PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday November 15, 2012



[7.4.] “On What There Is.” (1948)


[7.4.1.] Plato’s Beard: The Problem of Non-Being.


Quine considers a problem he calls Plato’s Beard, a.k.a. “the Platonic riddle of non-being”:


“Non-being must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there is not?” (143)


This is similar to a problem dealt with by Frege and Russell: how can talk about non-existent things be meaningful?


Frege (“On Sense and Reference,” 1892): even though there is no such person as Odysseus, the sentence “Odysseus was set ashore at Ithaca while sound asleep” is meaningful, in part because “Odysseus” expresses a sense. The entire sentence conveys a “thought”—i.e., a proposition (on recall that on Frege’s view, a “thought” or proposition is the sense expressed by a sentence). But because “Odysseus” lacks a reference (i.e., the name “Odysseus” does not refer to anything), the entire sentence lacks a reference—which, for Frege, means that it lacks a truth value: it is neither true nor false.


Russell (“On Denoting,” 1905): By itself, the denoting phrase “the present king of France” has no meaning. However, a sentence in which it occurs, e.g., “The present king of France is bald,” is meaningful because it can be translated into a sentence that has no non-referring terms, e.g., “There is an x such that x is currently king of France, and for all y, if y is currently king of France, then y = x, and x is bald.” On Russell’s view, this analysis reveals that the original sentence is false.


Quine now asks: how can a sentence containing the name “Pegasus” be meaningful?


In jokingly calling this problem “Plato’s Beard,” Quine has in mind...


Ockham’s Razor: do not multiply entities beyond necessity [“entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter”].


In other words, make your ontology only as complicated as it needs to be in order to accommodate the evidence. Do not admit entities (or types of entity) into your ontology unless it is necessary to do so in order to account for the evidence at hand.


This idea derives from William of Ockham (England, c.1287 - 1347), one of the most important philosophers of the medieval period.[1]

·         “Occam” is another accepted spelling.

·         Although Ockham’s Razor is an idea found in Ockham’s work, the formulation given above occurs nowhere in his writings.


Recall that in “Two Dogmas,” Quine cites simplicity as one of the pragmatic criteria that we should use when we are adjusting our existing store of beliefs to take account of new experiences. (530) His advocacy of Ockham’s Razor exemplifies the value that he places on simplicity.


In “On What There Is,” he describes this as his “taste for desert landscapes” (145), i.e., his preference for keeping our ontology as simple and sparse as possible given the experiential evidence with which we are confronted.


Presumably, Quine thinks we should keep Ockham’s Razor at hand when we’re attempting to “untangle” Plato’s Beard.


Quine considers answers to the Platonic Riddle of Non-Being given by two fictional philosophers, McX and Wyman, and then criticizes each of them.


Both McX and Wyman believe that Pegasus “must be” (in some sense of “be”), because otherwise even the sentence “Pegasus is not” would be nonsense.


Thus, take Pegasus. If Pegasus were not ... we should not be talking about anything when we use the word; therefore it would be nonsense to say even that Pegasus is not. Thinking to show thus that the denial of Pegasus cannot be coherently maintained, [they conclude] that Pegasus is. (143)


But McX and Wyman mean different things by the claim that Pegasus is.





[] McX’s Answer.


“Pegasus is an idea in men’s minds.” (143)


On McX’s view, in the sentence “Pegasus is a winged horse,” the word “Pegasus” does refer to something that is: it refers to a mental entity, the idea of a winged horse.


Quine’s criticism: We may for the sake of argument concede that there is an entity, and even a unique entity (though this is rather implausible), which is the mental Pegasus-idea; but this mental entity is not what people are talking about when they deny Pegasus. (143-44)


When people say “Pegasus does not exist,” they are not denying the existence of the idea of Pegasus. They are denying the existence of a flesh-and-blood winged horse. And while there may well be such a thing as the idea of Pegasus, if there is such a thing, it’s not a flesh-and-blood winged horse; it’s an idea.


To use Frege’s vocabulary: when we talk about Pegasus, we are talking about something that, if it is, resides in the First Realm (of physical objects), no in the Second Realm (of ideas).


So while McX might be right in saying that there is such a thing as the idea of Pegasus, he is wrong in saying that that is what we are referring to when we say that Pegasus is a winged horse.



[] Wyman’s Answer.


“Pegasus is an unactualized possible.” (144)


Wyman’s view is that, although Pegasus does not exist, he has another sort of being: unactualized possibility, or what has also been called subsistence. When we say that Pegasus does not exist, what we are saying is true and meaningful. Pegasus, something which has only unactualized possibility, does not exist, i.e., he does not have actual existence. But Pegasus nevertheless subsists (and subsistence, whatever that is, is different from existence).[2]


Quine’s objections:


1.      Wyman is misusing the word “exist” by limiting it to actuality.


Wyman, by the way, is one of those philosophers who have united in ruining the good old word ‘exist’. Despite his espousal of unactualized possibles, he limits the word ‘existence’ to actuality—thus preserving an illusion of ontological agreement between himself and us who repudiate the rest of his bloated universe. We have all been prone to say, in our common-sense usage of ‘exist’, that Pegasus does not exist, meaning simply that there is no such entity at all. If Pegasus existed he would indeed be in space and time, but only because the word ‘Pegasus’ has spatio-temporal connotations, and not because ‘exists’ has spatio-temporal connotations. If spatio-temporal reference is lacking when we affirm the existence of the cube root of 27, this is simply because a cube root is not a spatio-temporal kind of thing, and not because we are being ambiguous in our use of ‘exist’. However, Wyman, in an ill-conceived effort to appear agreeable, genially grants us the nonexistence of Pegasus and then, contrary to what we meant by nonexistence of Pegasus, insists that Pegasus is. Existence is one thing, he says, and subsistence is another. (144, emphases added)


·         As Wyman uses the word, it is legitimate for him to say that even though X does not exist, nonetheless X still is.

·         But normal people use the word differently: when they say that something does not exist, they mean to imply that it is not, i.e., that it possesses no kind of being whatsoever. The non-existence of X does not leave room for X to be in some way other than existence.

·         So Quine thinks that “exist” ought to be used to talk about being (in general), so that anything that does not exist, is not, period.



2.      Wyman has created an ontological “slum.” By allowing for the being of Pegasus-as-unactualized-possible, Wyman has adopted a very low standard of accepting things into his ontology. If we allow Pegasus into our ontology, then all sorts of crazy things will come running in after him:


Take, for instance, the possible fat man in that doorway; and, again, the possible bald man in that doorway. Are they the same possible man, or two possible men? How do we decide? How many possible men are there in that doorway? Are there more possible thin ones than fat ones? How many of them are alike? Or would their being alike make them one? Are no two possible things alike? Or, finally, is the concept of identity simply inapplicable to unactualized possibles? But what sense can be found in talking of entities which cannot meaningfully be said to be identical with themselves and distinct from one another? These elements are well-nigh incorrigible. … I feel we’d do better simply to clear Wyman’s slum and be done with it. (144)



[] “No Entity Without Identity.”


The last two sentences of that quotation foreshadow a famous doctrine of Quine’s that appears more explicitly in his later writings:


“No entity without identity.”[3] We should allow a type of entity into our ontology only if we can give identity conditions for it.


identity conditions (df.): criteria that must be met in order for x and y to be numerically identical; e.g., the identity conditions for physical objects are as follows: physical object x and physical object y are identical exactly when they occupy the same position in space-time.


This ontological standard is quite strong. It is notoriously difficult to provide criteria of identity for properties, propositions, concepts… and even persons. If it turns out that we cannot provide identity conditions for persons (i.e., if it turns out that we cannot say what conditions must be met in order for person x to be numerically identical to person y), then, on Quine’s standards, there are no such things as persons.


The point that Quine is making in “On What There Is” is this: if we cannot specify identity conditions for unactualized possibles (i.e., if we cannot say what conditions must be met in order for unactualized possible x to be one and the same as unactualized possible y), then we should not admit unactualized possibles into our ontology.


Quine’s view is that there are no identity conditions for merely possible (possible but not actual) entities, i.e., there is no way to tell when unactualized possible x is one and the same thing as unactualized possible y. So we should exclude such entities from our ontology.



[] Worries About Modality.


Quine now turns his attention to a topic that has attracted a lot of attention from philosophers over the last few decades: modality.


When philosophers talk about modality, they typically mean the following concepts:

·         necessity

·         possibility

·         impossibility

·         contingency (something is contingent when it is possible but not necessary)


Possibility, along with the other modalities of necessity and impossibility and contingency, raises problems upon which I do not mean to imply that we should turn our backs. But we can at least limit modalities to whole statements. We may impose the adverb ‘possibly’ upon a statement as a whole, and we may well worry about the semantical analysis of such usage; but little real advance in such analysis is to be hoped for in expanding our universe to include so-called possible entities. I suspect that the main motive for this expansion is simply the old notion that Pegasus, for example, must be because otherwise it would be nonsense to say even that he is not. (144)


On Quine’s view, we may be safe using the adverb “possibly” (and presumably the adverb “necessarily” as well) to modify statements. For example, it may make sense to say “Possibly, there is a bald man in the doorway.” But this does not introduce possible bald men into our ontology. Rather, it is a claim about the sentence “There is a bald man in the doorway”; what it says is that that sentence may be true.


But we definitely should not use the adjective “possible” (or “necessary”) to modify expressions that ordinarily refer to things. E.g., we should avoid saying that there is a possible bald man in the doorway.[4]



Stopping point for Thursday November 15. For next time, finish reading “On What There Is,” pp.147-151. This will be the last reading assignment of the semester. I will try to post the study guide for your final exam (8am, Thursday Dec.6) on the class website during the Thanksgiving break. I will email you when it has been posted.



[1] For more on Ockham, see Paul Vincent Spade, “William of Ockham,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.

[2] Wyman may be a fictional representative of a real philosopher: Alexius Meinong (1853-1920; Austrian), according to whom there are objects (things toward which mental states can be directed, i.e., things mental states can be about) that have no sort of being whatsoever. Russell criticizes this view in “On Denoting” (see p.37 of your textbook). But if Quine has Meinong in mind here, he may have misunderstood Meinong’s view. Meinong would say that Pegasus can be the object of a belief, even though Pegasus lacks any sort of being whatsoever (even subsistence). On the other hand, Wyman says that Pegasus has a sort of being other than existence, viz., unactualized possibility or subsistence.


[3] Quine uses the phrase “no entity without identity” in “Speaking of Objects” (1958), in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.


[4] In later writings, Quine expresses even greater worries about modality than he expresses here. He urges that we understand modal sentences, like “Possibly, there is a bald man in the doorway,” as being sentences about sentences. That is, “Possibly, p” asserts something about the sentence “p,” not about the state of affairs that “p” is about.


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