No Work for Quine’s Criterion of Ontological Commitment
By Thomas Morrison
Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment is a proposed method for answering the
‘ontological problem:’ the question, what is there?1 The vague and general form of the
ontological problem seems to suggest that we take our ontology from everyday utterances that
say of some thing that it is. Yet it seems wrong to provide an answer to the question, ‘what is
there,’ in terms of what we say there is. Should the surface of ordinary expressions determine
which sentences are ontologically committing and what they are committed to, i.e. what,
according to the given theory, exists in reality, is mind- or language-independent, or something
similar? The problem with this version of Quine’s problem is that we regularly use idioms like
“there is,” “there are,” and “exists,” to talk about things that we nevertheless believe do not exist
in reality. Consider talk about tears in your clothes, the resemblance between things, groups,
averages, lengths in miles, etc. Ordinary language is rife with apparent reference to objects.
Sentences in natural languages always have what linguists call a ‘subject’, and so I believe we
can correctly say that we talk about ‘things’ without talking about objects that exist in reality. A
competent language user rarely engages in ontological inquiry if ever, but regularly believes that
they are talking about objects or things.2
Looking to open sentences that follow “there is” or one of its counterparts in ordinary
language as our guide to ontological commitment cannot be right; but in denying this, we are
apparently left with a problem. Many of our theories in the natural and social sciences are
See W.V.O. Quine, “On What There Is,” in From a Logical Point of View, ed. W.V.O. Quine. (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1953), 1-19. Although Quine calls it ‘the’ ontological problem, it is not obvious that the
ontological problem for Quine is the same ontological problem for Aristotle, Avicenna or Heidegger, for instance.
The continued use of the term ‘ontology’ might lend more to misunderstanding than clarity. But if there is no
assumed continuity behind the ‘ontological’ investigations in the history of philosophy then why use the term?
Although those outside of philosophy (and some within) do not share the intuition that “the apple has gone bad”
and “there is an object that is an apple and it has gone bad” are synonymous.
expressed in idioms of ordinary language. It is crucial then to have a criterion that applies to
theories phrased in ordinary language. As Quine urged, though, there is the possibility that we
can adequately paraphrase sentences of these theories into an artificial language with an
unambiguous referential structure, so that all and only genuine cases of attempted reference to an
object are paraphrased into quantified expressions, where the values of the bound variables of
quantification exhibit the sentence’s ontological commitments.
Many contemporary commentators on Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment argue
that the values of the bound variables do not exhaust our ontological commitment. This paper
begins by laying out the ‘bound variables’ reading found in Quine’s early work for the purpose
of addressing a certain kind of argument that contemporary critics regularly cite against this
reading.3 I argue that this specific sort of argument cannot really be a problem for the bound
variables reading, although there are further reasons undermining the adequacy of this reading
regardless: its reliance on questionable assumptions of the structure and semantic analysis of the
sentences of our theories. Hence, there remains reason to doubt the adequacy of the bound
variables reading without the support of fallacious arguments of the kind discussed.
But then how are we to understand Quine’s criterion so that it adequately discloses the
ontological commitments of our theories? It has been assumed that problems for the bound
variables reading can be accommodated by turning to a ‘truth-conditional’ reading of ontological
commitment. A truth-conditional reading can take either one of two forms. First, it can be
phrased so as to include an ordinary language idiom like “there is” or “there are.” The criterion
will then suffer from the same vagueness and ambiguity garnered by looking to what we say
there is in our everyday life. Second, it can alternatively be phrased with explicit reference to
For examples, see Howard Peacock, “Two Kinds of Ontological Commitment,” The Philosophical Quarterly 61
(2011): 79-104; and Agustin Rayo, “Ontological Commitment*,” February 9, 2007. web.mit.edu/arayo/www/.
‘the world’ or ‘reality.’ It is now trivially true that a sentence that demands for its truth that some
object exists in reality carries ontological commitments. The problem is how we decide which
sentences carry ontological commitments as part of their conditions of truth or not. The truth of
sentences with names or other referring terms do not trivially demand anything of the
ontologist’s ‘reality.’
Explicit reference to reality in our truth-conditional criterion then leaves it undetermined
which sentences carry ontological commitments. First, we cannot follow natural language
idioms; second, there is no ‘theory of everything’ in sight (consider the famous schism between
the standard model and general relativity or between theories in the social sciences and those of
the natural sciences); and finally, the idea that the theories of physical science, mathematics, and
logic are those that carry commitments to objects that exist in reality is notoriously under-argued
in philosophy; although many believe it to be the correct view.
I close by showcasing a certain question which emerged during the course of the
investigation and which needs to be settled prior to applying Quine’s criterion; a question that is
necessarily left unanswered by any form of the criterion and is a source of problem for all of the
forms discussed. This is the question, which theories carry ontological commitments? Are they
theories that can be adequately paraphrased into canonical notation; or those in ordinary
language; are they those of fundamental physics; do theories in biology describe entities that
really exist? Future research must answer the above question prior to investigating ontology via
the values of variables of quantification in regimented sentences, the truth conditions of the
theories in the natural and social sciences, or anything else for that matter.
The fields of science that purport to describe reality are as numerous as their theories;
there is no obvious choice which do and which do not describe reality; or if there is even a
privileged description of the world. Moreover, any claim to the effect that certain fields of
science (attempt to) describe reality and that their descriptions fully describe the nature and
ontology of reality can only be established by arguments outside of those very fields, viz. we
cannot look to the scientific theories to decide which are (attempted) descriptions of reality (as
opposed to descriptions of a physical system or some derivative phenomenon/event). This is a
question that only the metaphysician can ask.
At this point, many turn to theoretical value judgments as their guide. Numerous
scientists and philosophers have held that the most powerful, useful, or beautiful theories are the
ones most likely to describe reality. But we can ask why are those theories that are seen as more
powerful or serviceable more likely true descriptions of reality rather than those that are only
applicable to limited sets of phenomena, limited ability to explain, or a lesser degree of certain
theoretical values? On the other hand, one might think that if our best theory of the world, that is,
our best description of the world, were true, then obviously the objects the theory describes exist.
But as many who have worked on analyzing the notion of truth have insisted, a sentence or
statement might be true without being a description of reality. Truth and reality come apart.
The questions, which theories carry ontological commitment, which sciences describe
reality, etc., need to be answered before a criterion of ontological commitment can do any work.
Quine’s criterion, as proposed in his early work, “Logic and the Reification of
Universals” and “On What There Is,” is meant to apply to sentences regimented in an artificial
language with a semantic interpretation that ensures the sentences wear their ontological
commitments on their sleeves.4 Ontological transparency is obviously the goal, but is it possible
via the values of the bound variables?
The referential structure of expressions in ordinary language is ambiguous and unclear at
best. Consider apparent reference to objects that do not exist (“Unicorns do not exist,” “The
present King of France is bald,” etc.) or reference to controversial ‘entities’ (“There is a hole in
my shoe,” “There is a set of all turkeys,” “There are mental substances,” etc.). Paraphrasing
sentences of our theories in natural language into a language that has a clear and unambiguous
referential structure will trivially disclose the ontological commitments of the sentences. It was
made to do so. In Quine’s canonical notation (first-order predicate logic with identity and
quantification) the bound variables of quantification perform this function, clear and
unambiguous devices of reference. And further, there is no other way to refer in canonical
notation. Quantifying over some entity and attempting to refer to it are the same. A sentence or
theory regimented into canonical notation will explicitly disclose its referential intent: the objects
that “must be counted among the values of the variables in order that the statements affirmed in
the theory be true.”5 It is this way that we reveal the ontological commitments of our theories of
the world. Quine frames his criterion of ontological commitment in the abovementioned papers
Both papers are found in W.V.O. Quine. From a Logical Point of View, ed. W.V.O. Quine. (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1953).
See W.V.O. Quine, “Logic and the Reification of Universals,” in From a Logical Point of View, ed. W.V.O.
Quine. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 103.
Bound variables: “entities of a given sort are assumed by a theory if and only if
some of them must be counted among the values of the variables in order that the
statements affirmed in the theory be true”6
A basic problem cited against Bound variables follows from its logical form. The
criterion is stated as a bi-conditional, part of which is the conditional (in a modified form): if an
entity is assumed by a theory T, then it must be counted among the values of the variables for T
to be true. This says that there is no other way for a theory to bear ontological commitments than
through quantified expressions.
Consider the debate over whether (S1) “(∃x)(Electron(x))” is committed to electrons and
nothing else or to electrons and a property named by the predicate: e.g.‘electronhood.’ Bound
variables decides in favor of the first position. Only electrons and not ‘electronhood’ must exist
for (S1 ) to be true, because only electrons and not any property must be values of the existential
quantifier for (S1) to be true.
Several contemporary philosophers have argued that Bound variables is inadequate
because the values of the bound variables do not exhaust the ontological commitment of a
sentence or theory. They give the following argument as a typical reason for its inadequacy.7
If we assume the predicate-reference theorist is correct, then in order for (S1) to be true,
there must exist in reality some object referred to by the predicate. Since Bound variables only
discloses (S1)’s commitment to electrons and not electronhood, it fails to capture all of the
ontological commitments of (S1). All that must exist for the sentence to be true is not exhausted
by all that must be the value of a bound variable for the sentence to be true.
See note 5 for reference.
Howard Peacock, “Two Kinds of Ontological Commitment,” The Philosophical Quarterly 61 (2011): 79-104; and
Agustin Rayo, “Ontological Commitment*,” February 9, 2007. web.mit.edu/arayo/www/.
I believe that this loses sight of the purpose of Quine’s canonical notation. Bound
variables is not meant as a criterion for natural language commitment; although it is curious that
it is not since our regimented sentences proceed from natural language sentences and find their
sense in natural language.8 Nor is it applicable to any other language than ‘canonical notation,’
which, as was said earlier, is an artificial language with a pre-defined semantic theory. Predicates
may name things in ordinary language, but not in canonical notation. If one argues against Bound
variables by stating that it cannot disclose our commitment to entities that must exist for the
predicates to refer, where the predicate-reference theory is assumed correct, then they must
simultaneously argue that a certain ontological commitment cannot be paraphrased as a
quantified expression.
Predicates might adequately be representable as bound variables that take properties or
universals, etc., as values so that we may capture our commitment to ‘electronhood’ with Bound
variables.9 (S1) then might look something like (S2): “(∃x)(∃y)(x is the property of electronhood
and y instantiates x).” (S2) may be a bulkier sentence that (S1), but that does not prove that
objects named by predicates cannot be expressed as values of bound variables of quantification,
just that it is an uglier analysis.
A second supposed problem for Bound variables is the problem of extrinsic properties.
Certain properties of objects are had only in relation to other objects, these are called extrinsic
properties. These are had not by virtue of the thing itself but by virtue of other objects. Examples
of extrinsic properties are the property of being a son, being to the left, being 12 meters long,
being a quark, etc. This lands us with the consequence that certain ontological commitments
See Agustin Rayo, “Ontological Commitment*,” February 9, 2007. web.mit.edu/arayo/www/. pp. 20-21.
Although Quine’s preferred paraphrase represented predicates and statements as schematic letters. See W.V.O.
Quine, “Logic and the Reification of Universals,” in From a Logical Point of View, ed. W.V.O. Quine. (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1953), 109.
might be only implicitly referred to by other objects that are taken as values of the bound
There remains the possibility that we purge all of our best theories of extrinsic
properties; that theories regimented into canonical notation only include properties that an object
has by virtue of how it is itself and not relative to anything else. But there is no a priori argument
ruling out the possibility of the indispensability of extrinsic properties for our best theories of the
world. Consider (S3) “(∃x)(Quark(x)).” Bound variables would entail that the truth of (S3)
demands only that some quark exists; but part of being a quark is being a part of a quark/antiquark pair. (S3) is committed to an anti-quark as well as a quark. Or, (S4) “(∃x)(Uncle(x)).” For
(S4) to be true, not only must some uncle exist but some niece and/or nephew. Again, scientists
and philosophers alike generally aspire to a description of reality that is free of extrinsic or what
have been called “Cambridge” properties; but if reality does contain any of these properties, and
there is no reason to believe it doesn’t, Bound variables cannot capture all of a sentence’s
ontological commitments.
I respond in the same way as with the issue with referring predicates. There is nothing
preventing formulating implicit commitments to objects entailed by extrinsic properties
explicitly as values of a bound variable. And, as before, this may be a bulkier, uglier paraphrase,
but implicit commitments can be made explicit and that’s all that matters.
The only way to discredit Bound variables is to point out an ontological commitment that
can never be formed as a quantified expression; an entity or kind of entity that cannot be a value
of a quantifier. Unfortunately, it is evident that to think there is an entity that cannot be counted
is self-defeating. But my conclusion is modestly to point out that there is a problem with
arguments of the sort above, not to demonstrate beyond a doubt that Bound variables is
inadequate. It is insufficient to point out other ways to be committed to objects in ordinary
language—e.g. through referring predicates, extrinsic properties, modal truths, etc.—instead one
has to argue that our ontological commitments exceed that which can be paraphrased into a
quantified expression and so that any sentence with such commitments paraphrased into
canonical notation will necessarily be an incomplete paraphrase. Entities denoted by predicates
and the implicit commitments of extrinsic properties can be analyzed as quantified expressions
as hinted at above. The use of these arguments in contemporary work does not demonstrate that
Bound variables is false.
Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be had from this imagined problem for the Bound
variables reading of Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment. Engaging in the project of
disclosing the ontological commitments of our theories via Bound variables requires that you
accept questionable assumptions of the structure and semantic analysis of the sentences of our
theories: (C1) that only the values of the bound variables are devices for asserting ontological
commitment (i.e. not predicates, auxiliary modal truths, etc.), (C2) that names are just quantified
expressions, (C3) that paraphrase into canonical notation does not change ontological
commitment although the paraphrase is not synonymous with the original sentence, and (C4) that
we can fully distinguish and separate the literal and non-literal uses of existential quantification,
dropping all non-literal reference to objects when investigating our ontological commitments.
I have already argued that certain arguments in contemporary work against (C1) miss the
point. And that there is trouble in conceiving that an entity may exist in reality and that we may
be ontological committed to it but that we nevertheless cannot quantify over it. In what follows I
lay out various considerations that call into question the legitimacy of commitments (C2)-(C4).
Perhaps names are not legitimately paraphrased as quantified expressions. Some
languages lack a quantificational apparatus and while they can make use of names and noun
phrases, they lack the language-equivalent idioms, “there is,” “there are,” “exists,” etc. Pirahã is
such a language; spoken along the Maici River in Brazil. Not only does Pirahã lack a
quantificational apparatus, it also makes no use of numbers or numerals, among other linguistic
devices common to Indo-European languages.10 And the users of these types of languages
reportedly find no difficulty in expressing their referential intent. For Bound variables to be
legitimate, all names must be adequately paraphrased into idioms of quantification. Again,
perhaps this is not so great a difficulty because there may be a conceptual relation between being
able to name a thing and being able to count it and we can always count the objects named in
Pirahã. This difficulty gets real bite if there is a chance that certain theories in the natural or
social sciences include names that cannot be legitimately paraphrased into canonical notation.
The problem of paraphrasing names is a specific form of the general problem for (C3):
that original and paraphrases are not synonymous but carry the same commitments. We must
have some reason to believe that the canonical notation paraphrase retains all and only those
commitments that the original sentence had; yet Quine famously believed that the original and
paraphrase were not synonymous – the notions of meaning and synonymy are dubious according
to Quine.11 If there is nothing like synonymy to guarantee continuity of ontological commitment
between the original sentence and its paraphrase, then there must be something that warrants our
believing that the ontological commitments of the one are identical with that of the other.
See D.L. Everett, “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã,” Current Anthropology 46 (2005):
621-46, for discussion.
See “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” in W.V.O. Quine. From a Logical Point of View, ed. W.V.O. Quine.
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 20-46.
Otherwise disclosing the commitments of our paraphrase fails to shed any light on the
ontological commitments of the actual theories.
Finally, It is not obvious on the face of it whether any given sentence is a literal
description of reality or non-literal, but (C4) commits us to a clear wedge between literal and
non-literal and the ability to ferret out all traces of non-literality. Now consider the sentence
“This weighs a ton.” This may be taken as literal—as saying of something that it weighs one
ton—or figuratively, e.g. in the course of exaggerating as we all do. We can perhaps devise a
game where some of our most literal-seeming sentences, like “(∃x)(Boson(x)),” is said
figuratively.12 It is important to have some guide to ferreting out all traces of non-literal language
use before appealing to Bound variables or any other form of Quine’s criterion for that matter;
and just because some sentence is uttered in the course of a scientific investigation, it does not
follow that there is no inclusion of non-literal language. On the contrary, science usually makes
use of approximations, averages, extremes, and idealizations, none of which are literal
descriptions of reality.
As we can see, although it is misguided to argue that Bound variables does not disclose
the ontological commitment of natural language sentences or sentences with a semantic
interpretation other than that of canonical notation, Bound variables still rests on a heavily
restrictive view of the sentences to which we can apply it. If we wish to disclose the ontology of
our best theories, as is the ultimate goal of Quine’s criterion, then we better have a criterion of
ontological commitment that is applicable to the actual theories of the natural and social
sciences. It is difficult to conceive of a case where (C1) is false; but (C2)-(C4) may not be able to
Perhaps one cannot so easily shift between literal and make believe with mathematical statements. Take for
instance, 2+5=7. If we say this in a game of ‘make believe,’ it seems that the truth conditions of 2+5=7 are
the same as ever. Would we count ‘make believe’ math as just cases where we say false things with full
intention: e.g. 2+2=5. What is the relation between mathematical statements and those in the natural
be so easily satisfied by many of our best theories, giving us reason to doubt the adequacy of
Bound variables without the help of wrong-headed arguments of the kind discussed above.
To avoid the difficulties of paraphrase and those ontological commitments unable to be
represented as values of the bound variables, contemporary commentators have proposed a truthconditional reading of Quine’s criterion. This captures the idea that a sentence’s ontological
commitment is all and only those things that must exist for the sentence to be true. That includes
both the values of the bound variables of any quantified expressions, but also implicit reference
to objects, referents of predicates, and necessary existants.
A first formulation of the truth-conditional reading of Quine’s criterion of ontological
commitment is:
Truth Conditional: a sentence is committed to Xs if and only if the truth of the
sentence demands that there are Xs.
But what is it for the truth of a sentence to demand that ‘there are Xs?” Truth Conditional
entails that we discover sentences that carry ontological commitments by looking to which
sentences carry the truth-demand that there are Xs, but leaves us in the dark as to which
sentences demand that there are Xs. Do everyday expressions like “There are prime numbers,”
“Sarah is on a bicycle,” and “There is a city named London” carry the demand that there are
numbers, Sarah, bicycles, and a city named London? We seem to run up against the same
problem as with the initial ordinary language construal of Quine’s ontological problem. We do
not want to take too seriously the referential structure of ordinary expressions; but turning away
from everyday use will not dissolve the problem. Consider the question whether the theories in
sociology demand for there to be groups; or whether there must exist organisms, species, forces
of selection, etc. for biological theories that use these terms to be true.
Is the truth-demand that ‘there are Xs’ carried by all sentences the employ the English
idiom “there are” or one of its counterparts? And if it is, is the demand that there are numbers,
people, bicycles, or cities; or is it that the demand that there is something which is the supposed
physical reality of these things. In other words, if we want to retain Truth Conditional but
distinguish apparent objects from real ones, we might hold that what makes sentences like the
above true is some physical phenomena or event that does not include mention of cities, people
or bikes. Then, on this account, when someone says “There is a penguin” what makes their
utterance true is ____, where ____ is replaced by some long and cumbersome formula of
mathematical physics.
On the other hand, the common sense answer to these troubles seems to be a simple
disquotational view on what makes sentences true. “Sarah is on a bicycle” is true because Sarah
is on a bicycle. The truth of the sentence, “There are organisms of the same species” demands
that there are organisms of the same species, not that some space-time regions are filled and
related in some specific way. If the truth demands of these sentences were phrased in terms of
fundamental physics, i.e. something which we as of yet do not know how to do, then
counterintuitively, these sentences are not true by virtue of Sarah being on a bicycle or organisms
being of the same species; instead they are true by virtue of some physical phenomena or event.
Turning to English idioms such as “there is,” “there are,” “there exists,” only saddles us
with the same vague referential structure and ambiguousness as when we tried to answer the
ontological problem with a list of ordinary language expressions. We still need to ask, which
sentences carry ontological commitments. Either we understand the demand that ‘there are Xs’ as
a demand put on the real objects of the world (counter common sense), or we retain the intuition
that “There are organisms” is true just in case there are organisms by distinguishing the truthdemand that ‘there are Xs’ from the truth-demand that ‘there exist Xs in reality.’ This bifurcation
would satisfy common sense notions on the truth of certain sentences while retaining the
possibility that we can talk about what exists in reality, i.e. ontology.
I’d like to go back a step and mention a disadvantage of Truth Conditional in comparison
to Bound variables. It is clear that Truth Conditional suffers from the vagaries of ordinary
language that Quine sought to overcome with his canonical notation. Although Bound variables
rests on precarious ground, its value is in its removal of any reference to ordinary English idioms
like “there is” or to the jargon of the history of ontology, e.g. ‘exist’ and ‘reality.’ Analysis of the
use of these idioms and concepts demonstrates that the grammar of everyday discourse should
not be taken too seriously and concepts like ‘existence’ and ‘reality’ are unclear and vague. It
might be advantageous to latch ontological investigation onto something that we feel more
comfortable with, like bound variables in logic. The problems for both Bound variables and
Truth Conditional, however, suggest that ontological investigation needs to make explicit
reference to what exists in reality; that there is no alternative, reductive question we can ask.
Since Bound variables is too strict to apply to many of our theories in the natural and
social sciences and may be insufficient if an ontological commitment cannot be represented as a
value of a bound variable and Truth Conditional is too shallow to do any real work, we might
formulate Quine’s criterion on a truth-conditional reading that explicitly puts demands on reality
as follows:
Truth Conditional*: a sentence carries commitment to Xs if and only if its truth
demands that Xs exist in reality.
Truth Conditional* builds the demand for the real existence of Xs right into the criterion.
If we wish to disclose which sentences carry ontological commitments, then we look to those
who’s truth demands that some entity or kind of entity exists in reality.
Some philosophers believe that the question, whether some thing exists in reality, makes
no sense; that it either attempts to give a single, privileged meaning to functionally-plural terms
‘exist’ and ‘reality,’ that it is a question asked outside any linguistic framework, i.e. rules of
assertability, or that it is a question that is in principle unverifiable.13 Foregoing these problems,
let us assume that there is some sense that we can give to the question whether something exists
in reality. And it might not be hard to discover its sense. We find this question or one similar
enough behind the problems of Quality Realism in the philosophes of the 17th and 18th centuries
– are extension, solidity, shape, size, and motion the real qualities of objects and color, taste,
texture, etc. those that depend upon our minds?14 This division between appearance and reality
remains a view lodged at the core of all empirical sciences; that there is a way that things really
are, which we uncover by rigorous testing. ‘Reality’ is no doubt a vague notion, perhaps because
it cannot be reductively defined, but there must be some sense in asking whether or not an entity
or kind of entity exists in reality.
See Hilary Putnam , Ethics Without Ontology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004). See also Rudolph
Carnap, “Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology” in Meaning and Necessity (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1947), 205-221; and A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth & Logic (New York: Doyer Publications, 1952).
‘Quality Realism’ is a term taken from Robert Merrihew Adams, introduction to Three Dialogues between Hylas
and Philonous, by George Berkeley (Hackett Publishing, 1979), xi-xxvi.
Even with an understanding of the demand that ‘there exist Xs in reality,’ the problem is
that Truth Conditional* is no guide to which sentences are those that have ontological
commitments and which are those that do not. We may have certain intuitions, for instance, that
fundamental physics, logic and mathematics are exemplars of giving theories/theorems that carry
ontological commitments by virtue of their attempts to describe reality; but there is no obvious
argument against accepting the social sciences or the humanities as attempts at describing reality.
Truth Conditional* is trivial. Of course those sentences that carry ontological
commitments to Xs are those that demand for their truth that Xs exist in reality. This reading of
Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment does no work. We included explicit reference to
reality in our truth-conditional criterion to avoid the problems of everyday expressions, but this
just pushes the problem back to the same question: which theories are those that carry
ontological commitments.
How do we decide which theories of which science? And even for those that are
generally accepted as the sciences of reality – physics, math, and logic – we must still decide
whether they describe reality or if they merely give, for instance, a physical description of
reality. It is a now popular argument for the indispensability of metaphysics that physicists
cannot claim that everything is physical or that reality is a physical system.15 Whether reality has
one or multiple descriptions and what sort of entities (physical, mental, fictional, etc.) exist in
reality is not answered by any of our theories in the sciences. And, hence, we must decide prior
to analyzing any theory whether it carries ontological commitments; it cannot tell us this itself.
See for instance E.J. Lowe, Metaphysics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 2-3.
The question – which theories carry ontological commitments – has been shown to
undermine all of the forms of Quine’s criterion discussed. Bound variables was undermined by
its questionable restrictions on the sort of sentences we can analyze given (C1)-(C4) and the
worry that many of our theories in the sciences that we believe carry ontological commitments
are phrased in ordinary language expressions. That is to say, it is unlikely that all of the theories
that carry ontological commitments can be adequately paraphrased into canonical notation.
Turning to Truth Conditional we were left asking, do sentences phrased with the ordinary
English idiom “there is” or one of its counterparts invariably carry commitments to the real
existence of the objects named? But this is clearly mistaken and Truth Conditional is too shallow
to be of any use.
Truth Conditional* may be an adequate criterion of ontological commitment, in that it is
a means to disclosing all and only the ontological commitments of theories which carry them;
but it is of no use prior to answering the question, which theories carry ontological commitments.
Are they the theories of fundamental physics, logic, etc.? Do biological theories mention objects
that really exist; do the social sciences for that matter?
Without first answering this question, we have no guide to the correct use of
Truth Conditional*. What we are given by those who believe physics, math, and logic are the
sciences that exhaust our descriptions of reality and give us a unified theory of everything, is not
an argument but an optimistic hope – a hope that clearly ignores discrepancies internal to these
‘fundamental’ sciences themselves, e.g. between the standard model and general relativity or
Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.16
Ted Sider calls this an unargued for ‘hope’ in Sider, Writing the Book of the World (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2012), 18-19.
We might turn to the various fields of science themselves and see which see themselves
as in the business of describing reality; but this will lead us nowhere since numerous fields, and
some that contradict other areas of science, believe that they are engaged in describing reality or
real events, phenomena, etc. In the face of these challenges, philosophers have traditionally
relied upon theoretical value judgments to separate the theories that are most likely true
descriptions of reality from those that are not. It is an argument external to Quine’s criterion –
that theoretical virtues are marks of likelihood and so the theories which exhibit the most marks
are those that are most likely true – that does the real work in showing which theories carry
ontological commitments.
Unfortunately, the philosophical problems surrounding theoretical value judgments are
numerous and well discussed in the history of philosophy. The affirmative opinion, shared by
Dirac and Einstein among others, is that the beauty of a theory is reason to believe it is likely
true; or its simplicity, or serviceability, etc.17 It is not obviously false that these qualities of a
theory are actually reliable signs of its likely truth. As Quine puts it, “might the molecular
doctrine be ever so useful in organizing and extending our knowledge of the behavior of
observable things, and yet be factually false? One may question on closer consideration, whether
this is readily an intelligible possibility”.18
On the other hand, what reason do we have for believing that the universe is beautiful and
simple as opposed to an ugly mess; or that we can possibly describe the nature and relation of
everything in the world with one unified theory? You can give the familiar retinue of possible
Dirac famously held that the world itself was basically beautiful because God made it so. See Hilary Putnam,
Ethics Without Ontology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) 67-69 for discussion and Carl Hempel “The
Irrelevance of the Concept of Truth,” in Carl G. Hempel Selected Philosophical Essays, ed. Richard Jeffrey
(Cambridge University Press, 2000), 81.
See W.V.O. Quine, “Posits & Reality,” in Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (New York: Random House, 1976),
sources of evidence – God, intuition, a priori knowledge, empirical facts, etc. – but the problem
remains: the truth of theories do not invariably place ontological demands on reality. Instead a
true theory may merely be empirically adequate. truth conditions can be instruments for common
understanding. Or, assertions of existence are only true relative to some framework for adequate
assertability. We need further arguments to demonstrate that our ‘best’ theories invariably
describe reality, including entities or kinds of entities that exist in reality. Once we have this,
then Truth Conditional* can be applied to those theories. But then it seems impotent, for we
already know the ontological commitments of the theories. Quine’s criterion of ontological
commitment understood on a truth-conditional reading does no real work.
My aim in this paper was to argue two major points: first, that a certain kind of argument
against the bound variables reading of Quine’s criterion severely misses the point; and second,
that both a bound variables reading and a truth-conditional reading of the criterion does no real
work. Instead, the question – what theories carry ontological commitments – needs to be
answered prior to applying any form of the criterion. But then it seems that we have already
disclosed the ontological commitments of the theory. It is a mistake to see Quine’s criterion of
ontological commitment as actually doing anything. To move forward on issues in ontology and
meta-ontology, we need to ask the bare-faced question of which theories carry ontological
commitments. We cannot avoid it.

No Work for Quine`s Criterion of Ontological Commitment By