PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday November 27, 2012


[] Quine’s Answer to the Problem of Non-Being: Russellian Translations.


Having rejected two unsatisfactory answers to the question about Pegasus, Quine proceeds to give his own, positive answer: sentences containing non-referring definite descriptions should be translated according to Russell’s theory of descriptions. For example (145):


Recall Russell’s example of a definite description that does refer…

“The author of Waverley was a poet” = “Something wrote Waverley and was a poet, and nothing else wrote Waverley.”

·         The translation reveals the three things that are going on in the original sentence: an existence claim, a uniqueness claim, and a predication.

·         The denoting expression “The author of Waverely” has disappeared!


Non-referring definite descriptions

“The round square cupola is pink” = “Something is round and is square and is a cupola and is pink, and nothing else is round and is square and is a cupola.” [This is false.] [1]

·         This translation also reveals an existence claim, and uniqueness claim, and a predication.

·         The troublesome non-referring expression, “the round square cupola” has disappeared!

·         Quine maintains that this approach will work for any non-referring definite description:


Where descriptions are concerned, there is no longer any difficulty in affirming or denying being. … So the old notion that statements of nonbeing defeat themselves goes by the board. When a statement of being or nonbeing is analyzed by Russell’s theory of descriptions, it ceases to contain any expression which even purports to name the alleged entity whose being is in question, so that the meaningfulness of the statement no longer can be thought to presuppose that there be such an entity. (146)


But what about the sentence “Pegasus is not”? The expression “Pegasus” is a name, not a definite description like “the author of Waverley” and “the round square.” So Russell’s theory of descriptions does not apply to it directly.


Quine says we have two options when translating a sentence containing a non-referring name like “Pegasus,” e.g., “Pegasus does not exist”:


i)                    Replace the non-referring name with a definite description, e.g., “the winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon”; then we can apply Russellian translation to “The winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon does not exist” to get:


“There is nothing that is a winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon.”


ii)                  Replace the non-referring name with a verb phrase. Suppose that the idea of Pegasus is either too complex or too basic to unpack with a definite description. Even then, it remains true that anything has a property that nothing else hasthe property of being itself—so we can use that property to create a verb phrase such as “the thing that pegasizes.” We can then apply Russellian translation to “The thing that pegasizes does not exist,” to yield something like:


 “There is nothing that pegasizes.”


Quine summarizes as follows:


If in terms of pegasizing we can interpret the noun ‘Pegasus’ as a description subject to Russell’s theory of descriptions, then we have disposed of the old notion that Pegasus cannot be said not to be without presupposing that in some sense Pegasus is.

Our argument is now quite general. McX and Wyman supposed that we could not meaningfully affirm a statement of the form ‘So-and-so-is not’, with a simple or descriptive singular noun in place of ‘so-and-so,’ unless so-and-so is. This supposition is now seen to be quite generally groundless, since the singular noun in question can always be expanded into a singular description, trivially or otherwise, and then analyzed out à la Russell.

                … We need no longer labor under the delusion that the meaningfulness of a statement containing a singular term presupposes an entity named by the term. A singular term need not name to be significant. (146, emphases added)[2]



Finally, Quine offers the following diagnosis of how McX and Wyman go wrong:

·         They confuse naming with meaning – assuming that the thing that a word names must be one and the same thing as its meaning.

·         They then go on to mistakenly assume that if a word fails to name something, then it must be meaningless.

·         Because of this confusion, McX assumes that, in order for “Pegasus” to be meaningful, it must name something... and he settles on something that actually is (viz., the idea of Pegasus) as the thing that “Pegasus” names.

·         And Wyman, assuming the same thing (that for “Pegasus” to be meaningful it must name something), settles on an unactualized possible as the thing that “Pegasus” names.


This is a mistake that Frege did not make: he held that two terms (e.g., “the Morning Star” and “the Evening Star”) can name the same object (e.g., Venus) without having the same meaning—so he did not confuse naming with meaning.


But in pointing this out Quine is not agreeing with Frege about what the meaning of a given term is—he is simply agreeing that naming and meaning are different things.



[7.4.2.] The Problem of Universals.[3]


After his discussion of the Platonic riddle of non-being, Quine turns to another ontological problem: the problem of universals.


This is a problem about attribute agreement: how do we explain the fact that two or more separate, individual things can have something in common?


Consider two objects, e.g., two apples, that have some of their attributes in common. They are both green, round, sweet... and they are both apples.


According to the pre-philosophical, common-sense view

·         we don’t create all these similarities by classifying things together; we don’t arbitrarily classify various objects as green, round, etc. and thereby make them similar in the relevant ways;

·         rather, we classify them as we do because they are green, round, etc., independently of our classifying them as such; at least some of the similarities among objects are objective, real, independent of our classifying activity.


Assuming that this is true, how do we explain how it is that two or more different things can have something in common? Beginning with Plato, some philosophers have found it philosophically puzzling how two distinct objects, existing separately from one another, could have attributes in common.


Two competing philosophical views of the matter are realism and nominalism.



[] Realism.


One answer to the problem of universals is:


realism (df.): there are universals, entities that have being independently of particular things and to which all particular things of a given kind relate.

·         Examples: all particular green things stand in a relationship to the universal greenness; all apples stand in a relationship to the universal apple; all samples of silver stand in a relationship to the universal silver.

·         Universals are separate from and independent of the particulars to which they relate.

·         While each particular can be at only one position in space at any one time, a universal can be wholly exhibited or exemplified by many different (spatially separate) particulars. It is not each of a billion apples has 1/1,000,000,000th of the universal apple in it; rather, the entire universal is exhibited or exemplified in any given particular apple.

·         So according to this type of realism, one’s ontology should include something over and above particulars: it should include universals.


*Important caveat: the word “realism” is used to refer to several different theories, not all of which have anything to do with universals.



[] Conceptual Schemes.


Quine uses McX to illustrate realism:


Speaking of attributes, he [McX] says: “There are red houses, red roses, red sunsets; this much is prephilosophical common sense in which we must all agree. These houses, roses, and sunsets, then, have something in common; and this which they have in common is all I mean by the attribute of redness.” (147)


Quine describes McX’s realism as being “basic” to his conceptual scheme:


conceptual scheme (df.): one’s conceptual scheme is the way in which he or she orders, or structures, or otherwise organizes, the content of his or her experiences, and thus renders those experiences intelligible.[4]


On Quine’s view, a person’s ontology is a fundamental part of his or her conceptual scheme:


One’s ontology is basic to the conceptual scheme by which he interprets all experiences, even the most commonplace ones. Judged within some particular conceptual scheme—and how else is judgment possible?—an ontological statement goes without saying, standing in need of no separate justification at all. (147)



[] Arguments for Realism.


Even though (according to Quine) one’s ontology is a basic part of his or her conceptual scheme, it is still possible to argue for or against an ontological claim. So Quine now considers what sort of argument McX might give to defend his view.


Quine says (based on the results he reached earlier) that the following sort of argument for realism will not do:


There must be universals, because otherwise expressions like “is green” (“is sweet,” “is an apple,” etc.) would be meaningless. I.e., we must posit that there are universals in order to explain the meaningfulness of such terms.


Quine has already argued that this sort of reasoning is unsound, since terms can be meaningful even if there are no objects that they name; naming is one kind of meaning, but it is not the only kind.


He then considers a slightly different defense of realism: admit they [i.e., expressions like “is red,” etc.] have meanings. But these meanings, whether they are named or not, are still universals, and I venture to say that some of them might even be the very things that I call attributes, or something to much the same purpose in the end. (147-148)


And it is here that we see the connection between the question whether realism is true and Quine’s solution to the Platonic Riddle of Non-Being:

·         One of the solutions that Quine offered to that Riddle involved replacing a non-referring name with a verb phrase, e.g., replacing “Pegasus” with “thing that pegasizes,” or “thing that has the property of pegasizing,” or “pegasizer.”

·         This use of this sort of phrase threatens to commit Quine to realism about universals: just like “green” is thought to be meaningful only if greenness is, and “sweet” is thought to be meaningful only if sweetness is, “pegasizer” is thought to be meaningful only if pegasizerness  is.


But Quine denies that a general term (“green,” “sweet,” “pegasizer,” etc.) can be meaningful only if there is some entity that is its meaning:


...the only way I know to counter [this defense of realism] is by refusing to admit meanings. However, I feel no reluctance toward refusing to admit meanings, for I do not thereby deny that words and statements are meaningful. (148)


In other words, the fact that a piece of language is meaningful does not imply that it “has” or corresponds to a thing or entity that is its meaning. We can acknowledge the meaningfulness of language without allowing things called meanings into our ontology.


We already saw Quine take this view toward the beginning of “Two Dogmas”:


For the theory of meaning the most conspicuous question is as to the nature of its objects: what sort of things are meanings? They are evidently intended to be ideas, somehow—mental ideas for some semanticists, Platonic ideas for others [e.g., Frege]. Objects of either sort are so elusive, not to say debatable, that there seems little hope of erecting a fruitful science about them. .

A felt need for meant entities may derive from an earlier failure to appreciate that meaning and reference are distinct. Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing as the business of the theory of meaning simply the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements; meanings themselves, as obscure intermediary entities, may well be abandoned. (519, emphases added)



In “On What There Is,” Quine suggests two different ways in which one could understand what it is for a statement to be meaningful without adding meanings to one’s ontology:


I remain free to maintain that the fact that a given linguistic utterance is meaningful (or significant, as I prefer to say so as not to invite hypostasis of meanings as entities) is an ultimate and irreducible matter of fact, or, I may undertake to analyze it in terms directly of what people do in the presence of the linguistic utterance in question and other utterances similar to it. (148, bold added)


hypostasis (df.): the process of converting an adjective (or other part of a predicate) into a substance or entity; e.g., one would do this if, from the fact that F is G, one were to infer that there is such an entity as G-ness.[5]

·         The specific type of hypostasis that Quine wants to avoid is the move from the claim that a sentence is meaningful to the claim that there are entities called meanings.



[] Nominalism.


The first option that Quine suggests (namely, that the fact that a linguistic utterance is significant “is an ultimate and irreducible matter of fact”) is similar to the view he himself takes regarding the ontological status of universals:


nominalism (df.): there are no universals. The only things there are, are particulars. In other words, nominalism says that one’s ontology should not include universals; it should only include particular things.


Quine acknowledges that individual apples, houses, etc. are red; but he denies that this requires there to be an entity, redness, existing independently of individual apples, houses, etc.


So how can we explain attribute agreement? Realism was proposed as an explanation of the seemingly mysterious fact that two individual things can share an attribute in common. If realism is not true, then how can we explain that fact?


Quine says: we can’t. Attribute agreement is an ultimate, irreducible fact.


That the houses and roses and sunsets are all of them red may be taken as ultimate and irreducible, and it may be held that McX is no better off, in point of real explanatory power, for all the occult entities which he posits under such names as ‘redness.’ (137)


Quine’s view seems to be that we do not need to explain attribute agreement at all: it is a fundamental and non-analyzable aspect of the world.[6]



[7.4.3.] Quine’s Criterion of Ontological Commitment.


Quine’s answer to the question about Pegasus (that there is no entity that is Pegasus, not even an unactualized possible) and his rejection of realism about universals illustrate the view he expresses in his famous slogan:


“To be is to be the value of a variable.” (150)


Here Quine is referring to variables in symbolic logic.


In symbolic logic, a variable is a lower case letter (x, y, z...) that can represent some individual or other:


(x)(Mx É Ax) [For all x, if x is a mammal, then x is an animal; i.e., all mammals are animals]


“(x)” is known as the universal quantifier; it is read: “for all x”


É“ represents “if ... then...”


“M” represents being a mammal; “A” represents being an animal.


($x)(Px · Tx)  [There is an x such that x is a philosopher and x is tall, i.e. some philosophers are tall.]


“($x)” is known as the existential quantifier; it is read: “there is an x such that”


·“ represents “and”


In both of the above sentences, “x” is a variable, and so it does not refer to any specific thing.


In proclaiming “to be is to be the value of a variable,” Quine is giving a criterion of ontological commitment:

·         this is not a criterion of what there actually is;

·         it is a criterion of what a theory says there is;

·         what there actually is is what a true theory says there is.


He states the criterion as follows: “a theory is committed to those and only those entities to which the bound variables of the theory must be capable of referring in order that the affirmations made in the theory be true.” (138)


The criterion is this: in order to tell what types of thing a given theory says exist

1.      translate the statements of the theory into statements of symbolic logic.[7]

2.      locate the statements that begin with an existential quantifier “($x),” which is read “there is an x such that...”

3.      figure out what things must exist in order for those statements to be true: the theory is committed to the existence of those things and only those things.


Quine gives two illustrations:


(1) “Some dogs are white.”                  ($x)(Dx · Wx)            


In order for this to be true, there must be white dogs; so this statement says there are white dogs. It does not say that there is any such thing as doghood or whiteness.


(2) “Some species are cross-fertile.”    ($x)(Sx · Cx)


In order for this to be true, there must be cross-fertile species. Since a species is an abstraction, this statement commits us to admitting abstract objects into our ontology.


If you don’t want to admit species into your ontology, then you are obligated to show how this sentence can be translated into other statements that are not committed to the existence of species.



[7.4.4.] Semantic Ascent.


“Semantic ascent” is Quine’s phrase for his method of resolving disagreements in ontology.


Suppose that two people have different ontologies: one of them believes that Pegasus is, the other believes that Pegasus is not.


According to Quine, it is difficult, maybe even impossible, to settle this disagreement by talking about Pegasus.


A better strategy is to make a semantic ascent: ascend from a conversation about Pegasus to a conversation about the word “Pegasus.” As Quine puts it:


Insofar as our [i.e., Quine’s and McX’s] basic controversy over ontology can be translated upward into a semantical controversy about words and what to do with them, the collapse of the controversy into question-begging may be delayed. (150)[8]


This illustrates a view of language shared by many of the most prominent figures in the analytic tradition (Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap...): philosophical problems can be settled or resolved by focusing on language.


But Quine gives the following warning: the fact that we can make a semantic ascent when discussing ontology does not mean that “what there is depends on words.” (150) We may be able to settle ontological questions by focusing on language, but that does not mean that ontological questions are merely linguistic questions. They remain questions about what there is, not about language:


                It is no wonder, then, that ontological controversy should tend into controversy over language. But we must not jump to the conclusion that what there is depends on words. Translatability of a question into semantical terms is no indication that the question is linguistic. To see Naples is to bear a name which, when prefixed to the words ‘sees Naples’, yields a true sentence; still there is nothing linguistic about seeing Naples. (150)



[7.4.5.] Competing Ontologies.


So how do we go about deciding what our ontology will be? How do we decide, from among the different possible conceptual schemes, which one to adopt?


In beginning to answer this question, Quine once again alludes to Ockham’s razor:


… we adopt, at least insofar as we are reasonable, the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disordered fragments of raw experience can be fitted and arranged. (150, emphasis added)


But a bare appeal to simplicity will not result in the selection of a single ontology from among all the ontologies we could choose:


            But simplicity, as a guiding principle in constructing conceptual schemes, is not a clear and unambiguous idea; and it is quite capable of presenting a double or multiple standard. (150)


For example, consider two competing conceptual schemes (and their accompanying ontologies), each of which is “simple” in its own way:


phenomenalism (df): the ontological view according to which there are only mental items and events (Quine: “individual subjective events of sensation and reflection”); what appear to be physical objects are actually mere phenomena.


physicalism (df.): the ontological view according to which there are only physical objects.


Says Quine, there is a sense in which phenomenalism is very simple: it uses “the most economical set of concepts adequate to the play-by-play reporting of immediate experience.” (150)


But there is also a sense in which physicalism is very simple:


By bringing together scattered sense events and treating them as perceptions of one object, we reduce the complexity of our stream of experience to a manageable conceptual simplicity. The rule of simplicity is indeed our guiding maxim in assigning sense data to objects: we associate an earlier and a later sensum [a sensum is an object of sensation] with the same so-called penny, or with two different so-called pennies, in obedience to the demands of maximum simplicity in our total world-picture. (150)


“…from a phenomenalistic point of view, the conceptual scheme of physical objects is a convenient myth, simpler than the literal truth and yet containing that literal truth as a scattered part.” (151)


So, although Quine has come out against the conceptual scheme that includes universals as independently existing entities (i.e., he has come out against realism), the article ends without Quine having declared in favor of any specific ontological scheme. In fact, he takes a very liberal attitude towards the issue of deciding among simple conceptual schemes:


                Here we have two competing conceptual schemes, a phenomenalistic one and a physicalistic one. Which should prevail? Each has its advantages; each has its special simplicity in its own way. Each, I suggest, deserves to be developed. (150)

the question of what ontology actually to adopt still stands open, and the obvious counsel is tolerance and an experimental spirit. Let us by all means see how much of the physicalistic conceptual scheme can be reduced to a phenomenalistic one; still, physics also naturally demands pursuing, irreducible in toto though it be. (151, emphasis added)



Stopping point for Tuesday November 27. For next time:

·         the final draft of your term paper is due at the beginning of class

·         you MUST turn in the copy of first draft you submitted, with my comments and corrects written on it.

The final exam in this course is Thursday December 6, beginning at 8am.



[1] A cupola (pronounced “kyoo’ - puh - luh”) is a domed roof or ceiling.

[2] We know from “Two Dogmas” that Quine seems not think that single words or expressions, taken in isolation, have meaning, or even that individual sentences or statements, all on their own, have meaning. His view is that “[t]he unit of empirical significance is the whole of science”—i.e., the whole of our empirical knowledge of the world. (528)


[3] A helpful introduction to the debate over attribute agreement is the first chapter of Michael Loux, Metaphysics (Routledge, 1998), on which I rely in this section of notes.


[4] Donald Davidson (1917-2003) called the view that there is a distinction between conceptual scheme and empirical content scheme-content dualism, and famously argued that scheme-content dualism is a third dogma of empiricism. Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” (1974).


[5] Charles Peirce called this process hypostatic abstraction. (“The Simplest Mathematics” (1902), in Peirce, Collected Papers, 4.227–323).


[6] This is the view that Michael Loux attributes to Quine; see Loux’s Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, p.59 and p.88 n.8.


[7] Specifically, the statements must be translated into predicate logic, not simply into propositional logic. Translating into propositional logic is not sufficient, since propositional logic contains no existential quantifiers (or universal quantifiers, either).


[8] “question begging”... an argument makes the mistake of begging the question when it assumes in its premises the very claim that it is supposed to be proving. If, in McX’s debate with Quine, McX simply assumes that Pegasus is without arguing for that claim, then he is guilty of begging the question.


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