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Saturday, February 11, 2017


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>>The right-hand side (RHS) says exactly what the left-hand side (LHS) says, but in a verbose and high-falutin' and dispensable way.


>> Thus the use of 'property' on the RHS does not commit one ontologically to properties beyond predicates.

Don’t understand ‘commit one ontologically’.

>> (Is Max related to his blackness, or does Max have his blackness quasi-mereologically by having it as an ontological constituent of him?)


>> In virtue of what does 'black' correctly apply to Max?

Being black.

>> Max is black, but there is no feature of reality that explains why 'black' is true of Max, or why 'Max is black' is true.

Well, Max cannot be black without being black, i.e. its being the case that he is black. As to why he is black, that is a fact about pigmentation, and the fact about pigmentation is explained by his DNA, and the fact about DNA explained by parentage etc etc.

>> There is nothing in reality that serves as the ontological ground of this contingent truth.

More incomprehensible.

>> ‘Schwarz’ is a predicate of German.

Yup, denotes whatever things ‘black’ denotes.

Your problem is that you will never defeat the Ostrich nominalist by logic, i.e. by a set of numbered statements whereby any statement is a clear and evident truth, or is derived logically from a previous statement.

If you think you can, I challenge you to do so.

However, there is clearly something you want to say, and I sense what it is, but you cannot capture it in language.

If you think you can capture it, I challenge you to do so.


I think it is time to agree to disagree and cease discussing this and all related topics. Your position makes no sense to me and I have refuted it to my satisfaction.

Disagreement is a fascinating topic. Were we to discuss it, we would most likely fall into deep disagreement about the nature of disagreement, its origins and what it implies.


I would be very interested in your commentary on all this if you care to offer it.

Very briefly, Bill, I agree with essentially everything you wrote. I confess that I simply cannot understand the Opponent when he remarks, e.g., that he doesn't understand the phrase "commit one ontologically". I should think the meaning of the phrase obvious.

The Opponent claims that 'black' applies to Max in virtue of Max's being black. This completely ignores the state of the dialectic.

I don't know that there is much else to be gained from continued discussion, either. If the parties to the dispute cannot even agree on the meanings of theory-neutral phrases like "ontological commitment", it's hard to see how there can be further room for fruitful discussion.

I wish I had something more substantive to add, but it seems to me that all the essential points have already been made.

As agreed, I have nothing to add, but I too would be interested in John’s view, particularly on David Brightly’s comment in the other post, February 11, 2017 at 10:11 AM (right at the end).

John: I was a student in the 1980s of the late C.J.F. Williams, who was taught by R.M._Hare, but deeply influenced by Arthur Prior and by his friend and fellow Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Geach, who (Williams claimed) would send him comments on his work by return of post. Williams’ great work was Existence. Williams would nearly always use the term ‘ontological commitment’ in scare quotes. He discusses it in pp 161-164 of Existence, where he also says things like ‘When philosophers use the word ‘entity’ we should immediately be on our guard’.

I would strongly dispute that ‘ontological commitment’ is theory-neutral. I am not sure even how to define it.

With respect to David Brightly's comment, I would ask about the basis of the denotation of 'poor'. Indeed, that seems to me what our entire debate has been about: on what basis is it true to say that 'poor' denotes Sam (=Poboy)? Bill and I claim that there must be some basis for this. That is, we claim that there must be some explanation for this. On the contrary, it seems that the Opponent and David are claiming that there need be no explanation for this. That is the ostrich nominalist position that Bill has already argued against and against which I have nothing more to add (although I would refer interested parties to D.M. Armstrong's paper "Against 'Ostrich Nominalism': A Reply to Devitt" for additional reasons to reject the view).

There is one other possible construal of David's comment, although I think it is less faithful to his intentions. He claims that the explanatory power of the Opponent's theory "lies almost entirely in the denotes relation". Perhaps, then, Bill and I have been mistaken in asking about what grounds the denotation of 'poor', since it is the denotation of 'poor' that is doing the explanatory (i.e. grounding) work. But that begins to veer towards the view that Armstrong calls predicate nominalism, which holds that an entity a is F because 'F' is properly applied to a. That view also seems to me mistaken, and for the reasons that Armstrong raises in his Nominalism and Realism. As I say, this does not seem to be a particularly faithful interpretation of David's comment, especially in light of the Opponent's claim earlier that 'black' applies to Max because Max is black. The question, of course, therefore remains: what are we saying when we say that Max is black? In virtue of what is Max black? If the Opponent denies the existence of properties, as he does, then either the Opponent must reject this demand for explanation, or give some other. I think we are all agreed at this point that the Opponent has taken the first option, which - again - leads me to believe that there is nothing more to add.

If there is another way to interpret David's comment, I would like to know what it is.

As for the phrase 'ontological commitment', I think the term itself is theory-neutral. What is not theory-neutral is how one goes about determining a given philosopher's ontological commitments. Thus, we could not define the phrase as Quine does in "On What There Is" by saying that a philosopher's ontological commitments are to those entities that are quantified over in their best overall scientific/philosophical theory. That is not a theory-neutral account of ontological commitment. But when Bill speaks of committing oneself ontologically, it seems to me quite obvious that this means one is committing oneself to the existence of a certain kind of entity. Ontological commitment has to do with what one believes to exist (and can be usefully contrasted with what Quine calls 'ideological commitment', which has to do with the primitive terms one is willing to employ in one's best overall scientific/philosophical theory).

Lastly, with respect to Williams's warning about the use of the word 'entity', I am not sure at all what the danger is. Unless one believes that being is not univocal - that is, that different kinds of things might exist in different ways - I do not see the danger in using 'entity' as a completely general term.

(As it happens, I actually have right now on my desk Williams's translation of and commentary on Aristotle's De Generatione et Corruptione.)


The title of Williams' book is not *Existence* but *What is Existence?* (Oxford, 1981). I read it when it first appeared. I would not call it a "great" work, but it is very good, if a bit perverse in its use of Polish logical notation. It is a full-scale defense of the Fregean line on existence which I reject.

The Opponent likes to feign incomprehension in a manner not exactly uncommon among British analytic philosophers. (And some Americans too, e.g., Peter van Inwagen. When he does it it is called 'petering out.') It is a certain dialectical ploy or tactic. We can dub it the tactic of feigning incomprehension. One who employs this tactic understands tolerably well what is being said, but does not find it quite as clear as he would like. So he pretends not to understand. 'I don't know what you are talking about.' 'I don't understand what that means.' 'I have no idea what you are driving at.'

Part of my beef with Williams is recorded here: http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2011/07/c-j-f-williams-analysis-of-i-might-not-have-existed.html


You turned on italics without turning it off again. Please don't use any HTML code unless you know how to switch it off with the forward slash .

Now I have to try to remember how to turn this bloody thing off

Brightly, you're an IT guy. How do I do this? I added left bracket forward slash i right bracket. Didn't work.

I guess it did work. As you were. Stay calm and carry on. But please use asterisks and such for bolding, italicizing, etc.

Sorry, Bill. I do know how to turn off italics. I just made a really unfortunate typographical error and neglected to preview the post before posting it. My apologies.

No problem, John.

>>either the Opponent must reject this demand for explanation,<<

That's what he does and that's what make him an ostrich: he refuses to 'see' a genuine issue. Or as Armstrong says somewhere: he refuses to answer an exam question that is not optional but mandatory.

>>I do not see the danger in using 'entity' as a completely general term.<<

Right. What's the problem? An entity is anything that is, anthing that has being. One could object, though, that 'entity' is ambiguous as between ens and entitas. These English guys like plain talk and they get nervous when you use high-falutin words. Me too, to some extent. I don't call a method a methodology, for example.

A substantive point, however, is that there is a broader term than 'entity' and that is 'item.' Every entity is an item but there could be items that are not entities. Meinong is famous/notorious for his theory of items. Our terminology should not beg the question against Meinong. So in my phil. vocabulary 'item' is the broadest and least committal term.

Or can you think of something that is not an item? Item from L. idem. How about the self-diverse object?

John says:

The question, of course, therefore remains: what are we saying when we say that Max is black? In virtue of what is Max black? If the Opponent denies the existence of properties, as he does, then either the Opponent must reject this demand for explanation, or give some other.
I really don’t understand, and here I really mean that I don’t understand, the question ‘in virtue of what is Max black? The question is not about a causal explanation in terms of pigment or DNA. So I suppose I must ‘reject a demand for explanation’, if no causal explanation is allowed.

Also, if the explanation is ‘a property’, why can’t we demand in virtue of what does Max have the property of black, and so on ad infinitum?

>>it seems to me quite obvious that this means one is committing oneself to the existence of a certain kind of entity.

That is much clearer.

On this post it appears we have been arguing about this for nearly 6 years. I haven’t looked at my comments, but I imagine I disagreed with Williams (as I still do) on his category distinction between proper names and predicates. I entirely reject all that Fregean stuff. It was actually at this point this whole digression on predication began, i.e. with Sommers’ contention that we don’t need ‘identity’.

Another attempt at engaging with this puzzling discussion. The difference between the Londinistas and the realists seems to be this ‘in virtue of’ thing. Londinistas prefer ‘if and only if’ which is symmetrical, realists like ‘in virtue of’. I think the latter is not symmetrical, i.e. if p is the case in virtue of q, then it cannot be the case that q in virtue of p.

Londinistas also think that (1) Peter’s being white, (2) Peter being denoted by ‘white’ and (3) Peter having the property of whiteness are different ways of saying exactly the same thing.

But being one and the same fact is symmetrical. So, if Peter is white in virtue of having the property of whiteness, it follows that, since ‘in virtue of’ is asymmetric, that Peter’s being white and Peter’s having the property of whiteness are different facts. Is that right?

The Opponent (@ 12:55) raises two issues that I think get to the heart of our dispute. First, what does 'in virtue of' mean? Second, doesn't the objection that I and Bill have been raising to the identity theory of predication apply equally to the alternative view?

With respect to the first, I don't have a definition of 'in virtue of'. But this relation is intended to be a type of non-causal explanation relation. My own view is that this kind of relation has long been recognized in philosophy. Consider, for example, Plato's discussion of piety in the Euthyphro. When Socrates asks Euthyphro whether the pious is being loved by the gods because it is pious, or whether the pious is pious because it is being loved by the gods (10a), Socrates is asking for an explanatory relation. And that relation is surely not a causal relation. Thus, I take it that non-causal explanations have been with us since Plato.

The Opponent (@1:58) is also right that the 'in virtue of' relation is asymmetric. As for whether there are two facts - Peter's being white and Peter's having the property of whiteness - I am not sure. I tend not to like ontologies of facts, but I suspect that fans of facts would say something like the following. Facts are complex entities having objects and properties as constituents. So, *the fact that Peter is white* is a complex entity with two constituents: Peter and the property whiteness. I do not think fans of facts would want to say that there is, in addition, a further fact, namely, *the fact that Peter has the property of whiteness*. Instead, the initial fact is guaranteed to exist because of the instantiation relation obtaining between Peter and whiteness. I see where the concern here is going: instantiating a relation looks like it ought to be a further fact for anyone who defends a fact ontology, and then it looks like a regress is imminent. Indeed, the regress looks similar to Bradley's regress. My own sense is that we do well to avoid fact ontologies, and that it is better to say this: the proposition 'Peter is white' is true in virtue of Peter instantiating the property whiteness.

Of course, this segues immediately into the second issue raised by The Opponent (@12:55). For it looks as though the theory I have just proposed faces a regress worry as well. I don't claim to have a general solution to Bradley-style regresses. I'll just say a few quick things. First, it is not obvious to me that there is any theory, short of ostrich nominalism, that can avoid such regresses. (See, e.g., Chris Daly's "Tropes"). Second, it is not obvious to me that such regresses are vicious. Third, the price of the ostrich nominalist pays to avoid such regresses seems to me much too high (for reasons already well worked over). There is still *some* explanatory gain for one who rejects ostrich nominalism, even if the theory faces a regress. Fourth, there is a literature I am unfamiliar with that, I take it, aims to solve this regress problem by giving a fuller account of the instantiation relation. Thus, Donald Baxter, D.M. Armstrong, and Sam Cowling all have papers proposing different theories of instantiation. I do not know their theories, so I cannot say whether they succeed in avoiding the regress.

I don't expect any of the foregoing to be satisfying to The Opponent. Bill is probably wise to be more Socratic than I have been in refusing to put forward a positive theory of his own, and to hold that the problems of philosophy are probably insoluble.

Very good, John. I too point to the Euthyphro Dilemma as best illustrating the sense of 'in virtue of' and the non-causal 'because.'

I have a post on this that is worth re-posting.

I would add that the non-causal 'because' is also a non-logical 'because.' Perhaps is is like this. Logical relations (entailment, consistency, inconsistency) connect propositions to propositions. Causal relations connect events, states, or changes to events, states, or changes. A relation of metaphysical grounding such as truth-making is 'amphibious': neither strictly logical nor strictly causal, it connects a non-proposition such as a concrete fact to a proposition. The fact makes-true the proposition without either entailing it or causing it. The fact is proposition-like, but not a proposition!

Now if the Noble Ostrich says he has no idea what I am driving at, then I say he he is petering out or feigning incomprehension.

I can't believe that he doesn't understand the Euthyphro Dilemma and what is at issue in it.

I confess, however, that metaphysical grounding relations are a bit murky. But if we sanitize our philosophy of all that is murky will we have much of value left?

Good points both. We are at the crux of the dispute.

John says ‘As for whether there are two facts - Peter's being white and Peter's having the property of whiteness - I am not sure.’ But if being white is one and the same thing as having the property of whiteness, then you cannot be one ‘in virtue of’ being the other, just as you cannot be mutton in virtue of being lamb, given that ‘mutton’ and ‘lamb’ are synonyms. I don’t see a parallel with the Euthyphro Dilemma here since the state of piety is clearly a different state of affairs from being loved by the gods. So you can’t be ‘not sure’ about this.

On the non-causal ‘in virtue of’, I find it difficult to prize the two apart. The ostrich is not saying that black things are just black and there’s an end to it (‘they just are’). Clearly there is some stuff in the pigment that makes it non-reflective of light, and the cat has the pigment because of its DNA etc. These are causal ‘in virtue of’ but in virtue of what else is the cat black?

Suppose (for sake of argument) that being black is down to the number of electrons in some atom, say two instead of one. So all these things are black because (in the causal sense) they have exactly two electrons. The ostrich wants to stop there. But the Mirage Realist wants a further explanation: what do all these pairs of electrons have in common in virtue of which they are a pair, are two? Isn’t there some property of pairness or twoness that all shoes, dancing partners, sides of coins, binary relations etc have in common? Some common element that is not a causal ‘in virtue of’ being two or a pair, a metaphysical grounding for being two? Ostrich says no. For these two be two, it is enough that there be one thing, another thing, and no other thing, and there is an end to it. Over to the miragists.

I'm not sure I understand the objection: the fact Peter's being white is the truthmaker for both “Peter is white” and “Peter has the property of being white”. (The former entails the latter.) It also seems to explain the truth of both. Is more needed?


Of course, this segues immediately into the second issue raised by The Opponent (@12:55). For it looks as though the theory I have just proposed faces a regress worry as well. I don't claim to have a general solution to Bradley-style regresses.

We can still distinguish between the mere sum of blobby-Max-particles and those blobby-Max-particles-formed-into-Max.* The former exists even if the particles are in different galaxies. The latter, only if formed into Max. So, if we're talking about the actual Bradley's regress and “ontological ground” isn't a nonsense notion, the Opponent still seems to need a ground for Max's unity.

If we're talking about Armstrong's interpretation of the regress, standard procedure seems to be to argue for a principle stating that internal relations are nothing over and above the entities that necessitate the relation (and the higher-order instantiation relations are necessitated by the first).

I forgot to add my footnote:

*I'm assuming unrestricted mereological composition for ease of exposition, and because I'm somewhat fond of it. The point can be made without it, though.

John asks (Sunday, 10:41 AM) about the basis of Oppo's proposed denotation of 'poor'. If one were sympathetic to properties one would likely take the denotation of the word 'poor' to be the property poorness. One might then go on to consider the extension of this property, namely all things having poorness. Oppo could reasonably then say that for him the denotation of 'poor' is exactly this extension. This would be no less well-grounded than the propertyist's denotation. One might go on to reformulate logic in terms of extensions rather than predicates. To do this neatly might require some notion of set and so render the logic less suitable for formalising mathematics. But it might lead to a logic better suited to the analysis of natural language. My brain may have the predicate calculus written through it like a stick of Blackpool Rock, but I have yet to see a good objection to this program.

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