the several species themselves, abstract though they are: We remain so committed at least until we devise some way of so paraphrasing the statement as to show that the seeming reference to species on the part of our bound variable was an avoidable manner of speaking.

We now have a more explicit standard whereby to decide what ontology a given theory or form of discourse is committed to: a theory is committed to those and only those entities to which the bound variables of the theory must be capable of referring in order that the affirmations made in the theory be true.*
* Quine has given various formulations to the criterion. Another one reads: "As applied to discourse in an explicitly quantificational form of language, the notion of ontological commitment belongs to the theory of reference. For to say that a given existential quantification presupposes objects of a given kind is to say simply that the open sentence which follows the quantifier is true of some objects of that kind and none not of that kind."

Quine makes clear that in stating his criterion of ontological cormmitment he is not thereby providing a means for adjudicating among rival ontologies. The criterion only helps to bring out into the open the differences among philosophers on what they say there is. It does not settle the question what there is or isn't (whether what they say is true); yet making clear how the differences can be formulated is an important step ('He' calls it the method of `semantic ascent', because it first transposes differences of a substantive sort into linguistic differences, i.e., differences with respect to the ranges of variables being quantified. Having located differences on that level, one may then proceed to.consider the substantive differences in their own right One asks whether this or that quantified range or domain should be `countenanced', i.e., included in our ontology in order to give a true account of what there is. Questions of the eliminability of certain domains (types of object), of simplicity, of reduction, and so on, will then come to the fore. However difficult it may be to settle those questions, at least progress will have been, made in isolating where the differences lie and in pointing to the kinds of issues that need to be resolved.

Now how are we to adjudicate among rival ontologies? Certainly the answer is not provided by the semantical formula "To be is to be the value of a variable"; this formula serves rather, conversely, in testing the conformity of a given remark or doctrine to a prior ontological standard. We look to bound variables in connection with ontology not in order to know what there is, but in order to know what a given remark or doctrine, ours or someone else's, says there is; and this much is quite properly a problem involving language., But what there is is another question.
In facing issues of the sort that remain, even after one has made the "semantic ascent," Quine recommends a pragmatic approach.
I advanced an explicit standard whereby to decide what the ontological commitments of a theory are. But the question what ontology actually to adopt still stands open, and the obvious counsel is tolerance and. an experimental spirit.