Ontology and Ordinary Objects
Baker (Lynne Rudder)
Source: Winfried Loeffler, Christian Kanzian, and Joseph Quitterer, editors, The Way Things Are: Studies in Ontology, pages 167–180. Ontos, Frankfurt, 2012
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Author’s Introduction

  1. Edmund Runggaldier is well-known throughout the world for his work in Christian philosophy. To say that Edmund Runggaldier works in Christian philosophy, however, understates the breadth of his philosophical interests. In English alone, he has published papers on sortal1 continuity, on intentionality in Aristotle and Brentano, and on Carnap and other topics in analytic philosophy. He has edited books that cut a broad swath in philosophy generally. I take my theme from the broad swath in which there are many convergences of Professor Runggaldier’s views and my own.
  2. In this well-deserved Festschrift for Professor Runggaldier, I want to pursue some of the interests that he and I share. Most concern the reality of everyday objects. Although it may seem obvious that everyday objects — you, me, automobiles, computers, roses — are real, many philosophers deem them not to be objects at all, but just collections of particles.
  3. There is a venerable tradition in philosophy of clever arguments for unbelievable theses being countered by quick-and-dirty refutations. For example, when Zeno argued that there was no motion, Diogenes was said to walk around the room, thus disproving Zeno. When Berkeley argued that there was no material substance, but only ideas, Dr. Johnson famously kicked a stone and said, “I hereby refute you.”
  4. Today, clever philosophers are still advancing arguments with incredible conclusions. For example, Peter van Inwagen says, “My position vis-à-vis tables and other inanimate objects is simply that there are none. Tables are not defective objects or second-class citizens of the world; they are just not there at all.” (Van Inwagen 1990, 99-100). Now, I would like to pull a Dr. Johnson and say, “Then, what is that thing in the dining room supporting your knife and fork?” But van Inwagen has a ready response: Strictly speaking, nothing; there are just some simples (or particles) arranged tablewise (and knife-and-forkwise). Of course, in ordinary life, we say that there’s a table there. But we must sharply separate what we need to say to get along in the world and what we should say in the philosophy room when we do ‘serious metaphysics.’
  5. This is precisely the view of philosophy that I reject. So, I believe, does Edmund Runggaldier. We think that serious metaphysics should help make sense of what we all know and need to know in order to get along in the world. The territory that interests me here contains things of familiar kinds — cats, keys, and credit cards, etc. I believe that they are irreducibly real. These things exist and cannot be reduced to things of other kinds, like sums of atoms. They belong in the ontology, the inventory of what exists. Any complete account of what there is must mention them as such — as cats, keys and credit cards. Ordinary objects are a diverse lot. They include any objects that can get lost or stolen, any objects that you can encounter or interact with. Almost everybody has to contend with dirty dishes and drivers licenses.
  6. Hence, I’ve developed a view that allows these ordinary things, as such, a place at the ontological table. I use the term ‘ontological’ to signal that I am talking about reality, genuine reality with metaphysical heft; I’m not just talking about concepts or sentences that we accept as true. When I say that ordinary objects have ontological significance, I imply that if an inventory of what exists mentions electrons but not elephants and elevators, it is incomplete.
  7. Let me come clean about my own convictions. I believe that the things that we encounter and interact with — the parts of reality that include persons and their inventions — are no less ontologically significant than the microphysical parts of reality. Although philosophy can be technical and abstract, there should always be a thread that can be followed back to something that somebody might care about outside the “philosophy room.” That’s the pragmatic side of my approach. The ontological side stems from a Platonic conviction that the things that are valuable are real and not reducible to unfamiliar, microphysical entities. So, I want to present an ontological account of ordinary objects.
  8. My plan is this: After characterizing my ontological view of ordinary objects, I want to consider some objections that have been raised against it. Consideration of these objections will lead us to ask how we ought to evaluate a philosophical theory.


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