On doing ontology without metaphysics

Philosophical Perspectives 25 (1):407-423 (2011)
According to a certain, familiar way of dividing up the business of philosophy, made popular by Quine, ontology is concerned with the question of what there is (a task that is often identified with that of drafting a “complete inventory” of the universe) whereas metaphysics is concerned with the question of what it is (i.e., with the task of specifying the “ultimate nature” of the items included in the inventory).1 For instance, a thesis to the effect that there are such things as colors or virtues would strictly speaking belong to ontology, whereas it would pertain to metaphysics proper to establish whether such entities are Platonic forms, Aristotelian universals, tropes, moments, or what have you. Likewise, it would fall within the scope of ontology to determine whether, when we speak of Sherlock Holmes, of the natural numbers, or of Sebastian’s walks in Bologna, we are speaking of things that truly belong to the furniture of the universe, but it would be a further metaphysical task to say something precise in regard to the ultimate make-up of those things, if such there be—for instance, that Sherlock Holmes is a theoretical artifact, that numbers are abstract individuals, that walks are property exemplifications, and so on. Of course, this view is all but universal among philosophers. There are many other, different ways of understanding the terms ‘ontology’ and ‘metaphysics’, some of which can certainly claim a respectable pedigree. For example, it is also common to think of ontology as a proper part of metaphysics—that part that has to do with what there is2—and there are even philosophers who use those terms in a way that is the exact opposite of the one I have just offered.3 But never mind; I am not interested in defending the view or in criticizing it, as very little depends on it. I am citing it just to fix a certain distinction and to settle on a terminology. The question I wish to address concerns the relationship between the distinction—the relationship between ontology understood as the study of what there is and metaphysics understood as the study of what it is..
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