Epistemology

On What There Is - W.V.O Quine


A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: ‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word-‘Everything’ -and everyone will accept this answer as true. However, this is merely to say that there is what there is. There remains room for disagreement over cases; and 80 the issue has stayed alive down the centuries.  Suppose now that two philosophers, McX and I, differ over ontology.

Suppose McX maintains there is something which I maintain there is not. McX can, quite consistently with hi8 own point of view, dlescribe our difference of opinion by saying that I refuse to recognize certain entities. I should protest, of course, that he is wrong in hi8 formulation of our disagreement, for I maintain that there are no entities, of the kind which he alleges, for me to recognize; but my finding him wrong in hi8 formulation of our disagreelment is unimportant, for I am committed to considering him wrong in hi8 ontology anyway. When I try to formulate our difference of opinion, on the other hand, I seem to be in a predicament. I cannot admit that there are 8ome ~things which McX countenances and I do not, for in admitting that there are such things I should be contradicting my own rejection of them. It would appear, if thii~ reasoning were sound, that in any ontological dispute the proponent of the negative side suffers the disadvantage of not beiing able to admit that hi8 opponent disagrees with him. This is the old Platonic riddle of nonbeing. Nonbeing must in some sense be, otherwise what is it t,hat there is not?

This tangled doctrine might be nicknamed Plato’s beard; historically it has proved tough, frequently dulling the edge of Occam’s razor.  It is some such line of thought that leads philosophers like McX to impute being where they might otherwise be quite content to recognize that there is nothing. Thus, take 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. 

McX cannot, indeed, quite persuade himself that any region of space-time, near or remote, contains a flying horse of flesh and blood. Pressed for further details on Pegasus, then, he saуs that Pegasus is an idea in men’s minds. Here, however, a confusion begins to be apparent. We may for the sake of argument concede that there is an entity, and even a unique entity (though this is rather implausible), which is the mental Pegasus-idea; but this mental entity is not what people are talking about when they deny Pegasus.  McX never confuses the Parthenon with the Parthenon-idea. The Parthenon is physical; the Parthenon-idea is mental (according anyway to McX’s version of ideas, and I have no better to offer). The Parthenon is visible; the Parthenon-idea is invisible.

We cannot easily imagine two things more unlike, and leas liable to confusion, than the Parthenon and the Parthenon-idea. But when we shift from the Parthenon to Pegasus, the confusion sets in-for no other reason than that McX would sooner be deceived by the crudest and most flagrant counterfeit than grant the nonbeing of Pegasus.  The notion that Pegasus must be, because it would otherwise be nonsense to say even that Pegasus is not, has been seen to lead McX into an elementary confusion. Subtler minds, taking the same precept as their starting point, come out with theories of Pegasus which are less patently misguided than McX’s, and correspondingl;y more difficult to eradicate. One of these subtler minds is named, let us say, Wyman. 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 of 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. Wyman, by the way, is one of those philosophers who have united in ruining the good old word ‘exist’.  Despite his espousal of unactualized possibles, he limits the word ‘existence’ to actuality-thus preserving an illusion of ontological agreement between himself and us who repudiate the rest of his bloated universe. We have all been prone to say, in our common-sense usage of ‘exist’, that Pegasus does not exist, meaning simply that there is no such entity at all. If Pegasus existed he would indeed be in spalee and time, but only because the word ‘Pegasus’ has spatio-temporal connotations, and not because ‘exists’ has spat&temporal connotatians.

If spatio-temporal reference is lacking when we afhrm the existence of the cube root of 27, this is simply !because a cube root is not a spatio-temporal kind of thing, and not because we are being ambiguous in our use of ‘exist’.’ However, Wyman, in an ill-conceived effort to appear agreeable, genially grants us the nonexistence of Pegasus and then, contra,ry to what toe meant by nonexistence of Pegasus, insists that Pegasus is. Existence is one thing, he says, and subsistence is another. The only way I know of coping with this obfuscation of :issues is to give Wyman the word ‘exist’. I’ll try not to use it again; I still have ‘is’. So much for lexicography; let’s get back to Wyman’s ontology.  

About Ikhbayar Urchuud

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