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Ontological Commitment

Edited by Henry Laycock (Queen's University, Clare Hall Cambridge)
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Summary Both the idea of ontological commitment and its connection to the idea of quantification are associated especially with the work of Quine. In Quine’s scheme (as in most others) the highest-level ontic category is that provided by the form of the variable itself; to be assumed as an entity is to be assumed as a value of a variable. Below this level, the question becomes one of the adoption of particular ranges of variables for particular ranges of putative entities (class variables versus individual variables, just for instance). In excluding semantically plural variables – a possiblity Quine seemingly never considered – his formulation is ‘singularist’; but this, it seems, should make no ontological difference. The idea of a distinctively ontic operator is articulated by Quine in several closely related ways - for example, ‘We commit ourselves outright to an ontology containing numbers when we say there are prime numbers between 1000 and1010; we commit ourselves to an ontology containing centaurs when we say there are centaurs’. Thus conceived, the role of the (so-called) existential quantifier is quite precise. It is not a device for expressing just any kind of existential information; it is a quite specifically ontic device, for speaking of categories and kinds of things exclusively – not for information as to numbers of the items in these categories and kinds. Ontically, what matters is purely and simply whether there are things of this or that kind or not. Quine declares: ‘Existence is what existential quantification expresses’, and continues, using the (bare plural) form, ‘There are things of kind F if and only if (∃x)(Fx)’. What the operator ∃ represents is here quantification in name only, precisely because its role is to be numerically neutral. Commonplace accounts of quantifiers stating that they specify ‘which or how many of some kind of things have some property’ misrepresent the content of the existential quantifier, in contrast with so-called numerical quantifiers (as in ‘There are exactly two prime numbers between 1 and 4’). Yet  insofar as the semantics of variables, whether singular or plural, implicate countability in the first place, the question of the ontological neutrality of their use is not distinct from the unsettled question of whether talk of entities or objects itself is ontically neutral. For Quine’s claim is that ‘all traits of reality worthy of the name can be set down in an idiom of this austere form if in any idiom’ – in spirit, ‘a philosophical doctrine of categories’. But Quine frequently indicates serious concern, regarding what he calls the 'artifice' or 'reduction' of talk involving his so-called 'mass terms' to talk of entities or objects in the first place.
Key works  Quine 1948 marks an early and powerful affirmation of the tight bond promoted by Quine between the semantics of current basic logic and ontology. Carnap 1950, in the spirit of Quine, explicitly relativises ontology to a 'linguistic framework', and in Quine 1957 and Quine 1960, a distinction is made between the inescapable formal framework of our 'adult' or 'mature' conceptual scheme, based on individuation or the use of variables, and the logically recalcitrant pre-individuative status of so-called 'mass terms' - which can only be accommodated in the scheme via certain artificial reductive devices. Ontological relativism is thereby reinforced.
Introductions  Church 1958 (but see also Laycock 2010 )
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  1. William P. Alston (1958). Ontological Commitments. Philosophical Studies 9 (1-2):8 - 17.
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  2. Alan Ross Anderson (1959). Church on Ontological Commitment. Journal of Philosophy 56 (10):448-452.
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  3. István Aranyosi (2012). Talking About Nothing. Numbers, Hallucinations, and Fictions. Philosophy 87 (1):145-150.
    If everything exists, then it looks, prima facie, as if talking about nothing is equivalent to not talking about anything. However, we appear as talking or thinking about particular nothings, that is, about particular items that are not among the existents. How to explain this phenomenon? One way is to deny that everything exists, and consequently to be ontologically committed to nonexistent “objects”. Another way is to deny that the process of thinking about such nonexistents is a genuine singular thought. (...)
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  4. Jamin Asay (2010). How to Express Ontological Commitment in the Vernacular. Philosophia Mathematica 18 (3):293-310.
    According to the familiar Quinean understanding of ontological commitment, (1) one undertakes ontological commitments only via theoretical regimentations, and (2) ontological commitments are to be identified with the domain of a theory’s quantifiers. Jody Azzouni accepts (1), but rejects (2). Azzouni accepts (1) because he believes that no vernacular expression carries ontological commitments. He rejects (2) by locating a theory’s commitments with the extension of an existence predicate. I argue that Azzouni’s two theses undermine each other. If ontological commitments follow (...)
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  5. Jody Azzouni (2007). Ontological Commitment in the Vernacular. Noûs 41 (2):204–226.
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  6. Jody Azzouni (2006). Deflating Existential Consequence: A Case for Nominalism. OUP USA.
    If we must take mathematical statements to be true, must we also believe in the existence of abstract eternal invisible mathematical objects accessible only by the power of pure thought? Jody Azzouni says no, and he claims that the way to escape such commitments is to accept (as an essential part of scientific doctrine) true statements which are about objects that don't exist in any sense at all. Azzouni illustrates what the metaphysical landscape looks like once we avoid a militant (...)
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  7. Jody Azzouni (1998). On "on What There Is". Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 79 (1):1–18.
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  8. Jody Azzouni (1997). Applied Mathematics, Existential Commitment and the Quine-Putnam Indispensability Thesis. Philosophia Mathematica 5 (3):193-209.
    The ramifications are explored of taking physical theories to commit their advocates only to ‘physically real’ entities, where ‘physically real’ means ‘causally efficacious’ (e.g., actual particles moving through space, such as dust motes), the ‘physically significant’ (e.g., centers of mass), and the merely mathematical—despite the fact that, in ordinary physical theory, all three sorts of posits are quantified over. It's argued that when such theories are regimented, existential quantification, even when interpreted ‘objectually’ (that is, in terms of satisfaction via variables, (...)
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  9. John Bacon (1969). Ontological Commitment and Free Logic. The Monist 53 (2):310-319.
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  10. Kenneth T. Barnes & G. Norton (1977). Ontological Commitment. Philosophia 7 (1):181-196.
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  11. L. Berk (2013). Second-Order Arithmetic Sans Sets. Philosophia Mathematica 21 (3):339-350.
    This paper examines the ontological commitments of the second-order language of arithmetic and argues that they do not extend beyond the first-order language. Then, building on an argument by George Boolos, we develop a Tarski-style definition of a truth predicate for the second-order language of arithmetic that does not involve the assignment of sets to second-order variables but rather uses the same class of assignments standardly used in a definition for the first-order language.
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  12. Francesco Berto (2013). Coincident Entities and Question-Begging Predicates: An Issue in Meta-Ontology. [REVIEW] Metaphysica 14 (1):1-15.
    Meta-ontology (in van Inwagen's sense) concerns the methodology of ontology, and a controversial meta-ontological issue is to what extent ontology can rely on linguistic analysis while establishing the furniture of the world. This paper discusses an argument advanced by some ontologists (I call them unifiers) against supporters of or coincident entities (I call them multipliers) and its meta-ontological import. Multipliers resort to Leibniz's Law to establish that spatiotemporally coincident entities a and b are distinct, by pointing at a predicate F (...)
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  13. Francesco Berto (2012). Existence as a Real Property. Synthèse Library, Springer.
    This book is both an introduction to and a research work on Meinongianism. “Meinongianism” is taken here, in accordance with the common philosophical jargon, as a general label for a set of theories of existence – probably the most basic notion of ontology. As an introduction, the book provides the first comprehensive survey and guide to Meinongianism and non-standard theories of existence in all their main forms. As a research work, the book exposes and develops the most up-to-date Meinongian theory (...)
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  14. Stephan Blatti & Sandra Lapointe (eds.) (forthcoming). Ontology After Carnap. Oxford University Press.
    Analytic philosophy is once again in a methodological frame of mind. Nowhere is this more evident than in metaphysics, whose practitioners and historians are actively reflecting on the nature of ontological questions, the status of their answers, and the relevance of contributions both from other areas within philosophy (e.g., philosophical logic, semantics) and beyond (notably, the natural sciences). Such reflections are hardly new: the debate between Willard van Orman Quine and Rudolf Carnap about how to understand and resolve ontological questions (...)
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  15. Berit Brogaard (2008). Inscrutability and Ontological Commitment. Philosophical Studies 141 (1):21 - 42.
    There are two doctrines for which Quine is particularly well known: the doctrine of ontological commitment and the inscrutability thesis—the thesis that reference and quantification are inscrutable. At first glance, the two doctrines are squarely at odds. If there is no fact of the matter as to what our expressions refer to, then it would appear that no determinate commitments can be read off of our best theories. We argue here that the appearance of a clash between the two doctrines (...)
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  16. Berit Brogaard (2007). Number Words and Ontological Commitment. Philosophical Quarterly 57 (226):1–20.
    With the aid of some results from current linguistic theory I examine a recent anti-Fregean line with respect to hybrid talk of numbers and ordinary things, such as ‘the number of moons of Jupiter is four’. I conclude that the anti-Fregean line with respect to these sentences is indefensible.
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  17. Nicolas Bullot (2006). The Principle of Ontological Commitment in Pre- and Postmortem Multiple Agent Tracking. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29 (5):466-468.
    This commentary suggests that understanding the “Folk Psychology of Souls” requires studying a problem articulating ontology with psychology: How do human beings, both as perceivers and thinkers, track and refer to (1) living and dead intentional agents and (2) supernatural agents? The problem is discussed in the light of the principle of the ontological commitment in agent tracking.
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  18. John P. Burgess & Gideon A. Rosen (1997). A Subject with No Object: Strategies for Nominalistic Interpretation of Mathematics. Oxford University Press.
    Numbers and other mathematical objects are exceptional in having no locations in space or time or relations of cause and effect. This makes it difficult to account for the possibility of the knowledge of such objects, leading many philosophers to embrace nominalism, the doctrine that there are no such objects, and to embark on ambitious projects for interpreting mathematics so as to preserve the subject while eliminating its objects. This book cuts through a host of technicalities that have obscured previous (...)
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  19. Ross P. Cameron, Quantification, Truthmaking and Ontological Commitment: Reply to Schaffer.
    Truthmaking and ontological commitment How do we determine the ontological commitments of a theory? Quine told us to look to the quantifier.1 What must be in the domain of the quantifiers if the (regimented) sentences of the theory are all to be true? Those are the ontological commitments of the theory.
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  20. Ross P. Cameron (2013). How to Be a Nominalist and a Fictional Realist. In Christy Mag Uidhir (ed.), Art and Abstract Objects. Oxford University Press. 179.
  21. Ross P. Cameron (2010). How to Have a Radically Minimal Ontology. Philosophical Studies 151 (2):249 - 264.
    In this paper I further elucidate and defend a metaontological position that allows you to have a minimal ontology without embracing an error-theory of ordinary talk. On this view 'there are Fs' can be strictly and literally true without bringing an ontological commitment to Fs. Instead of a sentence S committing you to the things that must be amongst the values of the variables if it is true, I argue that S commits you to the things that must exist as (...)
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  22. Ross P. Cameron (2008). Truthmakers and Ontological Commitment: Or How to Deal with Complex Objects and Mathematical Ontology Without Getting Into Trouble. Philosophical Studies 140 (1):1 - 18.
    What are the ontological commitments of a sentence? In this paper I offer an answer from the perspective of the truthmaker theorist that contrasts with the familiar Quinean criterion. I detail some of the benefits of thinking of things this way: they include making the composition debate tractable without appealing to a neo-Carnapian metaontology, making sense of neo-Fregeanism, and dispensing with some otherwise recalcitrant necessary connections.
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  23. Massimiliano Carrara, Alessandra Arapinis & Friederike Moltmann (eds.) (forthcoming). Unity and Plurality. Philosophy, Logic, and Semantics. Oxford University Press.
    This volume brings together new work on the logic and ontology of plurality and a range of recent articles exploring novel applications to natural language semantics. The contributions in this volume in particular investigate and extend new perspectives presented by plural logic and non-standard mereology and explore their applications to a range of natural language phenomena. Contributions by P. Aquaviva, A. Arapinis, M. Carrara, P. McKay, F. Moltmann, O. Linnebo, A. Oliver and T. Smiley, T. Scaltsas, P. Simons, and B.-Y. (...)
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  24. Massimiliano Carrara & Enrico Martino (2009). On the Ontological Commitment of Mereology. Review of Symbolic Logic 2 (1):164-174.
    In Parts of Classes (1991) and Mathematics Is Megethology (1993) David Lewis defends both the innocence of plural quantification and of mereology. However, he himself claims that the innocence of mereology is different from that of plural reference, where reference to some objects does not require the existence of a single entity picking them out as a whole. In the case of plural quantification . Instead, in the mereological case: (Lewis, 1991, p. 87). The aim of the paper is to (...)
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  25. Massimiliano Carrara & Achille C. Varzi (2001). Ontological Commitment and Reconstructivism. Erkenntnis 55 (1):33-50.
    Some forms of analytic reconstructivism take natural language (and common sense at large) to be ontologically opaque: ordinary sentences must be suitably rewritten or paraphrased before questions of ontological commitment may be raised. Other forms of reconstructivism take the commitment of ordinary language at face value, but regard it as metaphysically misleading: common-sense objects exist, but they are not what we normally think they are. This paper is an attempt to clarify and critically assess some common limits of these two (...)
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  26. D. Chalmers, D. Manley & R. Wasserman (eds.) (2009). Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press.
  27. Charles S. Chihara (1968). Our Ontological Commitment to Universals. Noûs 2 (1):25-46.
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  28. Roderick M. Chisholm (1973). Beyond Being and Nonbeing. Philosophical Studies 24 (4):245 - 257.
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  29. Arkadiusz Chrudzimski (2005). Drei Versionen der Meinongschen Logik. Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 59 (1):49-70.
    Alexius Meinong nimmt in der Geschichte der Ontologie eine ausgezeichnete Stellung ein. Er war der erste Philosoph, der in systematischer Weise eine quasi-onto¬logische Disziplin entwickelte, die im Vergleich zu der Disziplin, die man traditionell Metaphysik oder Ontologie nennt, viel allgemeiner sein sollte. Die Metaphysik untersucht das Seiende als Seiendes, und die seienden Entitäten bilden – so die These Meinongs – nur ein kleines Fragment dessen, was man unter dem Namen „Gegenstands¬theorie” untersuchen kann. Die Gegenstände als solche sind „außerseiend”, d.h. sie (...)
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  30. Arkadiusz Chrudzimski (2003). Quine, Meinong und Aristoteles. Zwei Dimensionen der ontologischen Verpflichtung. Metaphysica 4 (1):39-68.
    Quine claimed that to be is is to be a value of a bound variable. In the paper we assume that this claim contains an important philosophical insight and investigate its background. It is argued that there are two dimensions involved in Quine’s slogan: (i) the distinction between existing and non-existing objects and (ii) the question of the systematic ambiguity of being that can be traced back to Aristotle. At the first sight it is tempting to construe Quine’s criterion according (...)
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  31. Alonzo Church (1958). Ontological Commitment. Journal of Philosophy 55 (23):1008-1014.
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  32. Mark Colyvan (1999). Causal Explanation and Ontological Commitment. In Uwe Meixner Peter Simons (ed.), Metaphysics in the Post-Metaphysical Age. Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society. 1--141.
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  33. Gabriele Contessa (2006). Constructive Empiricism, Observability, and Three Kinds of Ontological Commitment. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 37 (4):454–468.
    In this paper, I argue that, contrary to the constructive empiricist’s position, observability is not an adequate criterion as a guide to ontological commitment in science. My argument has two parts. First, I argue that the constructive empiricist’s choice of observability as a criterion for ontological commitment is based on the assumption that belief in the existence of unobservable entities is unreasonable because belief in the existence of an entity can only be vindicated by its observation. Second, I argue that (...)
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  34. Neil Cooper (1966). Ontological Commitment. The Monist 50 (1):125-129.
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  35. Richard Creath (1980). Nominalism by Theft. American Philosophical Quarterly 17 (4):311 - 318.
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  36. Charles Crittenden (1974). Ontological Commitments of Everyday Language. Metaphilosophy 5 (3):198–215.
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  37. Louis deRosset (forthcoming). Analyticity and Ontology. Oxford Studies in Metaphysics.
    /Analyticity theorists/, as I will call them, endorse the /doctrine of analyticity in ontology/: if some truth P analytically entails the existence of certain things, then a theory that contains P but does not claim that those things exist is no more ontologically parsimonious than a theory that also claims that they exist. Suppose, for instance, that the existence of a table in a certain location is analytically entailed by the existence and features of certain particles in that location. The (...)
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  38. Louis deRosset (2010). Getting Priority Straight. Philosophical Studies 149 (1):73 - 97.
    Consider the kinds of macroscopic concrete objects that common sense and the sciences allege to exist: tables, raindrops, tectonic plates, galaxies, and the rest. Are there any such things? Opinions differ. Ontological liberals say they do; ontological radicals say they don't. Liberalism seems favored by its plausible acquiescence to the dictates of common sense abetted by science; radicalism by its ontological parsimony. Priority theorists claim we can have the virtues of both views. They hold that tables, raindrops, etc., exist, but (...)
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  39. John Divers & Alexander Miller (1995). Minimalism and the Unbearable Lightness of Being. Philosophical Papers 24 (2):127-139.
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  40. Matti Eklund (2013). Carnap's Metaontology. Noûs 47 (2):229-249.
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  41. Kit Fine (2009). The Question of Ontology. In David John Chalmers, David Manley & Ryan Wasserman (eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press. 157--177.
  42. Luciano Floridi (ed.) (2003). Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information. Blackwell.
    Ontology as a branch of philosophy is the science of what is, of the kinds and structures of objects, properties, events, processes and relations in every area of reality. ‘Ontology’ in this sense is often used by philosophers as a synonym of ‘metaphysics’ (a label meaning literally: ‘what comes after the Physics’), a term used by early students of Aristotle to refer to what Aristotle himself called ‘first philosophy’. But in recent years, in a development hardly noticed by philosophers, the (...)
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  43. Joel I. Friedman (2005). Modal Platonism: An Easy Way to Avoid Ontological Commitment to Abstract Entities. [REVIEW] Journal of Philosophical Logic 34 (3):227 - 273.
    Modal Platonism utilizes "weak" logical possibility, such that it is logically possible there are abstract entities, and logically possible there are none. Modal Platonism also utilizes a non-indexical actuality operator. Modal Platonism is the EASY WAY, neither reductionist nor eliminativist, but embracing the Platonistic language of abstract entities while eliminating ontological commitment to them. Statement of Modal Platonism. Any consistent statement B ontologically committed to abstract entities may be replaced by an empirically equivalent modalization, MOD(B), not so ontologically committed. This (...)
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  44. Hans-Johann Glock (2002). Does Ontology Exist? Philosophy 77 (2):235-260.
    Early analytic philosophers like Carnap, Wittgenstein and Ryle regarded ontology as a branch of metaphysics that is either trivial or meaningless. But at present it is generally assumed that philosophy can make substantial discoveries about what kinds of things exist and about the essence of these kinds. My paper challenges this ontological turn. The currently predominant conceptions of the subject, at any rate, do not license the idea that ontology can provide distinctively philosophical insights into the constituents of reality. I (...)
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  45. Dale Gottlieb (1976). A Method for Ontology, with Applications to Numbers and Events. Journal of Philosophy 73 (18):637-651.
  46. Dirk Greimann (2009). Contextual Definition and Ontological Commitment. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87 (3):357 – 373.
    In almost all of his writings on ontology, Quine celebrated the discovery of contextual definition as a milestone of the history of philosophy. The philosophical appeal of this tool resides in the hope that it allows us to reduce the ontological commitments of theories in substantial ways. The goal of this paper is to show that contextual definition does not really come up to this hope. It is argued that the material adequacy of such definitions presupposes a very (...)
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  47. Steven Gross (2006). Can Empirical Theories of Semantic Competence Really Help Limn the Structure of Reality? Noûs 40 (1):43–81.
    There is a long tradition of drawing metaphysical conclusions from investigations into language. This paper concerns one contemporary variation on this theme: the alleged ontological significance of cognitivist truth-theoretic accounts of semantic competence. According to such accounts, human speakers’ linguistic behavior is in part empirically explained by their cognizing a truth-theory. Such a theory consists of a finite number of axioms assigning semantic values to lexical items, a finite number of axioms assigning semantic values to complex expressions on the basis (...)
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  48. Katherine Hawley (forthcoming). Ontologial Innocence. In Donald Baxter & Aaon Cotnoir (eds.), Composition as Identity. Oxford University Press.
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  49. Michael P. Hodges (1972). Quine on 'Ontological Commitment'. Philosophical Studies 23 (1-2):105 - 110.
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  50. Joshua Hoffman (2011). Metametaphysics and Substance: Two Case Studies. [REVIEW] Axiomathes 21 (4):491-505.
    This paper examines an often-ignored aspect of the evaluation of metaphysical analyses, namely, their ontological commitments. Such evaluations are part of metaphysical methodology, and reflection on this methodology is itself part of metametaphysics. I will develop a theory for assessing what these commitments are, and then I will apply it to an important historical and an important contemporary metaphysical analysis of the concept of an individual substance (i.e., an object, or thing). I claim that in evaluating metaphysical analyses, we should (...)
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