Does ontology rest on a mistake?

Stephen Yablo

Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. LXXII (1998), 229-261


Not that I would undertake to limit my use of the words 'attribute' and 'relation' to contexts that are excused by the possibility of such paraphrase...consider how I have persisted in my vernacular use of 'meaning,' 'idea,' and the like, long after casting doubt on their supposed objects. True, the use of a term can sometimes be reconciled with rejection of its objects; but I go on using the terms without even sketching any such reconciliation.

Quine, Word and Object



I. Introduction

Ontology the progressive research program (not to be confused with ontology the swapping of hunches about what exists) is usually traced back to Quine's 1948 paper "On What There Is." According to Quine in that paper, the ontological problem can stated in three words -- "what is there?" -- and answered in one: "everything." Not only that, Quine says, but "everyone will accept this answer as true."

If Quine is right that the ontological problem has an agreed-on answer, then what excuse is there for a subject called ontology?

Quine's own view on this comes in the very next sentence: "there remains room for disagreement over cases." Of course, we know or can guess the kind of disagreement Quine is talking about. Are there or are there not such entities as the number nineteen, the property of roundness, the chance that it will rain, the month of April, the city of Chicago, and the language Spanish? Do "they" really exist or do we have here just grammar-induced illusions?

And yet, there is a certain cast of mind that has trouble taking questions like these seriously. Some would call it the natural cast of mind: it takes a good deal of training before one can bring oneself to believe in an undiscovered fact of the matter as to the existence of nineteen, never mind Chicago and Spanish. And even after the training, one feels just a teensy bit ridiculous pondering the ontological status of these things.

Quine of course takes existence questions dead seriously. He even outlines a program for their resolution: Look for the best overall theory -- best by ordinary scientific standards or principled extensions thereof -- and then consider what has to exist for the theory to be true.

Not everyone likes this program of Quine's. Such opposition as there has been, though, has centered less on its goals than on technical problems with the proposed method. Suppose a best theory were found; why shouldn't there be various ontologies all equally capable of conferring truth on it? Isn't a good theory in part an ontologically plausible one, making the approach circular?

But again, there is a certain cast of mind that balks rather at the program's goals. A line of research aimed at determining whether Chicago, April, Spanish, etc. really exist strikes this cast of mind as naive to the point of comicality. It's as though one were to call for research into whether April is really the cruellest month, or Chicago the city with the big shoulders, or Spanish the loving tongue. (The analogy is not entirely frivolous as we will see.)




II. Curious/Quizzical

Here then are two possible attitudes about philosophical existence-questions: the curious, the one that wants to find the answers, and the quizzical, the one that doubts there is anything to find and is inclined to shrug the question off.

Among analytic philosophers the dominant attitude is one of curiosity. Not only do writers on numbers, worlds, and so on give the impression of trying to work out whether these entities are in fact there, they almost always adopt Quine's methodology as well. An example is the debate about sets. One side maintains with Putnam and Quine that indispensability of sets in science argues for their reality; the other side holds with Field and perhaps Lewis that sets are not indispensable and (so) can safely be denied. Either way, the point is to satisfy curiosity about what there is.

How many philosophers lean the other way is not easy to say, because the quizzical camp has been keeping a low profile of late. I can think of two reasons for this, one principled and the other historical.

The principled reason is that no matter how oddly particular existence-claims, like "Chicago exists," may fall on the ear, existence as such seems the very paradigm of an issue that has to admit of a determinate resolution. Compare in this respect questions about whether things are with questions about how they are.

How a thing is, what characteristics it has, can be moot due to features of the descriptive apparatus we bring to bear on it. If someone wants to know whether France is hexagonal, smoking is a dirty habit, or the Liar sentence is untrue, the answer is that no simple answer is possible. This causes little concern because there's a story to be told about why not; the predicates involved have vague, shifty, impredicative, or otherwise unstraightforward conditions of application.

But what could prevent there from being a fact of the matter as to whether a thing is? The idea of looking for trouble in the application conditions of "exists" makes no sense, because these conditions are automatically satisfied by whatever they are tested against.

Don't get me wrong; the feeling of mootness and pointlessness that some existence-questions arouse in us is a real phenomenological datum that it would be wrong to ignore. But a feeling is, well, only a feeling. It counts for little without a vindicating explanation that exhibits the feeling as worthy of philosophical respect. And it is unclear how the explanation would go, or how it could possibly win out over the non-vindicating explanation that says that philosophical existence-questions are just very hard.

This connects up with the second reason why the quizzical camp has not been much heard from lately. The closest thing the quizzicals have had to a champion lately is Rudolf Carnap in "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology." This is because Carnap had a vindicating explanation to offer of the pointless feeling: The reason it feels pointless to ponder whether, say, numbers exist is that "numbers exist," as intended by the philosopher, has no meaning. Determined to pronounce from a position external to the number-framework, all the philosopher achieves is to cut himself off from the rules governing the use of "number," which then drains his pronouncements of all significance.

Quine's famous reply (see below) is that the internal/external distinction is in deep cahoots with the analytic/synthetic distinction and just as misconceived. That Carnap is widely seen to have lost the ensuing debate is a fact from which the quizzical camp has never quite recovered. Carnap's defeat was indeed a double blow. Apart from embarrassing the quizzicals' champion, it destroyed the only available model of how quizzicalism might be philosophically justified.


III. Preview

I don't especially want to argue with the assessment of Carnap as loser of his debate with Quine. Internal/external as Carnap explains it does depend on analytic/synthetic. But I think that it can be freed of this dependence, and that once freed it becomes something independently interesting: the distinction between statements made within make-believe games and those made without them -- or, rather, a special case of it with some claim to be called the metaphorical/literal distinction.

This make-believish twist turns the tables somewhat. Not even Quine counts it ontologically committing to say in a figurative vein that there are Xs. His program for ontology thus presupposes a distinction in the same ballpark as the one he rejects in Carnap. And he needs the distinction to be tolerably clear and sharp; otherwise there will be no way of implementing the exemption from commitment that he grants to the non-literal.

Now, say what you like about analytic/synthetic, compared to the literal/metaphorical distinction it is a marvel of philosophical clarity and precision. Even those with use for the notion admit that the boundaries of the literal are about as blurry as they could be, the clear cases on either side enclosing a vast interior region of indeterminacy.

An argument can thus be made that is Quine's side of the debate, not Carnap's, that is invested in an overblown distinction. It goes like this: To determine our commitments, we need to be able to ferret out all traces of non-literality in our assertions. If there is no feasible project of doing that, then there is no feasible project of Quinean ontology. There may be quicker ways of developing this objection, but the approach through "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology" is rich enough in historical ironies to be worth the trip.


IV. Carnap's proposal

Existence-claims are not singled out for special treatment by Carnap; he asks only that they meet a standard to which all meaningful talk is subject, an appropriate sort of discipline or rule-governedness. Run through his formal theory of language, this comes to the requirement that meaningful discussion of Xs -- material objects, numbers, properties, spacetime points, or whatever -- has got to proceed under the auspices of a linguistic framework, which lays down the "rules for forming statements [about Xs] and for testing, accepting, or rejecting them." An ontologist who respects this requirement by querying "the existence of [Xs] within the framework" is said by Carnap to be raising an internal existence-question.

A good although not foolproof way to recognize internal existence-questions is that they tend to concern, not the Xs as a class, but the Xs meeting some further condition: "is there a piece of paper on my desk?" rather than "are there material objects?" I say "not foolproof" because one could ask in an internal vein about the Xs generally; are there these entities or not? The question is an unlikely one because for any framework of interest, the answer is certain to be "yes." (What use would the X-framework be if having adopted it, you found yourself with no Xs to talk about?) But both forms of internal question are possible.

The point about internal existence-questions of either sort is that they raise no difficulties of principle. It is just a matter of whether applicable rules authorize you to say that there are Xs, or Xs of some particular kind. If they do, the answer is yes; otherwise no; end of story.

This alone shows that the internal existence-question is not the one the philosopher meant to be asking: it is not the "question of realism." A system of rules making "there are material objects" or "there are numbers" unproblematically assertible is a system of rules in need of external validation, or the opposite. Are the rules right to counsel acceptance of "there are Xs"? It is no good consulting the framework for the answer; we know what it says. No, the existence of Xs will have to queried from a position outside the X-framework. The philosopher's question is an external question.

Now, Carnap respects the ambition to cast judgment on the framework from without. He just thinks philosophers have a wrong idea of what is coherently possible here. How can an external deployment of "there are Xs" mean anything, when by definition it floats free of the rules whence alone meaning comes?

There are of course meaningful questions in the vicinity. But these are questions that mention "X" rather than using it: e.g., the practical question "should we adopt a framework requiring us to use "X" like so?" If the philosopher protests that she meant to be asking a question about Xs, not the term "X," Carnap has a ready reply: "You also thought to be asking a meaningful question, and one external to the X-framework. And it turns out that these conditions cannot be reconciled. The best I can do by way of indulging your desire to query the framework itself is to hear you as asking a question of advisability."

So that is what he does; the "external question" becomes the practical question, and the "question of realism" which the philosopher thought to be asking is renounced as impossible. There is something that the "question of realism" was supposed to be; there is a concept of the question, if you like. But the concept has no instances.


V. Internal/external and the dogma of reductionism

Quine has a triple-barreled response, set out in the next three sections. The key to Carnap's position (as he sees it) is that "the statements commonly thought of as ontological are proper matters of contention only in the form of linguistic proposals." But now, similar claims have been made about the statements commonly thought of as analytic; theoretical-sounding disputes about whether, say, the square root of -1 is a number are best understood as practical disputes about how to use "number." So, idea: the external existence-claims can be (re)conceived as the analytic ones. The objection thus looks to be one of guilt-by-association-with-the-first-dogma: "if there is no proper distinction between analytic and synthetic, then no basis at all remains for the contrast which Carnap urges between ontological statements and empirical statements of existence."

Trouble is, the association thus elaborated doesn't look all that close. For one thing, existence-claims of the kind Carnap would call analytic show no particular tendency to be external. Quine appreciates this but pronounces himself unbothered: "there is in these terms no contrast between analytic statements of an ontological kind and other analytic statements of existence such as "There are prime numbers above a hundred"; but I don't see why he should care about this." Quine's proposal also deviates from Carnap in the opposite way; existence-claims can fail to be analytic without (on that account) failing to be external. An example that Carnap himself might give is "there are material objects." Quine apparently considers it a foregone conclusion that experience should take a course given which "there are material objects" is assertible in the thing framework. How could it be? It is not analytic that experience even occurs.

All of that having been said, Carnap agrees that the distinctions are linked: "Quine does not acknowledge [my internal/external] distinction" because according to him "there are no sharp boundary lines between logical and factual truth, questions of meaning and questions of fact, between acceptance of a language structure and the acceptance of an assertion formulated in the language." The parallel here between "logical truth," "questions of meaning," and "acceptance of a language structure" suggests that analytic/synthetic may define internal/external (not directly, by providing an outright equivalent, but) indirectly through its role in the notion of a framework. The assertion rules that make up frameworks are not statements, and so there is no question of calling them analytically true. But they are the nearest thing to, namely, analytically valid or correct. The rules are what give X-sentences their meanings, hence they "cannot be wrong" as long as those meanings hold fixed.

Pulling these threads together, internal/external presupposes analytic/synthetic by presupposing frameworkhood; for frameworks are made up inter alia of analytic assertion rules. Some might ask, "why should analytic rules be as objectionable as analytic truths?" But that is essentially to ask why Quine's second dogma -- the reductionism that finds every statement to be linkable by fixed correspondence rules to a determinate range of confirming observations -- should be as objectionable to him as the first. The objection is the same in both cases. Any observation can work for or against any statement in the right doctrinal/methodological context. Hence no assertion or rule of assertion can lay claim to being indefeasibly correct, as it would have to be were it correct as a matter of meaning. Quine may be right that the two dogmas are at bottom one; still, our finding narrowly drawn is one of guilt-by-association-with-the-second-dogma.


VI. Internal/external & double effect

Quine's attack on internal/external begins with his anti-reductionism, but it doesn't end there. Because up to a point, Carnap agrees: any link between theory and observation can be broken, and any can in the right context be forged. It is just that he puts a different spin on these scenarios. There is indeed (thinks Carnap) a possibility that can never be foreclosed. But it is not the possibility of our correcting the rules to accommodate some new finding about the conditions under which X-statements are "really true"; it is that we should decide for practical reasons to trade the going framework for another, thereby imbuing "X" with a new and different meaning.

That Carnap to this extent shares Quine's anti-reductionism forces Quine to press his objection from the other side. Having previously argued that the "internal" life, in which we decide between particular statements, is a looser and more pragmatic affair than Carnap paints it, he needs now to argue that the "external" life, in which we decide between frameworks, is more evidence-driven and theoretical.

Imagine that the choice before me is whether to adopt a rule making "there are Xs" assertible under such and such observational conditions. And assume, as may well be the case, that these conditions are known to obtain; they might obtain trivially, as when "X" = "number." Then my decision is (in part) a decision about whether to say "there are Xs." Since Carnap gives no hint that these words are to be uttered with anything less than complete sincerity, what I am really deciding is whether to regard "there are Xs" as true and to believe in Xs. How then does adopting the rule fall short of being the acceptance of new doctrine?

Carnap could play it straight here and insist that adopting the rule involves only a conditional undertaking to assent to "there are Xs" under specified observational conditions, while adopting the doctrine is categorically aligning myself with the view that there are Xs.

But this is the kind of maneuver that gives the doctrine of double effect a bad name. Surely the decision to f cannot disclaim all responsibility for f's easily foreseeable (perhaps analytically foreseeable) consequences? To portray adopting the rule as taking a stand on what I am going to mean by "X," as opposed to a stand on the facts, is just another version of the same maneuver; it is not going to make much of an impression on the man who called it "nonsense, and the root of much nonsense, to speak of a linguistic component and a factual component in the truth of any individual statement."


VIII. Internal/external & pragmatism

Carnap has his work cut out for him. Can he without appeal to analytic/synthetic, and without assuming the separability of meaning and "how things are" as factors in truth, explain why the adoption of new assertion rules is not a shift in doctrine?

He might try the following. If the decision to make "there are Xs" assertible were based in some independent insight into the ontological facts, or even in evidence relevant to those facts, then yes, it would probably deserve to be called a change of doctrine. If anything has been learned, though, from the long centuries of wheel-spinning debate, it is that independent insight and evidence are lacking. The decision to count "there are Xs" assertible has got to be made on the basis of practical considerations: efficiency, simplicity, applicability, fruitfulness, and the like. And what practical considerations rationalize is not change in doctrine, but change in action or policy.

This is where push famously comes to shove. Efficiency and the rest are not for Quine "practical considerations," not if that is meant to imply a lack of evidential relevance. They are exactly the sorts of factors that scientists point to as favoring one theory over another, hence as supporting this or that view of the world. As he puts it in the last sentence of "Carnap's Views on Ontology," "ontological questions [for Carnap] are questions not of fact but of choosing a convenient conceptual scheme or framework for science; ... with this I agree only if the same be conceded for every scientific hypothesis."

A three-part objection, then: anti-reductionism, double effect, and finally pragmatism. The objection ends as it began, by disparaging not the idea of a Carnapian linguistic framework so much as its bearing on actual practice. The special framework-directed attitudes Carnap points to are, to the extent that we have them at all, attitudes we also take towards our theories. Between acceptance of a theory and acceptance of particular theoretical claims, there is indeed not much of a gap. But it is all the gap that is left between external and internal if Quine is right.


IX. Superficiality of the Quinean critique

Here is Quine's critique in a nutshell. The factors governing assertion are an inextricable mix of the semantic and the cognitive; any serious question about the assertive use of "X" has to do both with the word's meaning and the X-ish facts. Accordingly Carnap's external stance, in which we confront a purely practical decision about which linguistic rules to employ, and his internal stance, in which we robotically apply these rules to determine existence, are both of them philosophical fantasies.

I want to say that even if all of this is correct, Quine wins on a technicality. His objection doesn't embarrass internal/external as such, only Carnap’s way of developing the distinction. To see why, look again at the objection's three stages. The "anti-reductionist" stage takes issue with Carnap's construal of the framework rules as something like analytic. But analyticity is a red herring. The key point about frameworks for Carnap's purposes is that

(*) they provide a context in which we are to say --X-- under these conditions, ==X== under those conditions, and so on, entirely without regard to whether these statements are in a framework-independent sense true.

This is all it takes for there to be an internal/external distinction. And it seems just irrelevant to (*) whether the rules telling us what to say when are conceived as analytically fixed.

Someone might object that analytical fixity was forced on us by semantic autonomy (by the fact that X has no other meaning than what it gets from the rules), and that semantic autonomy is non-negotiable since it is what licenses (*)'s insouciance about external truth. Numerical calculation does not answer to external facts about numbers for the same reason that players of tag don't see themselves as answerable to game-independent facts about who is really "IT"; just as apart from the game there's no such thing as being "IT," apart from the framework there's no such thing as being "the sum of seven and five."

But now wait. If the object is to prevent external claims from "setting a standard" that internal claims would then be expected to live up to, depriving them of all meaning seems like overkill. A more targeted approach would be to allow X-talk its external meaning -- allow it to that extent to "set a standard" -- but make clear that internal X-talk is not bound by that standard. How to make it clear is the question, and this is where the second or "double effect" stage comes in.

Must internal utterances have the status of assertions? Carnap's stated goal, remember, is to calm the fears of researchers tempted by Platonic languages; he wants to show that "using such a language does not imply embracing a Platonic ontology but is perfectly compatible with empiricism and strictly scientific thinking." If the issue is really one of use and access, then it would seem immaterial whether Carnap's researchers are asserting the sentences they utter or putting them forward in some other and less committal spirit. This takes us to the third or "pragmatic" stage of Quine's critique.

That frameworks are chosen on practical grounds proves nothing, Quine says, since practical reasons can also be evidential. Of course he's right. But why can't Carnap retort that it was the other (the non-evidential) sort of practical reason he had in mind -- the other sort of practical reason he took to be at work in these cases? The claim Quine needs is that when it comes to indicative-mood speech behavior, no other sort of practical reason is possible. There is no such thing, in other words, as just putting on a way of talking for the practical advantages it brings, without regard to whether the statements it recommends are in a larger sense true. (If there were, Carnap could take that as his model for adopting a framework.)

Does Quine allow for the possibility of ways of talking that are useful without being true, or regarded as true? A few tantalizing passages aside, it seems clear that he not only allows for it, he revels in it. The overall trend of Word & Object is that a great deal of our day to day talk, and a great deal of the talk even of working scientists, is not to be taken ultimately seriously.

This is Quine's famous doctrine of the "double standard." Intentional attributions, subjunctive conditionals, and so on are said to have "no place in an austere canonical notation for science," suitable for "limning the true and ultimate structure of reality." Quine does not for a moment suggest these idioms are not useful. He goes out of his way to hail them as indispensable, both to the person in the street and the working scientist. When the physicist (who yields to no one in her determination to limn ultimate structure) espouses a doctrine of "ideal objects" (e.g., point masses and frictionless planes), this is welcomed by Quine as

a deliberate myth, useful for the vividness, beauty, and substantial correctness with which it portrays certain aspects of nature even while, on a literal reading, it falsifies nature in other respects.

Other examples could be mentioned; their collective upshot is that Quine does not really doubt that practical reasons can be given for asserting what are on balance untruths. There is no in-principle mystery (even for him) about the kind of thing Carnap is talking about: a well-disciplined, practically advantageous way of talking that makes no pretense of being "really true."


X. What is a framework and what should it be?

About one thing Quine is right. Frameworks cannot remain what they were; they will have to evolve or die. Quine's own view is that he has pushed frameworks in the direction of theories. But his objection really argues, I think, for a different sort of evolution.

Look again at the three stages. The first tells us that frameworks are not to be seen as sole determinants of meaning. All right, let "X"'s meaning depend on factors that the framework has no idea of; let "X" have its meaning quite independently of the framework. The second tells us that the rules about what to say when had better not be rules about what to believingly assert. All right, let them be rules about what to put forward, where this is a conversational move falling short of assertion. The third tells us that if frameworks are non-doctrinal, this is not because they are adopted for reasons like simplicity, fruitfulness, and familiarity. All right, let the conclusion be reached by another and more direct route; let us identify frameworks outright with practices of such and such a type, where it is independently obvious that to engage in these practices is not thereby to accept any particular doctrine..

Now, what is our usual word for an enterprise where sentences are put at the service of something other than their usual truth-conditions, by people who may or may not believe them, in a disciplined but defeasible way? It seems to me that our usual word is "make-believe game" or "pretend game." Make-believe games are the paradigm activities in which we "assent" to sentences with little or no regard for their actual truth-values.

Indications are that Carnap would have resisted any likening of the internal to the make-believe. He take pains to distance himself from those who "regard the acceptance of abstract entities as a kind of superstition or myth, populating the world with fictitious...entities." Why, when the make-believe model appears to achieve the freedom from external critique that Carnap says he wants?

First there is a difference of terminology to deal with. A "myth" for Carnap is "a false (or dubious) internal statement" -- something along the lines of "there are ghosts" conceived as uttered in the thing framework. A "myth" or fiction for me is a true internal statement (that is, a statement endorsed by the rules) whose external truth value is as may be, the point being that that truth value is from an internal standpoint quite irrelevant. So while a Carnapian myth will cannot easily be true, a myth in my sense must be internally true and may be externally true as well. (Studied indecision about which of them are externally true will be playing an increasing role as we proceed.)

Now, clearly, that "internal truths" are not myths1 = statements that pertinent rules of evidence tell us to believe-false doesn't show they aren't myths2 = statements that pertinent rules of make-believe tell us to imagine-true. That said, I suspect that Carnap would not want internal truths to be myths2 either. This is because freedom from external critique is only part of what Carnap is after, and the negative part at that. There is also the freedom to carry on in the familiar sort of unphilosophical way. The internal life Carnap is struggling to defend is the ordinary life of the ontologically unconcerned inquirer. And that inquirer does not see herself as playing games, she sees herself as describing reality.



XI. The effect on Quine's program

Playing games vs. describing reality -- more on that dilemma in due course. Our immediate concern is not the bearing of make-believe games on Carnap's program, it's the bearing on Quine's. Quine has not much to say on the topic but it is satisfyingly direct:

One way in which a man may fail to share the ontological commitments of his discourse is ... by taking an attitude of frivolity. The parent who tells the Cinderella story is no more committed to admitting a fairy godmother and a pumpkin coach into his own ontology than to admitting the story as true.

Note that the imputation of frivolity is not limited just to explicit self-identified pieces of play-acting. Who among us has not slipped occasionally into "the essentially dramatic idiom of propositional attitudes," or the subjunctive conditional with its dependence on "a dramatic projection," or the "deliberate myths" of the infinitesimal and the frictionless plane?

Quine's view about all these cases is that we can protect ourselves from ontological scrutiny by keeping the element of drama well in mind, and holding our tongues in moments of high scientific seriousness.

Now, the way Quine is usually read, we are to investigate what exists by reworking our overall theory of the world with whatever tools science and philosophy have to offer, asking all the while what has to exist for the theory to be true. The advice at any particular stage is to

(Q) count a thing as existing iff it is a commitment of your best theory, ie., the theory's truth requires it.

What though if my best theory contains elements S that are there not because they are such very good things to believe but for some other reason, like the advantages that accrue if I pretend that S? Am I still to make S's commitments my own? One certainly hopes not; I can hardly be expected to take ontological guidance from a statement I don't accept, and may well regard as false!

It begins to look as though (Q) overshoots the mark. At least, I see only two ways of avoiding this result. One is to say that the make-believe elements are never going to make it into our theories in the first place. As theorists we are in the business of describing the world; and to the extent that a statement is something to be pretended true, that statement is not descriptive. A second and likelier thought is that any make believe elements that do make their way in will eventually drop out. As theory evolves it bids stronger and stronger to be accepted as the honest to God truth. These options are considered in the next few sections; after that we ask what sense can still be made of the Quinean project.


XII. Can make-believe be descriptive?

The thread that links all make-believe games together is that they call upon their participants to pretend or imagine that certain things are the case. These to-be-imagined items make up the game's content, and to elaborate and adapt oneself to this content is typically the game's very point.

An alternative point suggests itself, though, when we reflect that all but the most boring games are played with props, whose game-independent properties help to determine what it is that players are supposed to imagine. That Sam's pie is too big for the oven doesn't follow from the rules of mud pies alone; you have to throw in the fact that Sam's clump of mud fails to fit into the hollow stump. If readers of "The Final Problem" are to think of Holmes as living nearer to Hyde Park than Central Park, the facts of nineteenth century geography deserve a large part of the credit.

Now, a game whose content reflects the game-independent properties of worldly props can be seen in two different lights. What ordinarily happens is that we take an interest in the props because and to the extent that they influence the content; one tramps around London in search of 221B Baker street for the light it may shed on what is true according to the Holmes stories.

But in principle it could be the other way around: we could be interested in a game's content because and to the extent that it yielded information about the props. This would not stop us from playing the game, necessarily, but it would tend to confer a different significance on our moves. Pretending within the game to assert that BLAH would be a way of giving voice to a fact holding outside the game: the fact that the props are in such and such a condition, viz., the condition that makes BLAH a proper thing to pretend to assert.

Using games to talk about game-independent reality makes a certain in principle sense, then. Is such a thing ever actually done? A case can be made that it is done all the time -- not indeed with explicit self-identified games like "mud pies" but impromptu everyday games hardly rising to the level of consciousness. Some examples of Kendall Walton's suggest how this could be so:

Where in Italy is the town of Crotone? I ask. You explain that it is on the arch of the Italian boot. 'See that thundercloud over there -- the big, angry face near the horizon,' you say; 'it is headed this way.'...We speak of the saddle of a mountain and the shoulder of a highway....All of these cases are linked to make-believe. We think of Italy and the thundercloud as something like pictures. Italy (or a map of Italy) depicts a boot. The cloud is a prop which makes it fictional that there is an angry face...The saddle of a mountain is, fictionally, a horse's saddle. But our interest, in these instances, is not in the make-believe itself, and it is not for the sake of games of make-believe that we regard these things as props...[The make-believe] is useful for articulating, remembering, and communicating facts about the props -- about the geography of Italy, or the identity of the storm cloud...or mountain topography. It is by thinking of Italy or the potential if not actual props that I understand where Crotone is, which cloud is the one being talked about.

A certain kind of make-believe game, Walton says, can be "useful for articulating, remembering, and communicating facts" about aspects of the game-independent world. He might have added that make-believe games can make it easier to reason about such facts, to systematize them, to visualize them, to spot connections with other facts, and to evaluate potential lines of research. That similar virtues have been claimed for metaphors is no accident, if metaphors are themselves moves in world-oriented pretend games:

The metaphorical statement (in its context) implies or suggests or introduces or calls to mind a (possible) game of make-believe...In saying what she does, the speaker describes things that are or would be props in the implied game. [To the extent that paraphrase is possible] the paraphrase will specify features of the props by virtue of which it would be fictional in the implied game that the speaker speaks truly, if her utterance is an act of verbal participation in it.

A metaphor on this view is an utterance that represents its objects as being like so: the way that they need to be to make the utterance pretense-worthy in a game that it itself suggests. The game is played not for its own sake but to make clear which game-independent properties are being attributed. They are the ones that do or would confer legitimacy upon the utterance construed as a move in the game.

Assuming the make-believe theory is on the right track, it will not really do to say that sentences meant only to be pretended-true are nondescriptive and hence unsuited to scientific theorizing. True, to pretend is not itself to describe. But on the one hand, the pretense may only be alluded to, not actually undertaken. And on the other, the reason for the pretense may be to portray the world as holding up its end of the bargain, by being in a condition to make a pretense like that appropriate. All of this may proceed with little conscious attention. Often in fact the metaphorical content is the one that "sticks to the mind" and the literal content takes effort to recover. (Figurative speech is like that; compare the effort of remembering that "that wasn't such a great idea," taken literally, leaves open that it was a very good idea.)


XIII. Flight from figuration

What about the second strategy for salvaging (Q)? Our theories may start out partly make-believe (read now metaphorical), but as inquiry progresses the make-believe parts gradually drop out. Any metaphor that is not simply junked -- the fate Quine sometimes envisages for intentional psychology -- will give way to a paraphrase serving the same useful purposes without the figurative distractions. An example is Weierstrass with his epsilon-delta definition of limit showing how to do away with talk of infinitesimals.

This appears to be the strategy Quine would favor. Not only does he look to science to beat the metaphors back, he thinks it may be the only human enterprise up to the task. He appreciates, of course, that we are accustomed to thinking of "linguistic usage as literalistic in its main body and metaphorical in its trimming." The familiar thought is however

a mistake...Cognitive discourse at its most dryly literal is largely a refinement rather, characteristic of the neatly worked inner stretches of science. It is an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes away.

The question is really just whether Quine is right about this -- not about the prevalence of metaphor outside of science, but about its eventual dispensability within. And here we have to ask what might have drawn us to metaphorical ways of talking in the first place.

A metaphor has in addition to its literal content -- given by the conditions under which it is true and to that extent belief-worthy -- a metaphorical content given by the conditions under which it is "fictional" or pretense-worthy in the relevant game. If we help ourselves to the (itself perhaps metaphorical) device of possible worlds, we can put it like so:

S's literal/metaphorical content =
the set of worlds that, considered as actual, make S true/fictional .

The role of pretend games on this approach is to warp the usual lines of semantic projection, so as to reshape the region a sentence defines in logical space:

The straight lines on the left are projected by the ordinary, conventional meaning of "Jimi's on fire"; they pick out the worlds which make "Jimi's on fire" true. The bent lines on the right show what happens when worlds are selected according to whether they make the very same sentence, meaning the very same thing, fictional or pretense-worthy.

If it is granted that there are these metaphorical contents -- these ensembles of worlds picked out by their shared property of legitimating a certain pretense -- then here is what we want explained: what are the reasons for accessing them metaphorically? I can think of at least three sorts of reason, corresponding to three progressively more interesting sorts of metaphor.

Representationally Essential Metaphors

The most obvious reason is lack of a literal alternative; the language might have no more to offer in the way of a unifying principle for the worlds in a given content than that they are the ones making the relevant sentence fictional. It seems at least an open question, for example, whether the clouds we call angry are the ones that are literally F, for any F other than "such that it would be natural and proper to regard them as angry if one were going to attribute emotions to clouds." Nor does a literal criterion immediately suggest itself for the pieces of computer code called viruses, the markings on a page called tangled or loopy, the glances called piercing, or the topographical features called basins, funnels, and brows.

The topic being ontology, though, let's try to illustrate with an existential metaphor: a metaphor making play with a special sort of object to which the speaker is not committed (not by the metaphorical utterance, anyway) and to which she adverts only for the light it sheds on other matters. An example much beloved of philosophers is the average so-and-so. When someone says that

(S) The average star has 2.4 planets,

she is not quite serious; she is pretending to describe an (extraordinary) entity called "the average star" as a way of really talking about what the (ordinary) stars are like on average. Of course, this particular metaphor can be paraphrased away, as follows:

(T) The number of planets divided by the number of stars is 2.4,

But the numbers in T are from an intuitive perspective just as remote from the cosmologist's intended subject matter as the average star in S. And this ought to make us, or the more nominalistic among us, suspicious. Wasn't it Quine who stressed the possibility of unacknowledged myth-making in even the most familiar constructions? The nominalist therefore proposes that T is metaphorical too; it provides us with access to a content more literally expressed by

(U) There are 12 planets and 5 stars or 24 planets and 10 stars or...

And now here is the rub. The rules of English do not allow infinitely long sentences; so the most literal route of access in English to the desired content is T, and T according to the nominalist is a metaphor. It is only by making as if to countenance numbers that one can give expression in English to a fact having nothing to do with numbers, a fact about stars and planets and how they are numerically proportioned.

Presentationally Essential Metaphors

Whether you buy the example or not, it gives a good indication of what it would be like for a metaphor to be "representationally essential," that is, unparaphrasable at the level of content; we begin to see how the description a speaker wants to offer of his intended objects might be inexpressible until unintended objects are dragged in as representational aids.

Hooking us up to the right propositional contents, however, is only one of the services that metaphor has to offer. There is also the fact that a metaphor (with any degree of life at all) "makes us see one thing as another"; it "organizes our view" of its subject matter; it lends a special "perspective" and makes for "framing-effects." Dick Moran has a nice example:

To call someone a tail-wagging lapdog of privilege is not simply to make an assertion of his enthusiastic submissiveness. Even a pat metaphor deserves better than this, and [the] analysis is not essentially improved by tacking on a...list of further dog-predicates that may possibly be part of the metaphor's meaning...the comprehension of the metaphor involves seeing this person as a lapdog, and...experiencing his dogginess.

The point is not essentially about seeing-as, though, and it is not only conventionally "picturesque" metaphors that pack a cognitive punch no literal paraphrase can match. This is clear already from scientific metaphors like feedback loop, underground economy, and unit of selection, but let me illustrate with a continuation of the example started above.

Suppose that I am wrong and "the average star has 2.4 planets" is representationally accidental; the infinite disjunction "there are five stars and twelve planets etc." turns out to be perfect English. The formulation in terms of the average star is still on the whole hugely to be preferred -- for its easier visualizability, yes, but also its greater suggestiveness ("that makes me wonder how many moons the average planet has"), the way it lends itself to comparison with other data ("the average planet has nine times as many moons as the average star has planets"), and so on.

Along with its representational content, then, we need to consider a metaphor's presentational force. Just as it can make all the difference in the world whether I grasp a proposition under the heading "my pants are on fire," grasping it as the retroimage of "Crotone is in the arch of the boot" or "the average star has 2.4 planets" can be psychologically important too. To think of Crotone's location as the place it would need to be to put it in the arch of Italy imagined as a boot, or of the stars and planets as proportioned the way they would need to be for the average star to come out with 2.4 planets, is to be affected in ways going well beyond the proposition expressed. That some of these ways are cognitively advantageous gives us a second reason for accessing contents metaphorically.


Procedurally Essential Metaphors

A metaphor with only its propositional content to recommend it probably deserves to be considered dead; thus "my watch has a broken hand" and "planning ahead saves time" and perhaps even "the number of Democrats is decreasing." A metaphor (like the Crotone example) valued in addition for its presentational force is alive, in one sense of the term, but it is not yet, I think, all that a metaphor can be. This is because we are still thinking of the speaker as someone with a definite message to get across. And the insistence on a message settled in advance is apt to seem heavy-handed. "The central error about metaphor," says Davidson, is to suppose that

associated with [each] metaphor is a cognitive content that its author wishes to convey and that the interpreter must grasp if he is to get the message. This theory is false...It should make us suspect the theory that it is so hard to decide, even in the case of the simplest metaphors, exactly what the content is supposed to be.

Whether or not all metaphors are like this, one can certainly agree that a lot are: perhaps because, as Davidson says, their "interpretation reflects as much on the interpreter as on the originator"; perhaps because their interpretation reflects ongoing real-world developments that neither party feels in a position to prejudge. A slight elaboration of the make-believe story brings this third grade of metaphorical involvement under the same conceptual umbrella as the other two:

Someone who utters S in a metaphorical vein is recommending the project of (i) looking for games in which S is a promising move, and (ii) accepting the propositions that are S's inverse images in those games under the modes of presentation that they provide.

The overriding principle here is make the most of it; construe a metaphorical utterance in terms of the game or games that retromap it onto the most plausible and instructive contents in the most satisfying ways.

Now, should it happen that the speaker has definite ideas about the best game to be playing with S, I myself see no objection to saying that she intended to convey a certain metaphorical message -- the first grade of metaphorical involvement -- perhaps under a certain metaphorical mode of presentation -- the second grade. The reason for the third grade of metaphorical involvement is that one can imagine various other cases, in which the speaker's sense of the potential metaphorical truthfulness of a form of words outruns her sense of the particular truth(s) being expressed. These include the case of the pregnant metaphor, which yields up indefinite numbers of contents on continued interrogation; the prophetic metaphor, which expresses a single content whose identity, however, takes time to emerge; and, importantly for us, the patient metaphor, which hovers unperturbed above competing interpretations, as though waiting to be told where its advantage really lies.

Three grades of metaphorical involvement, then, each with its own distinctive rationale. The Quinean is in effect betting that these rationales are short-term only -- that in time we are going to outgrow the theoretical needs to which they speak. I suppose this means that every theoretically important content will find literal expression; every cognitively advantageous mode of presentation will confer its advantages and then slink off; every metaphorical "pointer" will be replaced by a literal statement of what it was pointing at. If he has an argument for this, though, Quine doesn't tell us what it is. I therefore want to explore the consequences of allowing that like the poor, metaphor will be with us always.



XIV. Can the program be rijiggered?

An obvious and immediate consequence is that the traditional ontological program of believing in the entities to which our best theory is committed stands in need of revision. The reason, again, is that our best theory may well include metaphorical sentences (whose literal contents are) not meant to be believed. Why should we be moved by the fact that S as literally understood cannot be true without Xs, if the truth of S so understood is not something we have an opinion about?

I take it that any workable response to this difficulty is going to need a way of sequestering the metaphors as a preparation for some sort of special treatment. Of course, we have no idea as yet what the special treatment would be; some metaphors are representationally essential and so not paraphrasable away. But never mind that for now. Our problem is much more basic.

If metaphors are to be given special treatment, there had better be a way of telling which statements the metaphors are. What is it? Quine doesn't tell us, and it may be doubted whether a criterion is possible. For his program to stand a chance, something must be done to fend off the widespread impression that the boundaries of literal are so unclear that there is no telling, in cases of interest, whether our assertions are to be taken ontologically seriously.

This is not really the place (and I am not the person) to try to bolster the skeptical impression. But if we did want to bolster it, we could do worse than to take our cue from Quine's attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction in "Two Dogmas."

One of his criticisms is phenomenological. Quine says he cannot tell whether "Everything green is extended" is analytic, and he feels this reflects not an incomplete grasp of "green" or "extended" but the obscurity of "analytic." Suppose we were to ask ourselves in a similar vein whether "extended" is metaphorical in "after an extended delay, the game resumed." Is "calm" literal in connection with people and metaphorical as applied to bodies of water, or the other way around -- or literal in connection with these and metaphorical when applied to historical eras? What about the "backs" and "fronts" of animals, houses, pieces of paper, and parades? Questions like these seem unanswerable, and not because one doesn't understand "calm" and "front."

A second criticism Quine makes is that analyticity has never been explained in a way that enables us to decide difficult cases; we lack even a rough criterion of analyticity. All that has been written on the demarcation problem for metaphor notwithstanding, the situation there is no better and almost certainly worse.

A lot of the criteria in circulation are either extensionally incorrect or circular: often both at the same time, like the idea that metaphors (taken at face value) are outrageously false. The criteria that remain tend to reinforce the impression of large-scale indeterminacy. Consider the "silly question" test; because they share with other forms of make believe the feature of settling only so much, metaphors invite outrageously inappropriate questions along the lines of "where exactly is the hatchet buried?" and "do you plan to drop-forge the uncreated conscience of your race in the smithy of your soul, or use some alternative method?" But is it silly, or just mind-bogglingly naive, to wonder where the number of planets might be found, or how much the way we do things around here weighs or how it is colored? It seems to me that it is silly if these phrases are metaphorical, naive if they are literal; and so we are no further ahead.

The heart of Quine's critique is his vision of what it is to put a sentence forward as (literally) true. As against the reductionist's claim that the content of a statement is renderable directly in terms of experience, Quine holds that connections with experience are mediated by surrounding theory. This liberalized vision is supposed to cure us of the expectation of a sharp divide between the analytic statements, which no experience can threaten, and the synthetic ones, which are empirically refutable as a matter of meaning.

As it happens, though, we have advanced a similarly liberalized vision of what it is to put a sentence forward as metaphorically true. By the time the third level of metaphorical involvement is reached, the speaker may or may not be saying anything cashable at the level of worlds. This is because a statement's truth-conditions have come to depend on posterity's judgment as to what game(s) it is best seen as a move in. And it cannot be assumed that this judgment will be absolute and unequivocal: or even that the judgment will be made, or that anyone expects it to be made, or cares about the fact that matters are left forever hanging.

Strange as it may seem, it is this third grade of metaphorical involvement, supposedly at the furthest remove from the literal, that most fundamentally prevents a sharp delineation of the literal. The reason is that one of the contents that my utterance may be up for, when I launch S into the world in the make-the-most-of-it spirit described above, is its literal content. I want to be understood as meaning what I literally say if my statement is literally true -- count me a player of the "null game," if you like -- and meaning whatever my statement projects onto via the right sort of "non-null" game if my statement is literally false. It is thus indeterminate from my point of view whether I am advancing S's literal content or not.

Isn't this in fact our common condition? When speakers declare that there are three ways something can be done, that the number of As = the number of Bs, that they have tingles in their legs, that the Earth is widest at the equator, or that Nixon had a stunted superego, they are more sure that S is getting at something right than that the thing it is getting at is the proposition that S, as some literalist might construe it. If numbers exist, then yes, we are content to regard ourselves as having spoken literally. If not, then the claim was that the As and Bs are equinumerous.

Still, why should it be a bar to ontology that it is indeterminate from my point of view whether I am advancing S's literal content? One can imagine Quine saying: I always told you that ontology was a long-run affair. See how it turns out; if and when the literal interpretation prevails, that will be the moment to count yourself committed to the objects your sentence quantifies over.

Now though we have come full circle -- because how the literality issue turns out depends on how the ontological issue turns out. Remember, we are content to regard our numerical quantifiers as literal precisely if, so understood, our numerical statements are true; that is, precisely if there really are numbers. Our problem was how to take the latter issue seriously, and it now appears that Quine is giving us no help with this at all. His advice is to countenance numbers iff the literal part of our theory quantifies over them; and to count the part of our theory that quantifies over numbers literal iff there turn out to really be numbers.



XV. The trouble with "really"

The goal of philosophical ontology is to determine what really exists. Leave out the "really" and there's no philosophy; the ordinary judgment that there exists a city called Chicago stands unopposed. But "really" is a device for shrugging off pretenses, and assessing the remainder of the sentence from a perspective uncontaminated by art. ("That guy's not really Nixon, just in the opera.") And what am I supposed to do with the request to shrug off an attitude that, as far as I can tell, I never held in the first place?

One problem is that I'm not sure what it would be to take "there is a city of Chicago" more literally than I already do. But suppose that this is somehow overcome; I teach myself to focus with laserlike intensity on the truth value of "there is a city of Chicago, literally speaking." Now my complaint is different: Where are the methods of inquiry supposed to be found that test for the truth of existence-claims thus elaborated? All of our ordinary methods were designed with the unelaborated originals in mind. They can be expected to receive the "literally speaking" not as a welcome clarification but an obscure and unnecessary twist.

Quine's idea was that our ordinary methods could be "jumped up" into a test of literal truth by applying them in a sufficiently principled and long-term way. I take it as a given that this is the one idea with any hope of attaching believable truth values to philosophical existence-claims.

Sad to say, the more controversial of these claims are equipoised between literal and metaphorical in a way that Quine's method is powerless to address. It is not out of any dislike for the method -- on the contrary, it is because I revere it as ontology's last, best hope -- that I conclude that the existence-questions of most interest to philosophers are moot. If they had answers, (Q) would turn them up; it doesn't, so they don't.



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