This philosophical tale is about the (non) existence
of things. When individuals argue about the existence or non-existence of
things, they cannot put it into words. This is because, an individual cannot
disagree with the existence of something with his denial. Quine uses two
fictional philosophers: McX and Wyman. According to McX everything that can be
spoken about exists and according to Wyman there are un-updated possibilities
and up-to-date possibilities of everything. Quine uses these two fictional
philosophers to further explain and reject the ways of thinking about the
existence of things.
Against Wyman he uses the argument that Wyman’s vision
ends in contradictions. For instance, the confirmation of a dome that is round
and square leads to impossibility. Wyman’s reaction to this is that
contradictions are meaningless. Quine’s reaction to this is that if it is
assumed that contradictions are meaningless, the methodology deteriorates
because then a test cannot be developed to determine what is and what is not
meaningful. Hence it has been mathematically demonstrated that there is
generally no feasible test possible.
According to McX’s theory, universals would really
exist. Quine says that McX could not say that predicates such as
“red” exist because if something has a name this does not mean that
it is actually meaningful. When McX assumes that there is a distinction between
naming and meaning, words such as “red” still have meaning, and
whether they are named or not, they remain universals. In some way this may be
called attributes or something else that serves the same purpose of “redness”.
Quine’s reaction to this is that he denies “meanings” with which he
does not deny that something can be meaningful. The argument that Quine uses
against McX is Russell’s analysis. This analysis entails that denotating
sentences do not have to have a denotation (object) to exist. Therefore Quine
states that universals are problematic for no entity could be linked to the “redness”
of a ball. In other words, for Quine, predicates do not get their meaning by
means of a reference. A sentence is sound if and only if the subject satisfies
the predicate; and a predicate is correctly assigned to a subject, if and only
if the subject is so that the predicate affirms that it is. So for Quine the
redness of the ball is a particular like the ball itself. Thus, because they
are particular, the properties cannot be at more than one place at the same
Quine then states a question: Do we not have anything
to say about the assumption of universals or other entities?
Quine says he has already answered this question
negatively, by talking about bound and linked variables or quantified
variables, in connection with Russell’s theory of descriptions. The only way we
can talk about ontology is by using bound variables because the language does
not impose any restrictions on ontology. To this must be added an important
idea, that, we can continue to speak as everyone about meaningful or
non-meaningful expressions without being obliged to recognize the existence of
meanings that correspond to them. The only way we can be involved in
ontological commitments is, from Quine’s point of view, is in our use of linked
variables. This is the case, for example, if we say that there is something
(linked variable) that red houses and sunsets have in common, meaning redness.
Quine links these philosophical currents to
mathematical currents. Quine says he has argued that the kind of ontology we
use has consequences for mathematics. Quine asks the question: Now how are we able
to adjudicate among rival ontologies? The answer to this is not derived from
the semantic formula: “To be the value of a variable.” There may,
however, still be a difference between the entities that a theory seems to willingly
admit and those that it actually admits, in the sense that it is obliged to
admit them. Until then, of course, there has been talk only of the formulation
of a criterion for determining what the ontological commitments are to which a
theory is obliged to consent if it wishes to be able to present itself as sound.
But nothing has been said about the principles governing the choice of a
specific ontology. This semantic formula serves to test the conformity of a
given comment or doctrine prior to an ontological standard. This formula does
not say what is there, but to see what is being said, there is a problem with
regard to language.
Two advantages to move on a semantic level: to prevent
the problem that was mentioned at the beginning, namely that we do not have to
put the non-existence of something into words if we do not agree about it. The
solution to this is to indicate that it is only mentioned because it is a
linguistic form and not that this presupposes that a non-entity actually exists.
The other advantage is to be able to talk about ontologically different
concepts without giving in to the other. This makes the ontological controversy
a linguistic controversy. But it should not be concluded that the ontological
problem is a linguistic problem.
At the end of the tale, Quine mentions his maxime and
that is the rule of simplicity. According to Quine, the theory of ontology must
be based on how useful the theory is.