Van Inwagen, Peter. Existence: Essays in Ontology

By Coleman, Martin | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Van Inwagen, Peter. Existence: Essays in Ontology


Coleman, Martin, The Review of Metaphysics


VAN INWAGEN, Peter. Existence: Essays in Ontology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.--This collection of clearly written essays from 2001 through 2012 begins with personal reflections on metaphysics (chapter one, "Five questions") and a response to critics of the field (chapter two, "The new antimetaphysicians"). The focus turns to articulating ontological method and applying it to issues including nominalism, Meinongianism, fictional discourse, properties, ontological categories, mereological sums, and causation.

The essays assume a context of utterance--"the ontology room," where discussants are obliged to eliminate ambiguity by speaking Tarskian--far removed from the business of ordinary life. The ontology room insulates ontological discourse and corrals reductionists who would reform ordinary discourse ("Introduction: inside and outside the ontology room").

Quine's thought is prominent in chapters three through six, which include statements and illustrations of the metaontology referred to throughout the collection. "Being, existence, and ontological commitment" presents five theses of Quinian metaontology: (1-3) being is not an activity, is the same as existence, and is univocal; (4) the existential quantifier adequately captures the sense of being; (5) ontological disputes can be settled by determining the ontological commitments implied by established beliefs (this last is restated and illustrated in chapters four, eight, and ten). This metaontology is applied to the problem of sentences about works of fiction in "Existence, ontological commitment, and fictional entities," which argues against Meinongian doctrine on the basis of the univocality of existence and for the existence of fictional characters, understood as relating to properties in a special way. "Can variables be explained away?" disputes Quine's contention that sentences of first-order logic can be translated into a language of predicates and predicate operators to produce a "full and explicit analysis" of the variable, because understanding a predicate assumes a prior understanding of variables. "Quine's 1946 lecture on nominalism" judges the lecture a failed defense of nominalism but an outstanding presentation of Quine's metaontology.

Paraphrasing appears in chapters three and six as an unsuccessful tactic to eliminate commitments to entities objectionable to nominalists (classes, relations, species, and so on) and is taken up explicitly in previously unpublished chapter seven, "Alston on ontological commitment." It rejects the following ideas: (1) that the purpose of paraphrasing is to eliminate real (as opposed to apparent) ontological commitments, and (2) that a paraphrase must have the same meaning as the original. Rejecting these ideas obviates Alston's dilemma between making a correct paraphrase and retaining the same ontological commitments or making an incorrect paraphrase. …

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