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Quine’s Ontology Essay

Willard Van Orman Quine’s philosophy mainly tackles ontology, arguing that ontology is relative to one’s conceptual or linguistic framework. Moreover, Quine’s ontological assertions essentially revolve around the question of “what is there? ” inasmuch as ontology attempts to shed more philosophical understanding on the types of entities that exist. His assertions basically seek to identify the existing entities such as whether there are numbers, universals like redness, and mind to name a few.

One way to understand Quine’s theory is by citing the Pegasus example. That is, person X may posit the reasoning that Pegasus must be existing in one way or another because to say that Pegasus doesn’t exist requires that there should be that ‘Pegasus’ which is being talked about. Thus, this reasoning is essentially pointing out the idea that for one to be able to talk about something or assert that such object does not exist requires that such object should at the same time exist.

To extend this claim, one may state that a person cannot basically make certain assertions of existence or inexistence towards certain objects if that person has no knowledge of that object in the first place, and that this prior knowledge should presuppose that the object indeed exists. Quine, on the other hand, will not accept such an argument for one crucial reason: person X in the given example treats or understands the statement that “Pegasus doesn’t exist” as a statement wherein the property of nonexistence is being ascribed to the existing object Pegasus.

Quine tells us that it is indeed wrong to treat the statement that way, and that the logical way of understanding the statement is that “it is false that there is something that is Pegasus” which essentially does not give the presumption that the object Pegasus should exist in one way or another. Thus, as a thesis, it can be argued that Quine’s method of arriving at the ontology of objects focuses on the manner in which we understand and make use of language in a logical manner, which is in much the same way in which we commit ourselves to the ontology of objects.

By extending the argument, it can be said that, since our treatment of language is the foundation of our ontological assertions, a shift in language also corresponds to a shift in ontology as Quine himself will also point out. Indeed, there is strong reason to believe that our treatment and understanding of the language that we use greatly affects the way in which our minds operate and make ontological claims. With this in mind, it is safe to assume that certain individuals having a unique understanding and treatment of their own language will most likely have a different understanding and treatment of the language of others.

Language itself is complex and that there are wide variations in the linguistic devices for each society or nation. Thus, it is inevitable to have a different understanding in terms of ontological claims from among different people. Nevertheless, Quine makes it a point that the use of a certain language per se is not necessarily superior or the right one over another. What Quine is asserting, though, is that even though we have different languages and that there, too, are shifts in languages, it cannot be an excuse to make assertions which are linguistically flawed.

One interesting point that Quine raises is that the mere use or utterance of certain words such as ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Pegasus’ or the inclusion of these terms in any given statement necessitates the corresponding existence of these words. Indeed, it is plainly easy to make statements or assertions, especially about claims of whether or not certain objects truly exist by the mere utterance of the labels or names for such objects. On closer examination, however, Quine’s argument will shed light on the confusion that arises from such an instance.

Indeed, it is different to make a statement of existence or inexistence involving certain terms and to actually prove the existence or inexistence of objects through language. One way to show this distinction is to carefully make a piecemeal analysis of the previous example of Pegasus. It has been argued that to make the statement “Pegasus doesn’t exist” requires that the object “Pegasus” should actually exist in order to make certain assertions about it. Following the claims of Quine, such a statement does not necessarily presuppose the prior existence of Pegasus.

The part where the statement errs is the part where the object Pegasus is assumed to exist and that what is being done is to give the property of nonexistence to Pegasus. That is, the object Pegasus is believed to exist first and then the property of nonexistence is consequently given to the object. The key to understanding the flaw in such a statement is logic. Quine gives us the impression that we can use certain names such as “Sherlock Holmes” or “Pegasus” without actually presupposing that the name “Sherlock Holmes” or the object “Pegasus” corresponds or denotes an actual entity.

The mere usage of certain names or terms may not necessarily imply that there are factual objects or entities which correspond to these names or terms. In essence, it is illogical or it does not necessarily follow that the use of a term x necessitates that there is an actual x. Another interesting point being put forward by Quine is his famous slogan that “to be is to be the value of a variable. ” That is, one only commits to an ontological claim when what is being stated is in the form of “there is x that is so on and so forth.

” The example “Pegasus doesn’t exist” does not follow the form of “there is x that is so on and so forth. ” Rather, the Pegasus example is a mere statement which does not necessarily designate any corresponding entity or object for the name ‘Pegasus’. The Pegasus statement may serve a literary function yet it does not primarily serve an ontological function. If it should have served an ontological function, the more proper formulation of the statement should be that “there is a Pegasus that is so on and so forth.

” In terms of formal logic, for the Pegasus example to become an ontological assertion, it should specifically be framed in terms of “there is an x such that so on and so forth refers or corresponds to x. ” Quine’s claim that ontology is relative to one’s conceptual or linguistic framework emphasizes the idea that a failure to grasp certain linguistic frameworks corresponds to a failure to grasp the ontology of objects. These linguistic frameworks may be seen as unique to certain groups of individuals and, hence, it would be futile to place a certain statement unique to that of a certain group to the linguistic framework of another group.

The key, however, to doing away with such a flawed approach is to make use of logic which, after all, lies at the heart of Quine’s ontological assertions, such as placing statements that purport to commit to ontology in the form “there is an x such that so on and so forth, or the attributes, refer to x. ” Carnap asserts that ‘external questions’ such as ‘what are things’ and ‘are numbers real? ’ are fundamentally flawed and, hence, unanswerable because such questions are beyond the linguistic framework and it is only through and within the linguistic framework that cognitive content or an understanding of the question can be given.

However, Quine tells us that this may not necessarily be the case because such a distinction, or the distinction between the internal and the external, equaled the distinction between analytic and synthetic which tells us that a truth is analytic if it is true through the virtue of that truth’s linguistic composition and synthetic if the truth depends on a certain reference to the actual external world. Quine tells us that such a distinction should be abandoned precisely because ontology is relative to one’s conceptual or linguistic framework.

Quine’s assertion that a shift in language goes hand in hand with a shift in ontology also emphasizes the idea that ontology is relative to one’s conceptual or linguistic framework. That is, when we change our language or when a certain language is used in place of another language in making ontological assertions, there is the risk that a shift in ontology may also take place because there may be a limited accessibility to the variables in certain languages.

Or, within a specific linguistic framework, certain words may have corresponding synonyms yet when taken in the pursuit of ontology the equivalence of terms or words may altogether change or shift the ontology being sought after. For instance, the term ‘Pegasus’ may mean something as ‘the winged horse captured by Bellerophon. ’ In the example ‘Pegasus doesn’t exist’, replacing ‘Pegasus’ with ‘the winged horse captured by Bellerophon’ changes the statement to ‘the winged horse captured by Bellerophon doesn’t exist. ’ This method of replacing the x term or ‘Pegasus’ with another consequently shifts the ontology.

Thus, the argument of Quine—that a shift in language at least in the example given—ordinarily involves the corresponding shift in ontology. The understanding of language and its proper and logical use are crucial to the study of the ontology of objects. Without such an understanding and proper treatment, the difficulties in the philosophical quest for the ontology of things will be harder than they appear to be. In general, Quine gives us a rough glimpse into the pursuits of ontology. Reference Quine, W. V. “Ontology and Ideology Revisited. ” The Journal of Philosophy 80, no. 9 (1983): 499-502.


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