May 13, 2015

Wed Review (Quine - On What There Is)

"What is there?" is a simple way to put the ontological (study of being) question. But when two people disagree on the existence of something, we run into an ontological problem, stated by Quine as: "in any ontological dispute the proponent of the negative side suffers the disadvantage of not being able to admit that his opponent disagrees with him". If I say that there is a Pegasus, I can defend that notion by saying, "if there were no Pegasus, why are we able to talk about it?". I may eventaully submit and say that Pegasus is not a flesh and blood creature somewhere in the world, but rather an idea in men's minds." My opponent, however, is not claiming that Pegasus doesn't exist as an idea, but that it doesn't exist in the world as a flesh and blood creature.

The philosopher Wyman (I'm unsure which school he's criticizing here) comes in and fucks up our common notion of what existence means. However, if we lose the regular meaning of the term existence, we can still use the word 'is' to help explain the idea meant by "Pegasus does not exist". The philosopher allows much more things to exist, creating an odd ontology.

Quine makes absurd the notion that Pegasus exists (even though not in flesh and blood) with the mind experiment given 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?" To admit that each 'idea' of the man is a separate existing entity is silly.

For what can method can we use for our ontology? Bertrand Russell had a theory of singular descriptions - it "showed clearly how we might meaningfully use seeming names without supposing that there be the entities allegedly named". The name can be used as a description of the thing named. Names don't need objective reference to be meaningful as we can use a variable to fulfill the role of the objective reference. When say Pegasus has wings, I am in fact saying there is a variable (say x) and that variable has the quality of being called 'Pegasus' and x also has the quality of having wings. The x doesn't need to exist in order for that formulation to be meaningful.

This problem could have been circumvented if we noticed the difference between 'meaning' and 'naming'. This brings us to another famous quote in this essay, so I'll just put it here.

"The phrase ‘Evening Star’ names a certain large physical object of spherical form, which is hurtling through space some scores of millions of miles from here. The phrase ‘Morning Star’ names the same thing, as was probably first established by some observant Babylonian. But the two phrases cannot be regarded as having the same meaning; otherwise that Babylonian could have dispensed with his observations and contented himself with reflecting on the meanings of his words. The meanings, then, being different from one another, must be other than the named object, which is one and the same in both cases."

The meaning of the singular term is different than what its reference (the object that the term denotes. If I work at the Daily Bugle, and I call out the name 'Peter Parker', I mean a much different thing than if I were to say 'Spider-man' because I don't know that they are the same person. Therefor meaning is not found in the named object.

Quine proceeds to criticise the notion of the existence of Plato's Universals. "we can view utterances as significant, and as synonymous or heteronymous with one another, without countenancing a realm of entities called meanings." Therefor we can have the notion of 'red' and say of multiple objects that there a red without admitting the existence of a universal 'red'.

There are a bunch of different schools of thought concerning this stuff. Quine goes through a few of them. The three 20th century schools of though correspond to the three mediaeval points of view.

1) Realism, now logicism, "Realism, as the word is used in connection with the mediaeval controversy over universals, is the Platonic doctrine that universals or abstract entities have being independently of the mind; the mind may discover them but cannot create them."

2) conceptualism, now intuitionism "Conceptualism holds that there are universals but they are mind-made."

3) nominalism, now formalism "echoes intuitionism in deploring the logicist’s unbridled recourse to universals" but wants to not use abstract entities at all.

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