What We Disagree about When We Disagree about Ontology
Dorr (Cian)
Source: Mark Kalderon, ed., Fictionalist Approaches to Metaphysics (Oxford University Press)
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. There was once a land inhabited by many tribes. For a long time, each of the tribes was isolated from all the rest. When they finally made contact, all were amazed to discover how similar they were to one another. All of them spoke languages with exactly the same syntax — that of English. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that there were systematic behavioral differences among the tribes. These differences were reflected in the tribespeoples’ reactions to
      The Special Composition Question: Under what circumstances do several things compose something?
    or its more explicit variant,
      Under what circumstances is there an object having each of several things as parts, every part of which shares a part with one of them?
  2. It turned out that, while each tribe had taken it for granted that the answer to this question was completely obvious and unproblematic, different answers to this question were current among the different tribes.
    1. The tribe of Universalists, for example, would unhesitatingly answer ‘Always: for any things whatsoever, no matter how scattered and miscellaneous they might be, there is something they compose’.
    2. The Nihilists favoured the answer ‘Never: there are no composite objects, only simple ones.’
    3. The Organicists answered ‘Just in case their activity constitutes a life’.
    4. The Stuck-togetherists answered ‘Just in case they are all sufficiently tightly stuck together.’
    5. And so on for each of many other tribes.
    The rest of the tribes’ verbal behaviour was as one would expect, given these differences. So, for example, in the circumstances where a Universalist would say ‘take a chair’, Nihilists and Organicists would invariably say ‘take some things arranged chairwise’.
  3. Once the tribes had learned of one anothers’ existence, two views about the nature of the differences between the tribes became popular. Adherents of the fractious view claimed that the tribes were all speaking the same language: what distinguished them was the difference in their beliefs about the question expressed by the words ‘Under what circumstances do several things compose something?’ in their common language. Adherents of the conciliatory view, on the other hand, by contrast, claimed that each tribe had its own language. When the Organicists said things like ‘There are no nonliving composite objects’, they were, despite appearances, not really contradicting what the Universalists expressed by the words ‘There are many nonliving composite objects.’ In fact, the sentence expressing each tribe’s characteristic answer to the Special Composition Question was a true sentence of that tribe’s language.
  4. In the first part of this paper (sections 2–5), I will consider the question how the conciliator should conceive of the differences between the languages of the tribes. Although the idea that there are many different possible languages which differ systematically in the truth values they assign to general ontological claims has had many distinguished adherents — among them Rudolf Carnap (1950), Hilary Putnam(1987) and Eli Hirsch (2002) — none of them, to my knowledge, has given a fully general semantic account of these differences: one which shows the speakers of any given language how to state semantic theories for all the other languages. Opponents of the view have suspected that the challenge cannot be met (see, e.g. Ted Sider MS). I will show how, by borrowing some ideas from contemporary work on fictionalism1, the conciliator can give a uniform compositional semantics for all the different tribes’ languages, which will work just as well no matter which language the conciliator might happen to be speaking.
  5. The remainder of the paper will consider what those who favour the conciliatory view about these imaginary tribes ought to say about the ongoing debate about the Special Composition Question amongst ontologists at the actual world. There are appealing lines of thought which might lead a conciliator to adopt one of the following claims about that debate:
    1. The Special Composition Question is easier to resolve than many ontologists think: all we need to do is look closely at the way ordinary people talk about composite objects.
    2. The Special Composition Question is highly indeterminate: many logically inconsistent answers to it are such that there is no fact of the matter as regards whether they are true.
    3. The ontologists debating the Special Composition Question are in the same situation as our imaginary tribes: each ontologist speaks an idiolect in which his or her favoured answer to the Question is true.
    (I will use ‘scepticism’ as a blanket term to cover all three of these views, together with various intermediate positions.)
  6. My main aim will be to argue that these lines of thought are mistaken. In fact, if conciliators pay close attention to what ontologists actually think they are doing, they will see that they should really say that the Special Composition Question, as debated by ontologists, has a univocal, determinate answer, namely the Nihilist’s one.


See Dorr - What We Disagree about When We Disagree about Ontology. Final version: September 19, 2003.

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