- Ontology is the study of what there is. Here are some examples of disputes in modern analytic ontology:
- Abstract objects. The nominalist (as the label is used today) denies that there exist abstract objects. The Platonist holds that there are abstract objects. One example is numbers. The nominalist denies that there are numbers; the Platonist typically affirms it. (See chapter 1.)
- Ordinary objects. Consider ordinary objects - tables, chairs, animals, rocks, what have you. Commonsensically, we would hold that objects of all these types exist. But some philosophers deny this. Peter van Inwagen ("Van Inwagen (Peter) - Material Beings", 1990) holds that organisms are the only macroscopic objects there are. Cian Dorr ("Dorr (Cian) - What We Disagree about When We Disagree about Ontology", 2005) has argued that there are not any macroscopic objects at all.
- Extraordinary objects. Consider the purported object which is the sum of my nose and the Eiffel Tower. Consider "incars2" which, if they exist, are exactly like cars, except that they only exist when or insofar as they are inside garages. Do such objects exist? Commonsense arguably says no. But on a variety of philosophical views they do. (See chapter 8.)
- Metaontology, which I will be concerned with, is about what ontology is. It is about the nature of questions like the ones mentioned. Specifically, I will be concerned with one particular dispute in metaontology, what I will call the dispute between robust ontologists and deflationists about ontology. On the robust conception of ontology, questions of ontology are real, genuine questions on a par with questions of science. On the deflationary conception of ontology, questions of ontology somehow fall short of this ideal. These characterizations are, to be sure, rough and impressionistic. But that is in the nature of the topic. The robust and deflationary conceptions of ontology are tendencies rather than full-fledged theses.
- Sometimes the following imagery is employed to describe these two different views on ontology. The robust ontologist holds that there are real metaphysical joints in nature. The deflationary ontologist, by contrast, subscribes to the "picture of reality as an amorphous lump" as Michael Dummett puts it (e.g. "Dummett (Michael) - Frege, Philosophy of Language", 1981: 577). The deflationary conception is also sometimes described employing the "cookie-cutter metaphor," according to which reality considered in itself is like some amorphous dough and our concepts are like cookie-cutters, carving up reality into objects. It is worth stressing that these are mere pictures. A lot of philosophical work has to go into actually providing these pictures with definite content.
- I will focus on the deflationary conception of ontology. Specifically, I will be concerned with what form an acceptable deflationism about ontology might take. The most well-known and important form of deflationism about ontology has historically been associated with William James and Rudolf Carnap, and among its most important current proponents are Hilary Putnam and Eli Hirsch. (There are important differences between the views of these thinkers, but I will focus on the similarities.)
- Putnam calls his view the thesis of conceptual relativity.
- Hirsch calls his view the doctrine of quantifier variance.
- I will call this general type of deflationary view ontological pluralism.
- For most of the paper, I will critically discuss the ontological pluralist view. Then I will discuss whether there are other routes for the deflationist about ontology to take.
Footnote 1: Truncated rather arbitrarily!
Footnote 2: See "Hirsch (Eli) - Physical Identity".
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