Quine: ‘On What There Is’ – Summary

A summary for my undergraduates on W. V. O. Quine’s seminal paper of 1948, On What There Is.

Quine russell ontology existence being nothing descriptions

 Essay Stages:

(1) Plato’s Beard: to claim that there are things that are not is a seeming contradiction. I.e. there exist things that do not exist!

– e.g. McX claims that to assert that ‘Pegasus does not exist’ is still to assert the existence of Pegasus, in some sense.


(2) McX does not claim that ‘Pegasus’ (etc.) is a physical, spatio-temporal entity, but rather an idea.

– Quine: But the claim ‘Pegasus does not exist’ is not claiming that the Pegasus-idea does not exist. [DEBATE]


(3) ‘Wyman’ suggests instead that ‘Pegasus’ here refers to an ‘unactualized possible’ (possibilia).

– Quine: Wyman has thus defined ‘exist’ to include also non-actual, non-spatio-temporal entities.

  • But if we accept such a definition of ‘existence’ [to include ‘subsistence’] – i.e. of actuals and possibilia – we would thereby accept a very messy ontology.
    • g. How could we differentiate, identify, count and generally classify such possibilia?
      • e. g. Would the possible fat man in the doorway be the possible bald man in the doorway, or a different man? How many men could there be in the doorway? Etc., etc.
    • So Quine suggests we should reject the notion of such a sentence’s subject (e.g. Pegasus) as Wyman’s possibilia introduce more problems than they solve. [DEBATE]

– Quine:

(i) We should limit our use of ‘possible’ to statements rather than entities.

(ii) Another reason for rejecting Wyman’s possibilia (and McX’s ideas) is by considering an oxymoron as subject of a negative existential proposition.

  1. g. ‘The round square cupola on Berkeley College…’
    1. This subject cannot be an unactualized possible.
    2. So would Wyman admit an ‘unactualised impossible’?
  • No: Wyman says these are meaningless. [à la Logical Positivism].
    • Quine: But meaninglessness of contradictions is very problematic because of a discovery in mathematical logic due to Alonzo Church.


(4) We should untangle Plato’s Beard with Bertrand Russell’s Theory of Descriptions (RTD).

– i.e. Transform a ‘Platonic Bearded Statement’ (PBS) into one beginning with a bound variable/quantificational word.

  • g. ‘something’, ‘nothing’, ‘everything’.
  • Thus the old subject (e.g. ‘Pegasus’) of a PBS is removed.
    • The new subject of the RTD statement (RTDS) becomes a bound variable (meaningful but purposefully ambiguous, and thus not thought to refer to an idea or possible).
  • e.g. “The author of Waverley is a poet.” –>

Something wrote Waverely, and nothing else wrote Waverely, and that something is a poet.”

  • Hence we do not entertain the idea, or possible, of ‘the author’, but rather a ‘something’ which as such is undetermined and so hard to suggest to be a (i.e. definite) idea or possible.


(5) Application of RTD to (‘non-existent’) nouns.

– e.g. ‘Pegasus’:

  • “Pegasus is not.” –>

“Nothing is a winged horse that was captured by Bellerophon.”

  • Such a RTD rephrase avoids the ontological problems issued from Plato’s Beard.
    • e. via a descriptive statement with bound variable we are not tempted to posit a non-actual existent.
  • If the transformation of the subject of a PBS into a descriptive phrase is not possible (e.g. ‘Pegasus’ into ‘a winged horse captured by…’) for whatever reason, Quine claims we can still transform that subject from a noun into an adjective (e.g. ‘is-Pegasus’) or into a verb (‘Pegasizing’) – e.g. “The thing that Pegasizes.”
    • But does such a transformation not ‘commit us to recognizing that there is a corresponding attribute, pegasizing, in Plato’s heaven or in the minds of men’?
      • e. a universal?
      • Quine first responds to this with ‘well and good’:
      • We are hitherto not concerned with the existence of universals, but with the existence of Pegasus (etc.). We are concerned with ‘the old notion that Pegasus cannot be said not to be without presupposing that in some sense Pegasus is.’ (i.e. Plato’s Beard) (my italics)
        • [VALID RETORT?]

In summary thus far:

  • ‘the singular noun in question can always be expanded into a singular description … and then analyzed out à la Russell’.
  • So, a positive existential statement commits us to an ontology (e.g. “Pegasus is.”); but a negative existential statement does not commit us to an ontology (contra McX and Wyman).
    • (i) “Pegasus is not.” –>
    • (ii) “There is no such x such that x was a winged horse captured by Bellerophon.”
      • For (i), one could ask “What is not?” – “Pegasus” (Plato’s Beard)
      • For (ii), if one asks “What is not a winged horse…?”, one can rightly, unconfusedly reply “Nothing”.
        • [Against hypostatizing/reifying “Nothing”, see Henri Bergson’s ‘Creative Evolution’, ch. IV.]


(6) Another way to resolve Plato’s Beard, bypassing McX and Wyman’s errors, without recourse to Russell, would be to see the distinction between meaning and naming.

  • The meanings of ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star’ are distinct. But the named object (Venus) is distinct again to both meanings (it is an object, not a meaning).
  • Likewise, the meaning of ‘Pegasus’ is distinct from a purported named object
  • Therefore one (McX, Wyman, et al.) should not believe that because a word (e.g. ‘Pegasus’) has a meaning it must therefore refer to an actual object.
    • [This was Wittgenstein’s point (against Augustine) in Philosophical Investigations.]
  • Naming implies existence of the named.
  • Meaning (of a term) does not necessarily imply existence of the term.
    • [e.g. centaur, Spock, unicorn, etc.]
  • i.e. a term can be understood (can have meaning) without the implication of the existence of that to which it ostensibly refers.


(7) Universals

  • Are there such entities as ‘attributes, relations, classes, numbers, functions’?
  • McX believes in the existence [subsistence] of universals, such as ‘redness’.
    • But, McX cannot assume that ‘red’ (etc.) names an object, because of the mentioned distinction between meaning and naming.
      • (i.e. that a word has a meaning does not imply that it must name an object.)
    • Now, let us assume McX grants us, Quine writes, the distinction between meaning and naming. Still, McX says:
      • “these meanings … are still universals.”
      • Quine responds to this [poorly, in my view!] by saying:
        • “the only way I know how to counter it is by refusing to admit meanings.”
      • Quine still retains the use of the word ‘meaningful’ (or, as he prefers, ‘significant’), but:
        • Quine does not hypostatize/reify it into an existent abstract entity (as McX does: as a universal).
        • And Quine sees the word ‘meaningful’ through Logical Behaviourist eyes:
          • e. he seeks to reduce the word ‘meaningful’ to what people do (how they behave) in the presence of the word.
          • Quine discusses his Behaviourism, and his notion of ‘meaning’ with Daniel Dennett here (1:20): youtu.be/WumCK5cxrFQ  – invoking Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle.
          • [Note severe problems with Logical Behaviourism!…]
  • ‘Meanings’ can be divided into:
    • significant or insignificant [i.e. meaningful and meaningless]
    • synonymous and heteronymous (with one another).
    • But to consider ‘meanings’ (as universals) as naming entities
      • ‘is surely illusory’ Quine claims.
  • [cf. Bertrand Russell on the existence (subsistence) of universals (in ch. 9 of his book, The Problems of Philosophy). Here’s a passage:
    • ‘[I]f whiteness [a universal] were the thought as opposed to its object, no two different men could think of it, and no one man could think of it twice. That which many different thoughts of whiteness have in common is their object, and this object is different from all of them. Thus universals are not thoughts, though when known they are the objects of thoughts. …
    • We … speak of things existing when they are in time, that is to say, when we can point to some time at which they exist … But universals do not exist in this sense; we shall say that they subsist or have being, where “being” is opposed to “existence” as being timeless.’]
      • [DEBATE difference between Quine and Russell here, and the irony!]
    • Quine now argues that Russellian descriptions do not need to posit universals.
      • g. “Some dogs are white.” –>
      • “Some things that are dogs are white.”
        • The bound variable (‘some things’) ranges over white dogs (particulars) but not necessarily over ‘doghood’ or ‘whiteness’ (universals).
      • Thus Quine writes:
        • ‘a theory is committed to those and only those entities to which the bound variables of the theory must be capable of referring in order that the affirmations made in the theory be true.’
          • g. “some zoological species are cross fertile” –>
          • “some things are zoological species…”
          • i. e. not necessarily universals.


(8) Some history of this debate.

Medieval: realism conceptualism nominalism
20th Century: logicism intuitionism formalism
Platonic Forms Mind-made universals No existent abstract entities at all, not even mind-made.
Bound Variables can refer to unknown entities (Frege, Russell, Whitehead, Church, Carnap). Semantic issue only
Abstract entities discovered Abstract entities invented


  • These schools of interpretation of abstract entities (such as universals) are important especially for formal mathematics, Quine emphasizes.


(9) That ‘to be is to be the value of a variable’ (p. 10)

(The well-known remark.)

  • Quine points out that this remark of his does not tell us what there is, it only tells us what a given statement says there is.
    • e. Quine’ semantic untangling of Plato’s Beard is a negative ontology, (what there is not), as it were (i.e. excluding entities (ideas, possibles) – at least based on PBSs) rather than a positive ontology (what there is).
  • e. Quine is operating on a semantic plane rather than on a positive ontology.
    • Often, Quine says, ‘ontological controversy should tend into controversy over language.’
      • [Note Quine’s general Behaviourist views, in other places]
      • But, Quine emphasizes, this should not reduce ontology to semantics or syntax (seeing Naples example given).


(10) Ontology can be determined by parsimony.

  • Likewise with our acceptance of a scientific theory.
  • But what if a belief system/cosmology/ideology/ontology is as parsimonious as another?
    • g. phenomenalism and physicalism.


  • [Note again Quine’s view of ‘physical objects as postulated entities’ (p. 11):
    • It assumes Representationalism (subject-object distinction), which his teacher, A. N. Whitehead, strove to highlight as an error.
    • Thus Quine’s example betrays a part of his own ontology which is, arguably, not parsimonious (as compared, say, to Whitehead’s Organic Realism).]


  • Quine sums up that his applications of Russell to Plato (RTD to PBS), rules out the reasoning behind some ontologies (viz. that a linguistic subject does not entail the existence of a corresponding abstract entity (e.g. Pegasus)).
    • But the question what ontology actually to adopt still stands open.’ (p.12)
  • Quine suggests that we continue to pursue our ontologies in a tolerant and experimental spirit.



In sum: To the question “What is there?” Quine responds “I don’t know – but one can’t infer the existence of certain abstract entities (ideas, possibles, universals) via Plato’s Beard.

(Quine himself, generally speaking, adopted a Materialist ontology, claiming that though abstract entities also existed they were not mental.)



©Summary by Peter Sjöstedt-H