Jamie Collin (Edinburgh)

"Being and the Existence - The Debate 100 Years On"

Abstract: In Problems of Philosophy Russell distinguished between ‘being’ and ‘existence’, where the latter was reserved for objects in time and space, and the former for abstract objects.

One hundred years on from the publication of Problems the legitimacy of a distinction between being and existence is hotly contested. Today the debate is recast in terms of quantification; where the orthodox—such as Peter van Inwagen [2009] and John Burgess [2008]—maintain Quine’s theory of quantification, in which quantification expresses existence, and the reformers—such as Graham Priest [2005, 2008] and Jody Azzouni [2004, 2007]—deny this, holding instead a view more akin to that expressed by Russell in Problems, where quantification and existence can come apart. The Quinian theory of quantification has faced pressure on two fronts, one stemming from debates in the philosophy of mathematics, where it has been argued that linguistic data shows that quantification does not express existence, and the other stemming from debates in metaphysics more generally, where it has been argued that rejecting the Quinian view can make sense of the supposedly insubstantive nature of a number of ontological debates. In this paper I will provide a sketch of the considerations that have inclined philosophers to doubt the Quinian approach to ontological commitment.

I will then lay out some considerations in favour of the Quinain view, arguing that these apparently competing considerations can be reconciled by shifting away from the traditional focus on the semantics of quantification and attending instead to its pragmatics.

In doing so, I will claim, one can carve out a new account of ontological commitment that capitalises on the on the insights of current theories whilst circumventing their problems, and conclude that the Russellian distinction between being and existence should be rejected.

Having developed a framework for understanding the relationship between ontological commitment and the existential quantifier, which draws on a notion of nominalistic adequacy, I show how this framework can be put to use in the philosophy of logic; in particular its bearing on logical consequence and the ‘speed- up’ phenomena.

Return to conference webpage