Jody Azzouni: Ontology without Borders | Who Shaves the Barber? #50

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Jody Azzouni

An old problem: I say, “Santa Claus is fat”. I am saying something true about Santa Claus. But (content warning) Santa Claus doesn’t exist. So what is it that I am correctly saying is fat? And what – if not its ostensive subject – makes the sentence true?

This problem is at the center of ontology. The most influential approach in the 20th century was offered by W. V. O. Quine, who argued that we’re committedto the existence of any object that we must quantify over in order to state the truths of physics in first-order logic. At first, this seems rather arbitrary. Why first-order logic? What makes quantifiers so special? Why physics? And what does what we’re “committed to” tell us about what actually exists? For roughly the first half of this interview, philosopher Jody Azzouni unpacks the thinking behind Quine’s famous criterion. In the second half, he expounds his own view: he rejects Quine’s criterion, and so sees no problem with referring to that which doesn’t exist. This leaves Azzouni open to embrace a radical nominalism, in which almost none of the objects we typically think of as existing really do. This is because, as Azzouni explains, “ontological borders” are projected. There is nothing “out there” that separates one object from another. The fact that our language is built around distinct objects tells us plenty about our psychology, but nothing about the world itself, which comes with “features” but not individual objects.

Want to hear a different take on the same questions? Check out my interview with Amie Thomasson.



Special thanks to Jackie Blum for the podcast art, and The Tin Box for the theme music.
Click here for the full list of episodes!

Topics discussed

0:19 – Trends in contemporary philosophy
5:37 – Contested objects and proposed principles
12:11 – Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment
18:43 – Why quantifiers?
20:53 – Quine’s Word and Object: “exercise in sophisticated paraphrase”
27:39 – Evaluating paraphrases
37:16 – Against Quine’s criterion
42:07 – Other metaontological criteria
48:18 – Nominalism
51:02 – Reference failure and the aboutness illusion
57:49 – Object projectivism
1:02:42 – Does the world come with implicit boundaries?
1:10:02 – Truth about non-existent objects
1:11:51 – Stuff, features, and individuation conditions
1:20:45 –  Amie Thomasson’s easy ontology
1:26:54 – The role of natural language


Jody Azzouni (Tufts faculty page)
On What There Is” (W. V. O. Quine)
Word and Object (W. V. O. Quine)
Ontology without Borders (Jody Azzouni)
Ontology Made Easy (Amie Thomasson)

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