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Meta-ontology is a term of recent origin first used by Peter van Inwagen in analyzing Willard Van Orman Quine's critique of Rudolf Carnap's metaphysics,[1] where Quine introduced a formal technique for determining the ontological commitments in a comparison of ontologies.[2]


Thomas Hofweber, while acknowledging that the use of the term is controversial, suggests that, although strictly construed meta-ontology is a separate metatheory of ontology, the field of ontology can be more broadly construed as containing its metatheory.[3][4] Advocates of the term seek to distinguish 'ontology', which investigates what there is, from 'meta'-ontology, which investigates what we are asking when we ask what there is.[1][5][6]

Jonathan Schaffer argues that there is a different question for meta-ontology to discuss, namely the classification of ontologies according to the hierarchical connections between the objects in them, and the determination of which objects are fundamental and which are derived. He describes three possible types of ontology: flat, that is an array of undifferentiated objects; sorted, that is an array of classified objects; and ordered, that is an array of inter-related objects. Schaffer says Quine's ontology is flat, a mere listing of objects, while Aristotle's is ordered, with an emphasis upon identifying the most fundamental objects.[7]

Amie L. Thomasson says that the Carnap-Quine debate is misplaced when it focuses (as done by Van Inwagen[1]) upon the analytic-synthetic distinction between entities: "The real distinction instead [that is, instead of the analytic-synthetic distinction] is between existence questions asked using a linguistic framework and existence questions that are supposed to be asked somehow without being subject to those rules—asked, as Quine puts it 'before the adoption of the given language'."[8] These questions are what Carnap referred to as internal-external distinctions.

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  1. ^ a b c Peter Van Inwagen (1998). "Meta-ontology" (PDF). Erkenntnis. 48 (2/3): 233–250. doi:10.1023/a:1005323618026.
  2. ^ Peter van Inwagen (2008). "Quine's 1946 lecture on nominalism". In Dean Zimmerman (ed.). Oxford Studies in Metaphysics : Volume 4. Oxford University Press. p. 142. ISBN 978-0191562310. Quine's lecture is not to be measured by its failure...Its value is to be found in its demonstration, by example, of the way in which an ontological project should be undertaken...Its value lies in its contributions to meta-ontology, not in its contributions to ontology.
  3. ^ Hofweber, Thomas (Aug 30, 2011). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). "Logic and Ontology: Different conceptions of ontology". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition). The larger discipline of ontology can thus be seen as having four parts [of which one is] the study of meta-ontology, i.e. saying what task it is that the discipline of ontology should aim to accomplish, if any, how the questions it aims to answer should be understood, and with what methodology they can be answered..
  4. ^ David Chalmers; David Manley; Ryan Wasserman, eds. (2009). Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199546046.
  5. ^ Gary Rosenkrantz (1998). "The science of being". Erkenntnis. 48 (2/3): 251–255. doi:10.1023/a:1005489810828.
  6. ^ Hirsch, Eli (2003). "Chapter 3: Quantifier Variance and Realism". In Ernest Sosa; Enrique Villanueva (eds.). Philosophical Issues: Realism and Relativism, a supplement to Nous. 12. Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-23384-8. Reprinted in Eli Hirsch (2011). "Chapter 5: Quantifier Variance and Realism". Quantifier Variance and Realism: Essays in Metaontology. Oxford University Press. pp. 68–95. ISBN 978-0199732111.
  7. ^ Jonathan Schaffer (2009). "On What Grounds What Metametaphysics" (PDF). In Chalmers, Manley and Wasserman, eds (eds.). Metametaphysics. Oxford University Press. pp. 347–83. ISBN 978-0199546046.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link) Reprinted by Philosopher’s Annual 29, eds. Grim, Charlow, Gallow, and Herold; also reprinted in Metaphysics: An Anthology, 2nd edition, eds. Kim, Korman, and Sosa (2011), 73-96: Blackwell.) Contains an analysis of Quine and proposes that questions of existence are not fundamental.
  8. ^ Amie L Thomasson (2013). "Carnap and the prospects for easy ontology". §1. Carnap's approach to existence questions. Archived from the original on 2013-12-20. Retrieved 06-04-2013. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help); Check date values in: |accessdate= (help) To be published in Ontology after Carnap Stephan Blatti & Sandra Lapointe (eds.) On-line version of Thomasson Archived 2013-12-20 at the Wayback Machine
    (Section 1 of this reference by Thomasson is summarizing and explaining "§2. Linguistic frameworks" of Carnap, Rudolf (1950). "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology". Revue Internationale de Philosophie. 4: 20–40. Reprinted in Carnap, Rudolf (1956). "Supplement A. Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology". Meaning and necessity: a study in semantics and modal logic (2 ed.). University of Chicago Press. pp. 205–221.On-line version of Carnap.)

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