A Dialogue on Abstractions

The dialogue below is very closely based off an article written by Willard Van Orman Quine in 1948 called On What There Is. Quine (1908 – 2000) was one of the most influential philosophers in the 20th century.  He is, perhaps, most famous for attacking the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgements.

I confess, I was somewhat exhausted after I read On What There Is because it is quite dense and the wording is difficult.  However, I thought it important enough to write a summary of because lots of us are not familiar with the views of those philosophers who deny the existence of abstract entities such as propositions, attributes, meanings, classes, reds, perfect circles, etc.  I wanted to rephrase Quine’s view in the form of a dialogue so that it would be more interesting and easy to understand.  In his article, Quine has already supplied the characters McX and Wyman and, while I supplied some of the humor, most of the humor and sarcasm is based off Quine’s actual wording.  You might ask me why I don’t fight back and answer Quine.  Perhaps I will attempt it later in another article.  For this article, I just want to expose anybody who is interested to Quine’s refutation of common arguments for the existence of abstract entities.  I also think that, after reading this, those who are interested will have an easier time reading the actual article and comprehending it.  I hope you enjoy.

 

AcropolisQuine:  So, McX, you have brought us all the way to the Parthenon to tell me that you affirm that Pegasus, the flying horse, really exists?

 

McX:  Well yes, Van, and I do not mean to defame your character here, on the Acropolis of all places, but I assert that you also believe in Pegasus.

 

Quine:  Ridiculous.  Try me pal.

 

McX:  It is actually very elementary.  If Pegasus did not exist, you could not describe him.  In fact, you could not even call him “him”.  Yet, you describe him as non-existent and you call him “him.”  Therefore, you implicitly admit he exists.

 

Quine:  Your breath reeks with the stench of equivocation.  Let us admit, as implausible as it might seem, that there is such a thing as a mental Pegasus-idea, but this is not what people are talking about when they deny the existence of Pegasus.  In fact, the Pegasus-idea is not even very much like the winged horse whose existence I deny.

 

Wyman:  Dr. Quine, you have masterfully exposed the elementary confusion in McX’s argument.  As McX continues to sit there looking pitiful and confused, allow me to remedy the difficulty by harmonizing your view with McX’s.  When we say of Pegasus that there is no such thing, we are saying, more precisely, that Pegasus does not have the special attribute of actuality. Saying that Pegasus is not actual is on a par, logically, with saying that the Parthenon is not red; in either case we are saying something about an entity whose being is unquestioned.

 

Quine:  Wyman, you have joined the ranks of those philosophers who have united in ruining the good old word “exist”.  You have equated “existence” with actuality, thus preserving an illusion of ontological agreement between yourself and those of us who repudiate the rest of your bloated universe.  So that you can see the uselessness of your distinctions, let us no longer consider Pegasus but the cubical sphere that exists on the head of Pegasus.  Yes, Wyman, I mean the 8-cornered 3D shape which has no corners.

 

Wyman:  Oh Willard, no such shape can even exist.  Not even as an idea.  You see, it is obviously a contradiction and contradictions are meaningless.  It is getting dark and we should probably be getting you home to Mrs. Quine.

 

Quine:  Your capacity for the blind regurgitation of linguistic utterances that betray your ignorance is not nearly as sizeable as the number of absurd conclusions your views imply.  Most importantly, your view of the meaninglessness of contradictions destroys all possibility of ever devising an effective test of what is meaningful and what is not.  For it follows from a discovery in mathematical logic, due to Church, that there can be no generally applicable test of contradictoriness.

 

Wyman:  I’m not convinced, but I suppose I’ll go read Church.

 

Quine:  Let’s not argue about this point.  Let us rather resume the point about whether or not I can consistently deny the existence of Pegasus.  Russell, in his theory of so-called singular descriptions, showed that we can meaningfully use seeming-names, like Pegasus, without supposing that there be existing entities named Pegasus.

 

Wyman:  Sounds about as possible as a cubic sphere.  Do tell.

 

Quine:  [Chuckles] The joke is on you Wyman.  Take the statement:  “The author of Alice in Wonderland (AIW) was a logician.”  By this statement, I do not simultaneously assert that “Lewis Carroll was a logician.”

 

Wyman:  I’m not so sure.  Please continue.

 

Quine:  Russell showed that, by “The author of AIW was a logician,” I assert only that “something” authored AIW, that this “something” is also a logician, and that no other thing wrote AIW.  My statement actually does not presuppose the actual existence of Lewis Carroll in particular.

 

Wyman:  Got it.  The subject of the sentence “The author of AIW was a logician” does not offer a unified expression, such as Lewis Carroll, but merely a descriptor of some “thing” that resides in the class of all things.  Therefore, “something” bears the burden of objective reference, not “the author of AIW”.  But then what do you mean by “something,” or the class of all “things”?

 

Quine:  You have understood my meaning perfectly.  For purposes of this discussion, let us take for granted the meanings of “something,” “everything,” and “nothing.”  But let us take your admission back into the realm of cubic spheres on Pegasus’ head.  Just as “The author of AIW was a logician” does not assert the existence of Lewis Carroll, neither does “The cubic sphere does not exist” assert the existence of cubic spheres.

 

Wyman:  Wait!  I see that and I now am compelled agree that you that “the cubic sphere does not exist” doesn’t assert it’s existence.  Rather, you are simply denying that the cubic sphere is a member of the class of all things.  However, the analogy breaks down in the Pegasus example, for Pegasus is not a description but a name of an entity.

 

Quine:  Elementary my dear Wyman.  Currently, Pegasus is a name, but we need only to convert it into a description and the argument is complete.  Pegasus is simply the thing that possesses the attribute “is Pegasus” or “pegasizes,” or however you want to say it.  Let me now rephrase my denial of the existence of Pegasus to say:  “The thing that is Pegasus does not exist.”  Now, I have converted the name of Pegasus into a descriptor.  So as “The author of AIW was a logician” did not assert the existence of Lewis Carroll, and as “The cubic sphere does not exist” does not assert the existence of the cubic sphere, neither does “The thing that is Pegasus does not exist” assert the existence of Pegasus.

 

Wyman:  I see.  So then, by using the name Pegasus, you are not committing yourself to an ontology containing an entity that is Pegasus.  We commit ourselves to an ontology containing numbers when we say there are prime numbers larger than a million; we commit ourselves to an ontology containing centaurs when we say there are centaurs; and we commit ourselves to an ontology containing Pegasus when we say Pegasus is. But we do not commit ourselves to an ontology containing Pegasus or the author of AIW or the cubic sphere on Pegasus’ head when we say that Pegasus or the author of AIW or the cubic sphere is not. I need no longer labor under the delusion that the meaningfulness of a statement containing a singular term presupposes an entity named by the term.

 

McX:  Dr. Quine, it looks as though you might possibly be able to remain consistent in denying the existence of Pegasus on your view.  We may need to take a step back and see whether or not your nominalism holds up, since you maintain that there are no such entities as attributes, relations, classes, numbers, and functions. I, however, believe in attributes.  Let me explain:  There are red houses, red roses, red sunsets; this much is 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.

 

Quine:  I really think I do see why you say this.  In your ontological scheme, the existence of attributes follows from mere statements of fact such as the fact that there is something common to all red things.  But this is just what it means to have an ontology.  One’s ontology is basic to the conceptual scheme by which he interprets all experiences, so an ontological statement goes without saying, standing in need of no separate justification at all.

 

McX:  Okay…

 

Quine:  But this does not affect my ability to do without attributes.  For I may admit that there are red houses, roses, and sunsets, but deny, except as a popular and misleading manner of speaking, that they have anything in common. The words “houses‟, “roses‟, and “sunsets‟ are true of various individual entities which are houses and roses and sunsets, and the word “red‟ or “red object‟ is true of each of sundry individual entities which are red houses, red roses, red sunsets; but there is not, in addition, any entity whatever, individual or otherwise, which is named by the word “redness‟, nor, for that matter, by the word “househood‟, “rosehood‟, “sunsethood.‟

 

Mc X:  Let us grant, this distinction between meaning and naming of which you make so much. Let us even grant that “is red‟, “pegasizes‟, etc., are not names of attributes. Still, you admit they 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.

 

Quine:  This, my dear Mc X, is a surprisingly penetrating criticism, and the only way I know to counter it is by refusing to admit meanings.

 

McX:  You wouldn’t!

 

Quine:  I would!  And I feel no reluctance toward refusing to admit meanings. We might perfectly agree in our classification of words into the meaningful and the meaningless.  However, you construe the meaningfulness of a word to consist in its possessing an abstract entity which you call meaning.  I do not. I remain free to maintain that the fact that a given word is meaningful is an ultimate and irreducible matter of fact; or, I may analyze it in terms of what people do when they say or have a given word said to them.  You may maintain belief in abstract entities called meanings but they seem to have little or no explanatory value.

 

McX:  Up to now you have argued that you can use singular terms significantly in sentences without presupposing that there are the entities which those terms purport to name. You have argued further that you can use general terms, for example, predicates, without conceding them to be names of abstract entities. You have argued further that you can view words as significant, without advocating a realm of entities called meanings. At this point I’m beginning to wonder whether there is any limit at all to your ontological immunity. Does nothing you say commit you to the assumption of universals or other entities which you may find unwelcome?

 

Quine:  If I say, “Pegasus exists” or “there are propositions” or “there is such a thing as red,” I have made an ontological commitment; that is, I have asserted that “Pegasus”, “propositions”, and “red” are members of “everything.”  By doing so, I am creating what I like to call a “bound variable.”  Once I explicitly identify Pegasus as existing, I have committed him to the range of entities included in the terms “things,” “ontological entities,” “everything,” and other such terms that exhaust the range of our ontologies.

 

McX:  You have shown the fallacies in some of our arguments against your ontology and you have given us clear standards by which to judge whether or not you are making ontological commitments.  However, you have not offered any arguments for your anti-abstractionism.

 

Quine:  As you said earlier, I am getting tired and need to go home to Mrs. Quine.  I’m afraid you will have to wait until tomorrow.

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  • Ryan

    Interesting, but I didn’t see the criteria by which Quine would establish whether or not something exists. He rejects that mental conceptions of Pegasus qualify. He rejects that existence can be equated with actuality. So then what?

    Also, does he accept classes or doesn’t he:

    “We may need to take a step back and see whether or not your nominalism holds up, since ***you maintain that there are no such entities as attributes, relations, classes,*** numbers, and functions…

    If I say, “Pegasus exists” or “there are propositions” or “there is such a thing as red,” I have made an ontological commitment; that is, ***I have asserted that “Pegasus”, “propositions”, and “red” are members of the class “everything.”*** By doing so, I am creating what I like to call a “bound variable.” Once I explicitly identify Pegasus as existing, I have committed him to the range of entities included in the terms “things,” “ontological entities,” “everything,” and other such terms that exhaust the range of our ontologies.”

  • McX’s last statement is sort of a summary statement of the problem that Quine proposed to address in his article. It seems to me that your first question is an epistemological question. I, too, am curious about Quine’s epistemology, but I don’t know how to answer your question. I think this question was outside the scope of his article, so I don’t fault Quine for not addressing it.

    Does Quine accept classes? I think not. I keep editing what I wrote here. I think he feels that “class,” while a useful word, doesn’t refer to anything in the realm of “things”.

    I can’t say I disagree with too much of Quine’s reasoning here, although I still need to think more about it. I just don’t see how the view can be maintained epistemologically so I’ll just have to read more I guess.