Against Revisionary Ontology
Hirsch (Eli)
Source: Philosophical Topics, Vol. 30, No. 1, Identity and Individuation (Spring 2002), pp. 103-127
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. My impression is that the period of the last twenty years or so has been an amazingly bad time for common sense ontology. It seems to me that every third philosopher I talk to has serious doubts about whether tables exist, and of the other two at least one of them thinks that if there are such things as tables then there are also such things as the object composed of the Eiffel Tower and Plato's nose. As I overheard a philosopher saying recently, "Either everything exists or nothing exists." The "everything exists" people are sometimes called "universalists." They hold that for any two things there is a third thing composed of the two. Typically they also hold that if a thing persists through a period of time then there is a second thing, a "temporal part" of the first, which exists only during that period. The world consists, then, of all of the sums of these temporal parts, so that, as W.V. Quine often puts it, every materially occupied space-time portion of the world, however discontinuous or gerrymandered, is an object on an equal footing with any other. The "nothing exists" people - perhaps Peter Unger is the most famous recent example (or would be if he existed) - typically hold that none of the complex entities that people ordinarily seem to be talking about really exist, though they may possibly allow for the existence of metaphysical simples. Even more amazing in a way than the anti-commonsensical stances of the universalists and nihilists is the view of people like Roderick Chisholm and Peter Van Inwagen who, while agreeing with common sense that the truth lies somewhere between "everything exists" and "nothing exists," claim to have some way of picking and choosing amongst ordinary things, admitting some of them but dismissing others, in a manner I can't help associating with the game played by small children who demand from you an invisible ticket before they'll admit you into their room.
  2. These attacks on common sense amaze me in part because I think they are so badly misguided, but also because when I entered the profession of philosophy during the heyday of the so-called ordinary language movement, I think almost no one would have predicted that before the end of the millennium - even given some predictable end-of-millennium madness - the existence of tables would again be called into question. I think most of us assumed back then that philosophers like G.E. Moore, Peter Strawson, J.L. Austin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein had once and for all established the undeniability of our most basic common sense beliefs - or, if not "once and for all," at least for more than ten years. We were, as it now appears, overly optimistic.

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