Kit Fine Interviewed

27 Mar
March 27, 2012

Kit Fine has been interviewed, again! I don’t think I’ve linked to the previous interviews either though, so I might as well give you both of the recent ones:

Philosophy Bites: Kit Fine on What Is Metaphysics

3:AM Magazine: Metaphysical Kit

The 3:AM interview also has a hotlink (without my permission) to the video I shot of Kit last year at the INPC conference on Aristotelian Themes in Contemporary Metaphysics. I’ve been meaning to make a smaller version of that 1.6GB video, but it hasn’t happened yet…

Anyway, here’s a nice section from that interview, which pretty much sums up Kit’s 2009 paper ‘The Question of Ontology’, in the Metametaphysics anthology:

Even ‘ordinary folk’ may wonder whether there really are numbers or chairs or atoms or the like. Perhaps the world is entirely concrete or consists entirely of microscopic particles or is merely a construction of our minds. But what are we asking when we ask such questions? For surely we can all agree that there is an even prime (viz., 2) and an odd prime (say, 3) and so there are numbers. Or we can all agree that we are sitting on some chairs and so there are chairs. Or we can all agree that there are water molecules, each of which is made up of two hydrogen atoms, and so there are atoms. The answer to all of these questions appears to be obviously ‘yes’ and so do we even bother to ask them?

Quine thought that in asking such questions we were indeed asking ‘quantificational’ questions. For the case of each kind of object in question, we were asking whether there was an object of this kind. However, he thought that the answer to this question was not as obvious as one might have thought and that subtle philosophical considerations might be involved in attempting to answer it. In the case of chairs, for example, we might establish that there were no chairs by showing that every statement apparently about chairs could be paraphrased into one that was about particles.

I think that this is a mistake. In asking these ontological questions, we are not asking about what there is but about what is real. Are numbers real? Or chairs? Or atoms? The quantificational questions are relatively straightforward – they are to be answered by common sense or by science. Philosophy does not come into it. But the questions about reality are deeply philosophical and it is only through having a conception of reality, a philosophical Weltanschauung, that they can be answered.

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4 replies
  1. Derek D. says:

    What does Fine mean by “real”?

  2. Tuomas says:

    Good question Derek. In the mentioned paper, ‘The Question of Ontology’, Kit defines a ‘reality’ operator, which is effectively a predicate that you can put in front of objects like ‘number’ or ‘chair’, to express realism about these objects. So, he says for instance that ‘the real objects are the objects of reality, those that figure in the facts by which reality is constituted.’ The notion is to be taken as a primitive, Kit says that he sees no way to define the concept of reality in different terms. He does think that we have a good intuitive grasp of the notion, but also a good ‘working’ grasp of it. For instance, we have a pretty good idea about what it would mean for reality to be atomistic, that is, for the fundamental constituents of reality to be indivisible particles. Kit thinks that it’s a mistake to try to define the notion of ‘reality’ in such a way that questions of metaphysics or ontology become ‘questions of semantics or epistemology or total science’. I agree with this, although I think we should be able to say a little bit more about what the notion amounts to. Maybe this would be a good topic for a blog post?

  3. Derek D. says:

    Thanks for your response, Tuomas. Sorry for not introducing myself properly. I’m Derek. A regular visitor to your website and enthusiast of your work and the work of others in this area of metaphysical inquiry.

    “Maybe this would be a good topic for a blog post?”

    Certainly!

    I once checked out the book, Metametaphysics, from a nearby library but there were so many good articles, I couldn’t get to Kit before I had to return the book.

    I was always under the impression that quantificational questions were indeed questions concerning what we take to be real. So Kit’s differentiation between those two kinds of questions comes to me by surprise. I have to think more about how an existential quantifier *differs* from a realism operator.

    In Kit’s statement that “the real objects are the objects of reality, those that figure in the facts by which reality is constituted,” the expression “figure in the facts” is doing quite a lot of work. I take it that he means that (1) real objects are those of which facts are *about*, and (2) reality consists of facts? Sorry. All this is fuzzy in my head right now. :(

  4. Tuomas says:

    Thanks Derek, good to have you here.

    The Metametaphysics anthology is indeed very rich. Interestingly, many of the contributors are now publishing book-length studies on related topics (e.g. Sider’s ‘Writing the Book of the World’, OUP 2011; Chalmers’ forthcoming ‘Constructing the World’, http://consc.net/constructing/)

    As to quantification and reality, this is in fact a topic which I’ll be talking about tomorrow at Duke University (‘Quantification and Ontological Realism’). You’re right in that many, or most philosophers would probably consider quantificational questions to be about what is ‘real’. This is primarily because, with Quine, they consider metaphysics to be primarily concerned with existence. This is the view that Kit (and myself) have criticised. The driving intuition is that, rather than existence, we should be more interested in the *nature* or *essence* of the entities under investigation.

    About the “figure in the facts” part: Kit does seem to have a fact-based approach to reality, although he is not very explicit about this. In his paper, ‘What Is Metaphysics?’, published in my ‘Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics’ volume, he discusses “fundamental facts” which ground all other facts. But he distinguishes this from the project of studying the nature of reality, which is not concerned with the fundamental facts, but rather with the natures of things.

    Well, I’ll try to do a dedicated blog post on this topic. It’s certainly something that ought to be explicated.

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