A Philosopher's Dozen 

Selections from the writings of Stephen Yablo


Does April really exist? What about Chicago?
—excerpt from "Does Ontology Rest on a Mistake?"

ONTOLOGY THE PROGRESSIVE RESEARCH PROGRAM (not to be confused with ontology the swapping of hunches about what exists) is usually traced back to Quine's 1948 paper "On What There Is." According to Quine in that paper, the ontological problem can stated in three words—"what is there?"—and answered in one: "everything." Not only that, Quine says, but "everyone will accept this answer as true."

Spanish, Chicago, Roundness, etc. 

If Quine is right that the ontological problem has an agreed-on answer, then what excuse is there for a subject called Ontology? Quine's own view on this comes in the very next sentence: "there remains room for disagreement over cases."

Of course, we know or can guess the kind of disagreement Quine is talking about. Are there or are there not such entities as the number nineteen, the property of roundness, the chance that it will rain, the month of April, the city of Chicago, and the language Spanish? Do "they" really exist or do we have here just grammar-induced illusions?

This requires training

And yet, there is a certain cast of mind that has trouble taking questions like these seriously. Some would call it the natural cast of mind: it takes a good deal of training before one can bring oneself to believe in an undiscovered fact of the matter as to the existence of nineteen, never mind Chicago and Spanish. And even after the training, one feels just a teensy bit ridiculous pondering the ontological status of these things. 

Quine of course takes existence questions dead seriously. He even outlines a program for their resolution: Look for the best overall theory—best by ordinary scientific standards or principled extensions thereof—and then consider what has to exist for the theory to be true.

Not everyone likes this program of Quine's. Such opposition as there has been, though, has centred less on its goals than on technical problems with the proposed method. Suppose a best theory were found; why shouldn't there be various ontologies all equally capable of conferring truth on it? Isn't a good theory in part an ontologically plausible one, making the approach circular?

But again, there is a certain cast of mind that balks rather at the program's goals. A line of research aimed at determining whether Chicago, April, Spanish, etc. really exist strikes this cast of mind as naive to the point of comicality. It's as though one were to call for research into whether April is really the cruellest month, or Chicago the city with the big shoulders, or Spanish the loving tongue.

(The analogy is not entirely frivolous as we will see.)


  Chicago-style hot dog:
  evidence for existence of Chicago?  


Soundings, Spring 2010