by on Designation and Existence
by W.V.O. Quine
This is probably Quine's first foray into ontology, and a tangible first step towards the position he presents in "On What There Is".
This is probably Quine's first foray into ontology, and a tangible first step towards the position he presents in "On What There Is".

The discussion begins with the possibility that meaningful use of an expression does not entail that anything exists which the expression denotes. The expression may be syncategoremic, meaning by this that the expression is meaningful only in certain contexts and that the meaning in those contexts does not depend upon there being a designatum.

The possibility that expressions may be syncategoremic may suggest that our use of language provides no basis for judging between the extremes of platonism and nominalism, because either possibility can be accomodated by a different selection of which apparently denoting expressions are in fact syncategoremic.

The main point of this short essay is to propose validity of existential generalisation as a criterion sufficient to rule out that some apparently designating expression is syncategoremic, i.e. has a meaning in context which does not depend on its actually designating anything.

After discussing various ways of talking about the difference between designating and syncategoremic expressions and there relationship to variables and quantification, we come to the Quinean maxim:

"To be is to be the value of a variable."

And we are the treated to an account in these terms of the difference between nominalistic and realistic languages, concluding with an admonition against a nominalist who fails to provide contextual definitions for terms which he considers convient fictions.


This problem in relation to ordinary language is related to a similar issue in Russell's {\it Theory of Types} as used by Whitehead and Russell in {\it Principia Mathematica}. Russell uses the term "incomplete symbol" for those apparently denoting expressions which are in that system explained in context without assigning a designatum to them.

The use of incomplete symbols for classes in {\it Principia Mathematica} yields what Russell calls a "no class" theory. In the context of Russell's theory of types this permits talk as if of extensional classes in an underlying ontology of intensional propositional functions. If similar devices are used in a pure set or class theory, they are less successful.

This is because it is necessary to quantify over classes, and for that reason there must be something which the set designates. In The Theory of Types, talk of classes reduces to talk of propositional functions, and the necessary quantification can take place over the propositional functions.

The full story on exactly how much you can do in set theory with inconplete or syncategoremic symbols appears in Quine's "Set theory and its logic" (1960), the development of the implications for ontology in ordinary language begins here and appears in its mosts influential form in "On What There Is".

The flaw in the ointment here in its intended application to ultimate ontological questions is the presumption that we cannot quantify over things which do not exist, which seems on its face to be contrary to reasonable usage. How many cases did Sherlock Holmes solve? Is there any reason why we cannot generalise about these cases, if they have anything in common, would we not say that "all" the cases of Sherlock share that characteristic?

The contemporary controversy while Quine was developing his position on "ontological commitment" was with Carnap, whose explicit position as articulated in "Empiricism Semantics and Ontology" is a denial that use of a language involving quantification over some domain of entities (particularly abstract entities) can be undertaken on a pragmatic basis without either "committing" to the ontology in a metaphysical sense, or even aknowledging that the metaphysical question has any meaning. (Of course, Quine had an answer to Carnap.)

Quine's closing paragraph in which he takes the the range of variables to demonstrate the limits of sincere nominalism, may possibly have some force against the nominalist, but seems to me to have no force against the idea that ontology is conventional and contextual, and the range of variables in such a context says nothing absolute or in other contexts about what exists.

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