Ontological Minimalism
Thomasson (Amie L.)
Source: American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Oct., 2001), pp. 319-331
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Such entities as properties, propositions, meanings, and fictional characters have long presented difficulties for naturalism. For singular terms such as "the property of being a dog" seem to refer to these entities, but accepting that such terms refer is often thought to commit one to a realm of non-natural entities that are mysterious both ontologically and epistemologically. On the other hand, treating the relevant singular terms as either having no genuine referential function or attempting and failing to refer has unpalatable consequences (Stephen Schiffer 1996, pp. 151-2). An interesting response to this dilemma is to accept that the singular terms in question do refer, but to develop an "ontologically minimal" or "pleonastic" view that ascribes the entities referred to a "deflated" metaphysical status, in hopes of thereby permitting the needed reference to them while avoiding the ontological and epistemic embarrassments of robustly realist views. Accordingly, such diverse entities as meanings (Mark Johnston 1988), fictional characters (Schiffer 1996), properties and propositions (Schiffer 1994, 1996, 2000), and events and states (Schiffer 1994) have all been argued to be "minimal" or "pleonastic" entities that are (in a sense) "mind- or language-created" and so need not be taken so ontologically seriously as rocks, trees, or the ideal entities of the Platonist (Schiffer 1996, p. 153).
  2. But what is really involved in ontological minimalism beyond the deflationary rhetoric? The purpose of this paper is to investigate the very idea of ontological minimalism, its source, and its potential applications. I will argue that various problems and paradoxes arise in standard descriptions of ontological minimalism, and that these are the result of indifferently lumping together three separate kinds of minimalism, each of which has different ontological and epistemic standing. Distinguishing these kinds of minimalism enables a better understanding of the source of typical "minimalist" characteristics, and permits us to better assess what sorts of results minimalism can and cannot provide. It turns out that general claims of minimalism cannot provide any assurance that the relevant entities are in any sense mere "creations of our linguistic and conceptual practices" (Schiffer 1996, p. 153) that can be more readily reconciled with naturalism. Nonetheless, there are important applications of one sort of minimalism for determining the relative parsimony of different theories, which can, e.g., help demonstrate why certain forms of eliminativism regarding "ordinary" objects, fictional characters, etc. are misguided.

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