Words, Pictures and Ontology: A Commentary on John Heil's From an Ontological Point of View

Heather Dyke
University of Otago
The title of John Heil’s book From an Ontological Point of View is, of course, an adaptation of the title of Quine’s influential collection of essays From a Logical Point of View, published fifty years earlier in 1953. Quine’s book marked the beginning of a sea change in philosophy, away from ordinary language, armchair philosophising involving introspective examination of concepts, towards a more rigorous, analytical and scientific approach to answering philosophical questions. Heil’s book will, I think, mark the beginning of another sea change in philosophy, this time, away from a focus on language, and towards a focus on ontology. For that reason, the replacement of ‘Logical’ with ‘Ontological’ in Heil’s title is apposite. This is not to deny that Quine, and analytic philosophy in his wake, was interested in ontology. Some of the most fundamental philosophical questions that have vexed philosophers in the last fifty years are ontological questions: Are there numbers? Are there properties? Are there events? And if there are any of these kinds of things, what is their nature? But post-Quinean philosophers often set about answering these questions by looking at the language we use when we talk about numbers, properties and events. For example, philosophers engaged in the debate between realists and nominalists about universals would ask whether talk of redness could be adequately paraphrased by talk of red things. If so, the nominalist concluded that we are not committed to the existence of universals. If not, the realist concluded that we cannot escape commitment to them. Heil recommends that we abandon this methodology, for it leads us up blind alleys and conceals more acceptable positions from us. We should instead turn our attention directly onto ontological matters.
Keywords Ontology  Language
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