What is Ontological Attachment?June 28, 2021
“On What There is?” Quine begins his discussion of ontology with a problem he calls “the riddle of the non-existent.”
Two philosophers (or two people) may have different ontologies. What may exist for one person, may not exist for another. However, if the second person wants to argue about something that does not exist, the language he uses will inevitably refer to that non-existent thing. In this case, while saying that the thing that he thinks does not exist does not exist, he will first have to state that the thing exists. The example that Quine chose in this regard is Pegasus. “There is no Pegasus.” When I say that, I have to talk about Pegasus as an object to which the term “Pegasus” in the subject position denotes.
Quine uses Russell’s theory of definite descriptors to solve this problem. If we use Russell’s method, the proposition “There is Pegasus” is “There is one x that x is a winged horse caught by Bellorophon and there is no other winged horse caught by Bellorophon.” proposition can be analyzed. While Pegasus as a singular name seems to refer to Pegasus as an object in the first proposition, such a necessity disappears in the second proposition. Now we can talk about Pegasus without having to acknowledge its existence. This applies to all other singular nouns. Quine draws the following conclusion from this:
When we say that there are prime numbers greater than a million, we commit ourselves to an ontology of numbers; When we say ‘there are centaurs’ we commit ourselves to an ontology that includes centaurs; When we say ‘Pegasus exists’, we commit ourselves to an ontology that includes Pegasus. However, when we say that the author of Pegasus or Wawerley or that there is no round square dome at Berkeley College, we are not linking Pegasus to an ontology that includes the author of Wawerley or the dome in question. We no longer have to grapple with the delusion that for an expression containing a singular term to be meaningful, there must be something named by that term (“On What There Is”, p.47)
From this point of view, Quine deals with the problem of universals and makes a similar criticism for general terms. According to Quine, the meaning of general terms does not require the existence of universals. Quine continues this line of thinking to defend his understanding of meaning, and also criticizes the idea that words and phrases must have meanings on their own in order to be meaningful.
The conclusion that comes out of all these discussions is that the situations to which we attach ourselves from an ontological point of view only “have this thing (x) with the properties of this and that.” We see that it is through such expressions. Quine summed up this situation with the following statement: “To be presumed as something, to put it purely and simply, is to be accepted as the value of a variable” (“On What There Is”, p.50).
To use Quine’s example, “Some dogs are white.” The premise obliges us to accept the existence of white dogs. But it doesn’t matter whether universals such as “being a dog” or “being white” exist.
From this point of view, all theories assume a field of existence in which their dependent variables take value, and as such, the discussions on ontology are determined to some extent by the discussions on language.
Our acceptance of an ontology, I think, is, in principle, similar to our acceptance of a scientific theory, say, a system of physics: we adopt, at least to the extent we think reasonably, the simplest conceptual scheme in which the disordered fragments of raw experience are housed and organized. Our ontology is determined in the most general sense when we stabilize a comprehensive conceptual scheme that will replace science. The considerations that determine the rational construction of that conceptual scheme, for example, a biological or physical part, are not different in kind from those that determine the rational construction of the whole. To the extent that the adoption of a scientific system is a matter of language, the same, no more, applies to the adoption of an ontology (“On What There Is,” p.53).
The point that Quine wants to underline here is that questions about ontology can be translated into questions about language, but this does not mean that the question itself is linguistic. Considering Quine’s own example, if the predicate “seeing Naples” is combined with a subject, a meaningful sentence is obtained, but seeing Naples itself is not a linguistic thing.
From all these discussions we can draw the following conclusion. Quine criticizes the understanding of philosophy based on traditional language and analyzing the logic of language, and desires the transformation of philosophy towards naturalism and pragmatism. On the other hand, he tries to ensure that the understanding he develops does not hinder science and scientific progress. In a way, it both advocates a holistic and coherent understanding of truth and tries to protect the controlling role of sensory experience in the development of knowledge. I’m trying to do both at the same time.