While I’ve been teaching a course on Metametaphysics here in Helsinki, I’ve revisited some of the literature on quantification and ontological commitment, and also read parts of Ted Sider‘s forthcoming book, Writing the Book of the World. The book is interesting, but there are a lot of issues in it that I find problematic, one of them being the supposed fundamentality of quantificational notions. I’m thinking of writing a paper on this, and below you will find the preliminary abstract for that paper — which has not been written yet! Any thoughts are welcome, I’d be curious to hear about other reactions to Sider’s manuscript (which was available on his website until recently).
Quantifiers, and the existential quantifier in particular, are commonly considered to ‘carve nature at its joints’, that is, they latch on to the structure of reality and reflect it reliably. In fact, in the recent metaontological debate, the very possibility of metaphysics has been taken to boil down to the question of whether quantificational notions are fundamental — the worry is that unless reality itself has a quantificational structure, statements such as ‘numbers exist’ or ‘there are extended simples’ do not make sense. The view that emerges is ontological deflationism: the meaning of quantificational notions such as ‘exist’ and ‘there are’ varies (i.e. ‘quantifier variance’), and all the candidate meanings carve at the joints equally well. This on-going debate between ontological deflationists such as Eli Hirsch and ontological realists such as Ted Sider suggests that the supposed vagueness of the existential quantifier implies ontological deflationism — this is why Sider argues that it must, when properly used, carve at the joints.
I will focus primarily on Sider’s forthcoming book, Writing the Book of the World, where he defends the fundamentality of quantificational notions. My case builds on Kit Fine’s (2001, 2009, 2012) suggestion that we should concentrate our attention on the nature of the objects under investigation rather than their existence. Specifically, I will contrast this type of approach with Sider’s claim that ‘the thesis that quantifiers carve at the joints is the best way to defend the substantivity of ontological questions’ (Forthcoming, 113). This, I wish to suggest, mischaracterizes ontological questions — the folly is in thinking that the question of quantification has something to do with the question of realism; it does not. I will argue that quantificational notions cannot carve at the joints, they are not fundamental. Yet, this does not lead into ontological deflationism because quantificational notions are not central to ontology, contrary to what Sider claims. Hence, the debate about whether quantifiers reflect the fundamental structure of reality is not relevant when it comes to realism – this view is at odds both with the likes of Hirsch and Sider.
Sider himself acknowledges that quantification may fail to be fundamental in ordinary language, when quantifying over things such as tables and chairs (Forthcoming, 144), but claims that it is fundamental at least when dealing with fundamental ontology — maybe when quantifying over subatomic particles. So, Sider only claims that it is possible to introduce ‘a fundamental quantifier’ (204), and perhaps a language in which it is stipulated that quantifiers carve at the joints (cf. Cian Dorr’s ‘Ontologese’). This resembles the strategy of introducing thick, metaphysically substantive quantifiers as opposed to thin, ordinary language quantifiers, as discussed in Fine (2009). This of course leaves it open how we are supposed to pick out the quantifiers that do indeed carve at the joints; Sider’s suggestion appears to be that this is a matter of choosing the ‘best theory’ in the lines the Quinean indispensability argument (114).
While Sider’s approach may have its merits, it fails to capture ontological realism: even if we have good reasons to think that our best theories at least roughly correspond with the structure of reality, this does not give us any insight into what is fundamental about that structure. Ultimately, the distinction between fundamental and nonfundamental quantification is a matter of context and pragmatics, that is, relative –- ontological realism requires more than that.
Chalmers, D., Manley, D. and Wasserman, R. (Eds.) (2009). Metametaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fine, K. (2001). “The Question of Realism.” Philosopher’s Imprint 1: 1–30.
— (2009). “The Question of Ontology.” In Chalmers et al. (2009), 157–77.
— (2012) “What Is Metaphysics?” In Tahko, T. E. (Ed.), Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics, 8–25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hirsch, E. (2002). “Quantifier Variance and Realism.” Philosophical Issues 12: 51–73.
— (2009). “Ontology and Alternative Languages.” In Chalmers et al. (2009), 231–59.
Sider, T. (Forthcoming). Writing the Book of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.