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Quine's Resolution to nonbeing

In Quine's 'On What There is', he attempts to establish a way of resolving the
problem of non-being. The problem, as Quine puts it, is that "in any ontological
dispute the proponent of the negative side suffers the disadvantage of not being
able to admit that his opponent disagrees with him" (21). In other words,
admitting that there are no such objects the opponent is ontologically committed
to seems to contradict the very position that there are no such things. This
problem can be summed up as an issue with reference to nonexistent objects - how
is it that one can speak of objects that don't exist, if in fact those terms do
not refer to any actually existing thing? 

This is the conflict Quine seeks to resolve. He does this in two ways. First, he
proposes that we accept Russell's theory of description. This theory acts to
treat names as though they were identical to a definite description. For
instance, to say that 'the present king of France is bald' is as much as to say
'there exists some x and x is the current king of France and x is bald'. At
first, the original statement is at best unclear; it seems to be the case that
there is no such king. But, given this analysis of it as a definite description,
it becomes quite obvious that this statement is false: there is no such x which
satisfies these. Thus, names are simply definite descriptions in a kind of
disguise we must do our best to uncover. But Quine points out that there may be
a problem with this analysis. What if we were to try to apply it to something
that is primitive or unanalyzable? One that is "so obscure or so basic [a name]
that no pat translation into a descriptive phrase had offered itself" (27)? If
this were to be such the case, we could simply use what Quine names a
"trivial-seeming device" (27): we can simply appeal to the notion of being that
unanalyzable name. So suppose we had some object we did not want to allow in our
ontology, perhaps Pegasus. Suppose that this term is a sort of basic one, or any
kind of description we would offer up of Pegasus could be true of a kind of
thing that actually exists, but isn't what we would mean by Pegasus. Then our
analysis of Pegasus could go something like 'there exists an x such that x is
pegasizing'. This resolves what seemed to be a necessary commitment to
ontological beings in the case of declaring that they do not exist, as names no
longer need to presuppose the existence of such entities under the Russellian

My contention is that this argument seems to stand on ground it has no right to.
Certainly, the Russellian analysis is fine here. That much I do not dispute.
However, I take issue with the fact that Quine wishes to reject the existence of
objects like Pegasus, but still wants to avail himself of what Pegasus _is_. By
this I certainly do not mean something contradictory, that Quine would not be
allowed to utilize the notion of Pegasus to then conclude that there is no such
thing. What I am saying is that he _does_ do this, and so his acceptance of
certain 'problem' names as being ex-hypothesi unanalyzable is untenable. For if
it is the case that the name Pegasus is obscure and cannot be analyzed, then we
can say that Pegasus is the thing which is being Pegasus. And when we are
pressed to answer what exactly this thing being Pegasus is being _is_, we will
either have to stop talking because we know not what it might be that it is
doing, or we will allow ourselves to delve into the various properties of what
it would be to be Pegasus. But the second option clearly violates our whole
reason for the assumption in the first place; it is hard to take apart the
essential properties of Pegasus from the accidental properties of Pegasus when
you can't quite get at what Pegasus is because it's a primitive. The first
option is what Quine seems to prefer we would do - we certainly can't discuss
what these attributes of Pegasus would be, and so we would have to in some way
know what it was to be Pegasus, what the thing being Pegasus is, in some sort of
a priori way. Otherwise, what exactly are we saying when we say 'the thing
pegasizing'? It doesn't seem to be a word of any sorts. It seems vacuous, empty
or without any sort of meaning. It seems that Quine's analysis fails.


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