A conflict between van Inwagen’s metaontology and his ontology


Peter van Inwagen has in recent decades made significant and influential contributions to metaphysics. In his Material Beings he advanced a novel ontology according to which chairs and other medium-sized dry goods don’t really exist. He went on to make important contributions to metaontology. Parts of his Ontology, Identity, and Modality and Existence: Essays in Ontology defend a broadly Quinean conception of existence questions and how to address them. I argue that the metaontology articulated in those later works is in fact inconsistent with his defense of his ontology advanced in his earlier work.

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  1. 1.

    See Korman (2016b) for references and discussion.

  2. 2.

    For the sake of simplicity, I use ‘macroscopic objects’ as short for relatively compact, nonliving mesoscopic entities like tables, gazebos and particle accelerators. I’ll just write eliminativism for short since there’s only one eliminativism at issue.

  3. 3.

    van Inwagen (1990, p. 103, 2014c, p. 9).

  4. 4.

    I let the difference in font do the work of quotation marks.

  5. 5.

    This distinction is drawn from Burgess (1983)’s discussion of eliminativism about mathematicalia like numbers and sets.

  6. 6.

    Yablo (2001), Rosen and Cian (2002), Yablo (2017) and Eklund (2005) outline different kinds of pluralist strategy. I know of nowhere van Inwagen discusses fictionalism (the first two) or “if-thenism” (the third), but van Inwagen (2014c, p. 8) does explicitly disavow any loose talk approach, the kind of approach defended in Eklund (2005). I discuss pluralism at greater length in Fisher (unpublished).

  7. 7.

    van Inwagen explicitly addresses some of these issues in van Inwagen (2014b, pp. 31–49). See also Korman (2016a), Liggins (2008) and O’Leary-Hawthorne and Michael (1996) for additional arguments.

  8. 8.

    Quine (1960, 1948) are loci classici for the method of paraphrase. I argue in Sect. 6.2 that van Inwagen’s notion of paraphrase can’t exactly be Quine’s.

  9. 9.

    I take as evidence for this claim the diversity of interpretations that have been given of what van Inwagen’s account of paraphrase is. Nolan (2010), von Solodkoff (2014), Mackie (1993), Eklund (2005) and Varzi (2002) each provide different interpretations.

  10. 10.

    van Inwagen (1993, p. 711) should be enough to show that the recent essay is a genuine clarification and not an amendment.

  11. 11.

    van Inwagen (2014c, fn. 10) notes that the “ordinary business of life,” hence “outside,” is really many contexts. But since what is important is the contrast between the two kinds of context, as long as inside the Ontology Room is one kind, and is distinct from any ordinary context, which surely it is, it won’t hurt to treat Inside and Outside as generic names for the contexts.

  12. 12.

    \(\langle S \rangle \)’ is shorthand for ‘the proposition expressed by S’.

  13. 13.

    Cf. van Inwagen (2014c, p. 3ff)., especially fn. 10].

  14. 14.

    I’ll tend to drop the “obvious” part in what follows but only to simplify the presentation.

  15. 15.

    (van Inwagen 2014c, p. 7) See Sect. 6 below for more discussion. Let me add that it is not assumed that every English sentence has a Tarksian translation. But it is a consequence of the Tarskian Presumption that anyone who utters an English sentence in the Ontology Room which lacks a Tarskian translation commits a solecism (van Inwagen 2014c, fn. 6).

  16. 16.

    The same idea is also presented in his more recent (van Inwagen 2014a, p. 77). That passage isn’t as nicely sequential but it makes clear that each inference is supposed to go both directions, and that each step is licensed by the abbreviatory conventions.

  17. 17.

    This is called ‘conditional introduction’ in natural deduction systems of logic.

  18. 18.

    As an anonymous referee points out, the two propositions being identical is far stronger than I need to derive my thesis, (\(*\)). It would suffice if \(\langle {\mathsf {\exists C}}_{\textsc {out}} \rangle \) only materially implied \(\langle {\mathsf {\exists C}}_{\textsc {in}} \rangle \).

  19. 19.

    Recall, we have set aside hermeneutic strategies that treat either constituent expression as being used ambiguously.

  20. 20.

    That is, apart from adding in some new parameter in addition to context of utterance. That, however, wouldn’t be his view but an amendment. I’m not arguing against the possibility of amendments. Thanks to Hao Hong for helpful discussion here.

  21. 21.

    This was the \({\mathbf {a}}\) option in the diagram.

  22. 22.

    van Inwagen (1998, p. 24, 2014c, fn. 8) emphasizes this. See also van Inwagen (1993b) and van Inwagen (2014a).

  23. 23.

    van Inwagen (1993b, p. 356).

  24. 24.

    van Inwagen (1979) is van Inwagen’s own regimentation strategy.

  25. 25.

    These authors also tend to be a bit slippery on these issues. Stich (1975) is relatively explicit in evincing the attitude I have in mind.


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Thanks to Hao Hong, Matt Carlson, Liz Jackson, David Charles McCarty, Nick Montgomery, Bradley Rettler, Harrison Waldo, audiences at meetings of the Central States Philosophy Association and the Indiana Philosophical Association, and to two anonymous referees. Special thanks to Gary Ebbs, Kirk Ludwig, Tim O’Connor, and Tim Perrine, whose input on multiple occasions was pivotal to the development of these ideas.

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Fisher, D. A conflict between van Inwagen’s metaontology and his ontology. Synthese 198, 707–722 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02055-y

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  • van Inwagen
  • Metaphysics
  • Ontology
  • Metaontology
  • Eliminativism