The Semantics of Modal Notions and the Indeterminacy of Ontology
Hintikka (Jaakko)
Source: Synthese, Vol. 21, No. 3/4, Semantics of Natural Language, I (Oct., 1970), pp. 408-424
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction: Quine Against Possible Individuals

  1. Many philosophers dislike possible individuals. Professor W. V. Quine is a well-known case in point. According to him, possible individuals create an ontological slum, "a breeding ground for disorderly elements". At one point, he elaborated his apprehensions as follows: "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? Are there more possible thin ones than fat ones? How many of them are alike? Or would their being alike make them one? ... Or ... is the concept of identity simply inapplicable to unactualized possibles? But what sense can be found in talking of entities which cannot meaningfully be said to be identical with themselves and distinct from another? These elements are well-nigh incorrigible."
  2. Another aspect of this incorrigibility has subsequently been expounded and argued for by Quine in "Quine (W.V.) - Word & Object". It is what Quine calls the indeterminacy of ontology. This means that all physically possible evidence would not enable us to decide how another man is splitting up his world into individuals, universals1, and whatever other categories of entities he might countenance. By the same token, all I say and do is inevitably compatible with more than one way of structuring the world conceptually. The reason why this is but another aspect of the old problem of possible individuals is not hard to appreciate. If I could spell out, in the kind of behavioristic terms which Quine could accept, the principles on which his questions concerning thin and fat possible men could be answered, then these principles would describe the kind of linguistic behavior which goes together with one ontology rather than another.

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