Against Rorty on the Usefulness of Ontological Debates

Rorty ontology
Richard Rorty, cover of Contingency, irony, and solidarity.

I’m a big fan of Richard Rorty. His book Contingency, irony, and solidarity (CIS) was one of the books that led me to inquire into philosophy more rigorously (ironically enough — sorry Dick!).

But there’s something that’s always bugged me about Rorty. He uses pragmatist insights to label entire subjects “not useful”. The following quote was recently brought to my attention:

The question that matters to us pragmatists is not whether a vocabulary possess meaning or not, whether it raises real or unreal problems, but whether the resolution of that debate will have an effect in practice, whether it will be useful. We ask whether the vocabulary shared by the debaters is likely to have practical value. For the fundamental thesis of pragmatism is William James’ assertion that if a debate has no *practical* significance, then it has no *philosophical* significance.

So my objection to the “realism versus anti-realism debate” is not that the debtors are employing sentences that are devoid of meaning, nor that they are using terms that do not designate substantial properties. Rather, that the resolution of these debates will have no bearing on practice. I view debates of this sort as examples of sterile scholasticism. I regret that such a large part of English-language philosophy in the twentieth century was devoted to questions of this type.

— What’s the Use of Truth? (Richard Rorty)

(An aside: for all his insistence on deflating these debates, Rorty’s not always consistent in whether his position is deflationary about the debate or withinthe debate.…

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Amie Thomasson: Objections to Easy Ontology | Who Shaves the Barber? #24

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Easy Ontology

Last weekAmie Thomasson explained “easy ontology”, her preferred approach to resolving the proliferation of ontological debates in recent decades. This week she addresses objections.

Perhaps most pressingly: is easy ontology too easy? There might be a feeling that this is all a linguistic trick that is sidestepping the real question of the actual existence of something. Another important objection is that this method grants existence to way too much. Do we really want to accept that “the sum of my nose and the Eiffel Tower” is a thing that really exists? And what about vagueness – doesn’t easy ontology fall prey to the sorites paradox? Professor Thomasson tackles these and other objections to her method. She concludes with a picture of what would be next for ontology if we accepted easy ontology as the solution to the metaontological debate.

Audio

Video

Special thanks to Jackie Blum for the podcast art, and The Tin Box for the theme music.

Topics discussed

0:47 – Circularity objection
4:24 – Is any “linguistic approach” too easy?
14:40 – Easy ontology v. the “verbal disputes” view
22:28: What does “exists” actually mean?
25:45 – Is easy ontology bloated?
31:28 – Dropping causal power and mind-independence
34:30 – Vagueness and the sorites paradox
40:06 – What ontological questions are still hard?
45:44 – Conceptual engineering

Sources

Ontology Made Easy by Amie Thomasson
Ordinary Objects by Amie Thomasson
Metaphysical Disputes and Metalinguistic Negotiations” by Amie Thomasson…

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Amie Thomasson: Ontology Made Easy | Who Shaves the Barber? #23

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Amie Thomasson Ontology
Amie Thomasson

Do tables really exist?

While debate over such a seemingly trivial question may initially sound ridiculous, the existence of “ordinary objects” is a controversial question in contemporary metaphysics. Events, numbers, properties, and “mereological sums” are among other contested “objects”. Indeed, ontology today is a bit of a quagmire of proposed objects and criteria for existence.

One of the major voices in this field is that of philosopher Amie Thomasson, who claims that ontology can actually be quite simple. In this interview, Prof. Thomasson walks us through the recent history of ontology – from Carnap to Quine to the contemporary arena – and offers a diagnosis of how things got so muddled. She then offers her alternative, which she calls “easy ontology”. According to her view, since we know that “I have two apples” is true (assuming it is), then it follows that the number of apples is two, and so that there is a number two, and therefore that at least one number exists. In this part 1, Thomasson draws out both the history of these debates and her own approach. In the second half, she’ll defend it against common objections.

Audio

Video

Next week: Amie Thomasson: Objections to Easy Ontology
Special thanks to Jackie Blum for the podcast art, and The Tin Box for the theme music.

Topics discussed

0:10 – Introduction to Amie Thomasson
2:43 – What is ontology?
4:21 – Arguments against tables and chairs
8:30 – Quine and the neo-Quinean approach
22:13 – Carnap on internal versus external questions (use v.…

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