W.V. Quine: On What There Is

22 Oct

My apologies again for not writing for a long period of time. It has not really been that long, like a week, but for me, and this site, that is a long time. Last week I had school duties to take care of, so did I this week (with a midterm test), and still so I do next week as well, as I have another midterm test. I will try again to post more, but this month is just crazy, with the tests and papers, and I do not suspect November to be the same, and I will resume having 4 to 5 posts per week as usual.

Having not gotten into too much ontology here, I have been reading a lot of W.V. Quine’s essays. I would like to discuss today his essay On What There Is. One thing that Quine takes upon himself to do is to make it known to all philosophers that there is no meaning in the world, and all of it is reduced to grammar and semantics. He does this not only by starting with the riddle of Plato’s beard in On What There Is, but also starting with analytic/synthetic and reductionism in Two Dogmas of Empiricism.  In both essays he comes to the conclusion that all this striving towards finding meaning in everything is useless in that there is no meaning anyway. I will discuss Two Dogmas of Empiricism in a near future writing. Before even going into On What There Is I want to think about ontology’s distinction (or indistinction) from metaphysics. Ontology is understood as the metaphysical study of the nature of being and existence (Princeton). Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value (answers.com). Metaphysics is also taking up the understanding and proving of things not able to be understood or proven by science (all fields).  In lieu of these definitions, I would like to understand ontology as the core division of metaphysics, especially since ontology goes into what being and existence are.

My focus of Quine’s essay On What There Is is not the conclusion he comes to (that there is no meaning at all). My focus is thinking about the riddle of Plato’s beard of nonbeing, and what being and existence are as Quine questions them. This simply means that my opinion is different from Quine’s in that I see meaning in things discussed like Pegasus, the author of Waverley, or the round cupola on top of Berkeley (these are things ontologically defined in On What There Is).

Quine begins his essay discussing Plato’s beard. The riddle of Plato’s beard comes from Plato’s discussion of nonbeing. This refers to Plato’s beard back in Ancient Greece because of how tangled his beard was. The argument and discussion of nonbeing as to finding a meaning in it, and to ontologically define it is a tangled argument, much like Plato’s beard. What makes nonbeing such a tangled argument is that nonbeing is being in one way or another. Quine puts it perfectly: ” This is the old Platonic riddle of nonbeing. Nonbeing must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there is not?” (Quine). Simply, if we say “Pegasus is not” how the hell did we say and understand Pegasus if it does not exist somehow? Plato’s beard kind of relates to Wittgenstein’s statement in the Tractatus saying that what cannot be thought cannot be said either. If we can think of Pegasus, it can be said also, and since we are saying it, how can we deny its being? This back and forth rambling is Plato’s beard. Quine confronts 2 arguments allowing nonbeing to still work.

The first argument allowing cohesiveness of nonbeing is the thought that nonbeings can be ideas of the mind. I can have an image of a flying horse with wings in my mind and think Pegasus. This argument allows a nonbeing (Pegasus) to still be just in a different manner. Quine refutes this by talking about the Parthenon itself (thing in itself) and the idea of the Parthenon. These, says Quine, are 2 different things and ideas of things being not the same as the thing in itself. This makes the nonbeing not able to be beings in that ideas of things are not ( when I say is, or is not  or are or are not, I refer to being or not being, just to clarify if you get confused in ontological discussion as I sometimes do). The second argument for nonbeing being something, is that nonbeings are beings unactualized with potentiality in space-time. Quine refutes this belief by saying that nothing can be understood or learned about unactualized beings in space-time, while also noting that logically contradictory things can’t be ruled out in this  belief, like a round square (specifically a copula). These two arguments are refuted by Quine simply because they are not being, and with other arguments he eventually concludes by saying that there is no meaning in anything. The meaning discussion is beside the point (my point anyway).

To understand nonbeing and what it represents, being and even existence need to be defined alone first. Quine viewed being as potential unactualized beings or actualized beings, and existence as purely actualized beings. Quine does this to state that the possible potential unactualized beings that are nonbeing in a sense  are not possible because of those logical contradictions and because we cannot find anything out about these possible unactualized beings or nonbeings. Using Russell’s theory of description he not only reduces everything to grammar and no meaning in anything at all, but he proceeds further. He also declares fallacious the ontological commitments to certain things besides something , nothing and other sure things. He finds fallacious the commitment to things such as the existence of Pegasus, blocks of cheese on Jupiter’s moons, God(s),  souls, or other specific things. Again, these things are beside what I want to discuss, as I keep saying that. I want to think about and know what is being (and existence) and therefore what is nonbeing (Plato’s beard)?

Existing, I will agree with Quine’s definition for his argument, is being actualized and having actuality. I think existing is something used to define things tangible in regards to the universe. Tangible is of course physical things, but also living souls with or without nous. In writing Classification of Beings, I only discussed existing things, and nothing on that discussion included nonexistent things. Looking back on nonbeing and how this is Plato’s beard, I do not think nonexistence creates real problems like nonbeing does. All philosophers should create their own understandings of being and existence but the definitions Quine has presented in lieu of his present argument have little room for argument. Being can be looked at to be the same as existence, but I really do not think this is so. If nonexistence would be called into question, there could not be possible unactualized existences or mental existences because of the contradictions that would take place. Nonexistence is not existence simply, and refers to things potential.

A quick aside, all of this discussion of one meaning to the next makes me feel silly. I think as of now that there is meaning in everything, but know what Quine thinks about meaning, and while exchanging meaning for meaning, word for word, I feel this all becomes meaningless. I do not say that I think being and existence are meaningless words, but I just feel dumb throwing these words and meanings around, so hopefully I do not sound dumb, but I think the meaninglessness presented in Two Dogmas of Empiricism and On What There Is might be getting a hold of me. This was just a disclaimer in case I sound stupid or ignorant.

What was I talking about, oh, being. My understanding of being is everything. Quine would probably not have gone this far especially because he states that since we cannot determine anything really, being has a vague definition (not that vague definitions are bad since my and probably others’ definition of being includes everything, and I shall specify as I progress). Quine signified being as things actual and potential (unactualized things). Things in themselves in the world are actual (existent) or unactual/potential (possible potential things that could or may exist at one point or another). Things actual or potential include most of the beings of the world. There are certain things that are not potential or actual that are in different ways. Quine discussed in On What There Is the possibility of nonbeing being in the sense that there are ideas of the mind. Some of these ideas are potential (never actual because our ideas are different from actual existences) but some are not. Pegasus is an idea of the mind, but not potential because a horse being able to fly with large white wings is not a possibility. Our dreams, being so messed up and weird sometimes, are ideas of the mind but not potential. So, in being is included actualities (existences specifically), potentialities (possibilities of existence), and non-potentialities (ideas of the mind not possible to be or exist). These categories of ‘being’ (not really classifications) make up the definition of being, and mostly includes everything. There are things still that are not actual, potential, or non-potential, and this is what I would call nonbeing.

As I finally return to the nonbeing riddle of Plato’s beard, the riddle states that nonbeing can in a sense be being: 1) by being an idea of the mind, 0r 2) by being a potentiality. I believe to have given a solution (that some probably have given already, not really sure) to the riddle of Plato’s beard (at least to two common arguments for it). The ideas of the mind and potentialities are beings and should not ever have been included in nonbeing anyway. What I think nonbeing is is things that actually are not. Quine used as an example for logical contradictions (in a previous argument) when he introduced the example of a round square. A round square (impossible as it is) can never be actual, potential, or non-potential. This is an example of nonbeing.  An example I came up with, think about the colors: blue, black, red, green, yellow, orange, purple, pink, brown, white, gray and various variations between each color. (Aside from each variation between each color like burgundy, turquoise, hot pink, violet, indigo, frog green, forest green, cobalt blue et cetera) Try to think about a different color besides the colors on the color wheel. Can you do it? No you cannot. A new color besides the said colors cannot be perceived of and cannot be. This is another nonbeing. Or can you think of a black Caucasian person (Caucasian meaning white)? No you cannot. This is another nonbeing. These things not actual, potential, or non-potential are nonbeings. If you want to discuss nonbeings more please says so, you know how.

Is this a disentanglement of Plato’s beard? Who knows, yet… probably not….since someone probably already did this, so I am just a follower……probably.

I love ontology, I should talk about it more.

Thanks for the support.

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I have 2 Youtube channels, but on my second one: http://www.youtube.com/bluespectacles I started a Youtube orbit where I make a video every day for a year, and as of now I am trying to keep each day philosophical, but I do not know how well that is going.

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