Speak with the vulgar.

Think with me.

The “strict philosophical sense”

with 4 comments

Here’s an inconsistent triad:

  • The question of the ontological status of ordinary material objects is a serious question: its answer isn’t obvious.
  • Obviously there is a chair I’m sitting on.
  • Ontology is about what there is. (So, specifically, the question of the ontological status of ordinary material objects is just the question of whether there are such objects (chairs being among them).)

All three principles are pretty compelling. How can we resolve their inconsistency?

I suggest that there is an equivocation on “there is”. When we say ontology is about what there is, we are using “there is” in a different way than when we say there is a chair I’m sitting on. It is responsive to different constraints.

This is Quine’s picture: to find out what there is, we look at what we quantify over in our simplest theory of the world. The quantifiers are the symbols that appear in certain inferences: If a is a \phi, then there is a \phi; If we can infer that a isn’t a \phi from premises not involving a, then we can infer from the same premises that there isn’t a \phi. These rules, or something like them, constrain what we mean by “there is”, when we are doing our philosophical theory-building.

But the natural meaning of “there is” is constrained by the facts of English usage (perhaps together with some facts about the natural properties out there for us to talk about). There’s no reason to think beforehand that the constraints of theory-building are going to coincide with the constraints of ordinary usage. Clearly there’s an etymological relationship between the “strict philosophical” sense of “there is” and the ordinary English sense, but it looks plausible to me that they aren’t quite the same thing.

An analogy. We have an ordinary use of “animal” that excludes human beings. But biologists have discovered that there is a more useful category for systematic theory-building, one which mostly coincides with ordinary “animal”, but which includes human beings. This “strict biological sense” of the word “animal” doesn’t mean that a sign that says “No animals are allowed in the bus” is (strictly speaking) wrong. It’s just employing a different sense of “animal”.

I think a lot of philosophers think that when they say “strictly speaking”, they are manipulating the pragmatics of the discourse: the “strict philosophical sense” is the most literal sense. If what I’m saying is right, then this is a mistake. The strict philosophical sense isn’t any more literal than the ordinary sense; it is simply a sense that belongs to a different, philosophical register.


Written by Jeff

December 21, 2008 at 2:26 pm

4 Responses

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  1. These kinds of equivocation stories are dangerous.

    Do you really think there’s an ordinary concept ANIMAL whose extension does not include humans? That in the non-biologist’s mouth, “a human is a kind of animal” is false? This strikes me as pretty implausible. (I’m inclined to explain the “no animals allowed” phenomenon as involving quantifier domain restriction; if there’s a bug on my shoe, I’m not violating the rule either.)

    I guess on your view, ontological nihilists should be perfectly happy saying things like, “of course it’s strictly and literally true that there are chairs, although ontologically speaking, there are no chairs.” And unrestricted compositionalists should be happy to say things like “of course it’s strictly and literally true that there is nothing that is the mereological sum of my computer and your nose, although ontologically speaking, there is such a thing.” I don’t hang out with ontologists all that much, so I’m hesitant to make claims here, but it’s not my impression that many of them want to talk in this sort of way.


    December 21, 2008 at 3:25 pm

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jonathan.

    I’m not really sure that what I said about “animal” is right; I meant it as an illustration of how things might work. Certainly the real story about “animal” is more complicated than I said. First, our language community has (by and large) delegated responsibility for the word “animal” to the biologists; so the original, human-excluding sense of the word has been replaced by the new, human-including sense. (Similarly, the lawyers are in charge of “contract”, the printers “font”, etc.) Insofar as a speaker is part of a community that defers to the biologists’ use of the word, when she says “a human is a kind of animal” she speaks truly. But we could imagine a community (maybe they really exist) that didn’t grant the biologists authority over the word “animal”. Nothing would stop them from going on using the word in its original sense.

    It’s also possible that all along the word’s meaning involved was fixed by a natural kind out there, in which case, if the animal kingdom really is a natural kind, then people just made mistakes a lot, according to their own rules for using the word.

    But I think it’s plausible that “there is” isn’t subject to either of those caveats: the philosophers haven’t been delegated authority over the term to shift its meaning for all as they see fit, and its meaning doesn’t involve some sort of natural kind.

    (Incidentally, the OED subscribes to my multiple-meaning theory. They cite Dryden for the restricted meaning: “Of all the Race of Animals, alone The Bees have common Cities of their own”. Why not suppose Dryden is speaking literally and not making a blatant mistake?)

    As for why the ontologists aren’t willing to say the things I claim they should be willing to say, that’s because the ontologists are laboring under the belief that “strictly and literally” means precisely the same thing as “ontologically speaking”. In that, I suggest that they are wrong.


    December 21, 2008 at 4:59 pm

  3. Sorry to disagree but this is vacuous Platonistic junk.
    There aren’t ANY objects “in the world”, objects, concepts, ideas and als pertain only to models of reality, of which there can be as many as you like.
    Your OWN model of reality (and mine) is constantly upgraded and amended, there is no point in wondering about “what is” and “what is not”.


    December 31, 2008 at 12:33 pm

  4. Yes, I think there is a difference between the usage of the words “there is” when used in a metaphysical context in contrast to everyday discourse.

    In everyday discourse an object or thing exists if generally we are aware of it on some level; from this it follows that either we can perceive it, do things with it–like make use of it in the case of a chair,

    Whereas in the philosophical context, what it means to say something exists is more open to interpretation. Interpretations are provided by those working in meta-ontology. For example, some philosophers might claim that for an object to truly exist, it must have an independent existence. Lay people don’t make this distinction. They’re generally not concerned with whether or not an object of their experience exists independently of their perception.

    Would it be wrong to claim that the everyday usage of “there is” is more phenomenologically driven–that is
    in everyday discourse a person would make a declarative statement saying that something exists with the utmost degree of confidence if it has appeared before their consciousness. In this way an emotion, thought, as well as a chair exist on equal footing. Philosophers want a more fine grained understanding of existence, hence their inquires into the subject.

    It seems like Quine took “there is” from its everyday context and gave it a formal basis.


    February 26, 2009 at 10:59 am

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