Answering Existence Questions in the Best Language for Inquiry


Folk ontology seems baroque, compared to the austere ontology of many philosophers. Plausibly, the issue comes down to a choice between existence concepts: the folk and the austere philosophers employ different quantifier meanings. This paper aims to clarify and defend this hypothesis and explore its upshots. How do we choose between the alternative existence concepts; is the austere philosophers’ concept better than the folk’s (or the folksy philosophers’) undiscriminating one? I will argue that contrary to what Ted Sider suggests, the austere existence concept and the corresponding austere answers to existence questions do not prevail in the context of “inquiry”, i.e. the context of practically disinterested pursuit of epistemic excellence. Sider’s suggestion relies on a one-sided idea of epistemic excellence, as beliefs’ conforming to the world. Once we recognize another epistemic aim, namely the agent understanding connections between known facts, ordinary objects will be back in the game.

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  1. 1.

    Some austere philosophers only subject certain “strange” entities to the indispensability test. Typically, entities are considered strange when they seem to have no physical realization or causal powers. The existence of such strange entities is also likely to be more controversial among the folk. To simplify, I am here considering a generalized austere approach to ontology – the approach that subjects everything to the indispensability test.

  2. 2.

    The term “conceptual ethics” has been introduced by Burgess and Plunkett (2013), to denote the field concerned with “semantic and conceptual prescriptions”, or “normative and evaluative issues about representation” (Burgess and Plunkett 2013: 1091).

  3. 3.

    I am not sure who the original author of this example is, but it can be found in Schaffer (2009: 360).

  4. 4.

    For the first sort of criticism, see Hawthorne (2009). For the second sort of criticism, see Horden (2014).

  5. 5.

    See, for example, Lewis (1984).

  6. 6.

    I have the impression that Sider, especially in his recent work, leans towards the view that the English quantifier is not joint-carving. Nevertheless, he motivates the resort to Ontologese with a conditional: if the ordinary “exist” does not carve at the joints, we can do philosophical ontology in Ontologese, where the quantifier is stipulated to carve at the joints.

  7. 7.

    I have the impression that Stich (1993) has such a broader conception of epistemic aims.

  8. 8.

    Notable examples of metaphysicians interested in the relationship between fundamental and non-fundamental facts include Chalmers (2012) and Fine (2001), as well as Sider himself.

  9. 9.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising and helpfully elaborating on these questions.


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I thank Daniel Cohnitz, the audience of the PhD seminar at the University of Tartu, and an anonymous reviewer for their comments on previous versions of this article. This research has been supported by the Centre of Excellence in Estonian Studies (European Union, European Regional Development Fund) and is related to research project IUT20-5 (Estonian Ministry of Education and Research). This research has also been supported by the University of Tartu ASTRA Project PER ASPERA, financed by the European Regional Development Fund.

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Correspondence to Eve Kitsik.

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Kitsik, E. Answering Existence Questions in the Best Language for Inquiry. Philosophia 47, 141–156 (2019).

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  • Metaontology
  • Conceptual ethics
  • Occam’s razor
  • Folk ontology
  • Epistemic aims