The ontological question, W.V.O Quine famously told us, is curious in its simplicity. It can not only be asked in three words — What is there? — but answered in one: Everything. But though Quine thinks that everyone will accept this answer as true, the project of ontological inquiry is non-trivial because there is room for disagreement about cases. Thus a nominalist might disagree with a Platonist about whether there are mathematical objects like numbers and sets, and a nihilist might disagree with a universalist about whether there are any composite objects like tables and chairs. Each side will, of course, agree that there is what there is. But they disagree nonetheless, since they disagree about what there is, and thereby about to what ʻeverythingʼ amounts.
Quine did not simply identify the question which ontologists aim to answer: he also provided a methodology for their inquiry. His seminal paper “On What There Is” is, in this way, badly named. For Quine did not aim to tell us what there is, but how we should go about finding out what there is. Having identified the question which ontological inquiry aims to answer, his focus was squarely on the second-order issue of how ontology should be practiced. He was not doing ontology, but metaontology.
The approach to ontological inquiry that Quine presented has been hugely influential and the publication of “On What There Is” is often cited as the point at which ontology once again became a respectable discipline after the logical positivists had recommended that it be condemned to the flames. As Hilary Putnam puts it:
If we ask when Ontology became a respectable subject for an analytic philosopher to pursue, the mystery disappears. It became respectable in 1948, when Quine published a famous paper titled ‘‘On What There Is.’’ It was Quine who single handedly made Ontology a respectable subject.
This way of writing the history of contemporary ontology sees Quine as its saviour, and views his metaontology as the method by which salvation is achieved. It is hardly a surprise, then, that Quine’s metaontology has found many loyal adherents who are scathing in their assessment of any alternative. Thus Peter van Inwagen writes:
All ontological disputes in which the disputants do not accept Quine’s [approach] are suspect. If Quine’s rules for conducting an ontological dispute are not followed, then it is almost certain that many untoward consequences of the disputed positions will be obscured by imprecision and wishful thinking.
Times change. For despite the fact that the vast majority of philosophers working on ontology in the last 50 years have approached their task from a broadly Quinean point of view, a growing number of dissenting voices can be heard in the recent literature. Two groups in particular can be identified:
- The Moderates, who think that though Quine’s approach to ontology is broadly right, there are ways of alleviating ontological commitment that Quine did not fully accommodate. This group includes various philosophers who have advocated forms of fictionalism, such as Stephen Yablo and Joseph Melia.
- The Radicals, who think that Quine’s approach to ontology is totally wrong, either because Quine misidentified the question of ontology or because his account of how ontological inquiry should be conducted is misconceived. This group includes various philosophers who have suggested that questions of reality and/or fundamentality should be central in ontology inquiry, such as Kit Fine and Jonathan Schaffer.
Our project focuses these post-Quinean approaches to ontological questions, and aims to locate the similarities and differences between them, to identify the precise points at which they depart from Quinean orthodoxy, to assess the faults which they find with Quine’s own conception of ontology, and to evaluate their respective merits. And to achieve these ends, it is necessary to investigate the Quinean picture of ontological inquiry on its own terms and to clarify how the approach is best developed and understood.
Image © Steve Pyke. Used with Permission.