Comments on 'Ontological Anti-Realism'

In 1950, Quine inaugurated a strange new way of talking about philosophy. The hallmark of this approach is a propensity to take ordinary colloquial sentences that all of us utter routinely when we are not thinking about philosophy, or (more often) other sentences that very directly and obviously logically entail such sentences, and treat those sentences (i) as having a clear content, calling for little or no elucidation, and (ii) as proper objects of philosophical controversy. Questions like ‘are there numbers?’ and ‘are there tables?’ were now placed on a par with questions like ‘are there immaterial souls?’ and ‘are there sense-data?’. Of course philosophers have always had a propensity to say things that sound odd to vulgar ears. What was new with Quine was a systematic policty of privileging these kinds of formulations over more distinctively philosophical idioms. Jargon which had been central to the practice of metaphysics—’logical construction’, ’nothing over and above’, ‘reduce’, ‘ground’, ‘in virtue of’, ‘fundamental’, ‘consist in’...—were shifted to a much more peripheral role. The tradition inaugurated by Quine raises some hard interpretative questions for anyone who, like me and Dave, thinks that there is a range of different propositions that people brought up as English-speakers might be tempted to try to get across by uttering one of these sentences. On the one hand, Dave and I agree that the propositions that any ordinary, unphilosophical use of a sentence like ‘there are some free tables at the back of the café’ would be intended to get across are (in many cases) extremely obvious. The idea that when ontologists assert ‘there are no tables’, or treat this claim as calling for serious debate, they are intending to call into question propositions as obvious as that seems implausibly uncharitable. On the other hand, it is also a hallmark of the Quinean tradition that it claims to be using words in their ordinary sense, at least to the extent that (unlike its founder) it is willing to traffic in talk of meanings at all..
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