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I am baffled by what Quine claims here:

A curious thing about the ontological problem is its simplicity. It can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: 'What is there?' It can be answered, moreover, in a word 'Everything' and everyone will accept this answer as true. — Willard V. O. Quine, On what there is (1948)

I am baffled not by the claim that everything exists, but by the claim that everyone takes this to be true, so I suspect that maybe Quine isn't quite saying what I think he does.

A preliminary question, then, has to be as follows:

What is it exactly that Quine means by "Everything exists"?

However, if he is right that we all agree that everything exists, then it shouldn't be possible to find in the academic literature anyone genuinely disagreeing with him on this particular point. Is that true, though?

So a second question is:

Is it true that no philosopher ever genuinely disagreed that everything exists?

I also seem to remember that the idea that everything exists was initially Bertrand Russell's idea. Is that true?

Thank for any scholarly reference.

EDIT

It is clearly not true as someone claims here that in On What There Is, Quine "is simply presenting a definition of 'everything'". Nowhere in this paper is he presenting any definition of the term "everything".

If it was a matter of definition, then everyone could perhaps agree with Quine but only if the standard definition of "everything" was "Whatever exists", but this is not the case. There isn't apparently even one dictionary giving this definition.

Thus, Quine just asserts without any preamble what is clearly his personal opinion that "Everything" is the answer to the question "What is there?", and moreover that "everyone will accept this answer as true". There is no effort at justifying this couple of rather baffling assertions.

One possibility is that Quine just really believes what he says, but that doesn't make it less baffling.

So it is not "arguing at cross-purposes" to point out that Quine's claim that everyone will accept his answer as true is very unlikely to be true.

Whether I disagree with a definition, which he in fact has not even presented, is irrelevant. What is clearly relevant is whether it is really true that everyone will accept Quine's answer as true, and I rather doubt that.

This is why I am asking if it is true that no philosopher ever genuinely disagreed that everything exists.

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    You left out the next sentence:"However, this is merely to say that there is what there is." In other words, "everything" means everything those agreeing take to exist. So yes, everyone agrees because there is no room to disagree "substantively" with a tautology. One can disagree with Quine's use of "everything", but that is a debate about words, not substance, and "there remains room for disagreement over cases", as Quine himself says.
    – Conifold
    Feb 22 at 7:58
  • But later in the essay the discussion involves theories and thus the above "platitude" is less trivial: "what there is" must be discussed in the context of theories/conceptual schema. Sets are discussed in the context of set theory and thus (obviously) sets exist for set theorist. Quanta are discussed in the context of QM, and thus they exist for the atomic physicist. Feb 22 at 15:06
  • See Willard Van Orman Quine, Ontology and ideology (1951): "The ontology to which an (interpreted) theory is committed comprises all and only the objects over which the bound variables of the theory have to be construed as ranging in order that the statements affirmed in the theory be true." Feb 22 at 15:33
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA"The ontology to which an (interpreted) theory is committed" This is clearly irrelevant to whether everybody agrees that everything exists. My question is explicitly not about the fact that Quine claims that everything exists and not even about whether this claim is correct. Feb 22 at 17:11
  • I disagree that such a philosopher exists, and apparently they would agree with me...
    – keshlam
    Feb 22 at 21:23

6 Answers 6

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Quine is thinking that "everything exists" means the same as "everything is something", which he thinks should be translated into first-order logic as "for all x, there is y such that x = y". Since this is a tautology of classical first-order logic, Quine is thinking that everyone should agree with it.

Moreover, "for all x, there is y such that x = y" is a tautology even of many free logics, which are designed to be neutral concerning questions of existence. But there are also free logics in which it is not a tautology, and proponents of these logics disagree with Quine. Richard Routley in "On What There is Not" takes this line.

Historically, views of this kind are associated with Alexius Meinong. So besides Routley, other philosophers who espouse so-called Meinongianism are likely to disagree with Quine about this, for example, Graham Priest or Edward Zalta. But one would need to check the details of their views to be sure.

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    Thanks, this is informative, concise and to the point. Feb 26 at 10:42
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Quine is simply presenting a definition of 'everything'. Think of it this way. If I ask 'what is there?', a correct but unhelpful answer is 'whatever there is'. You cannot disagree with that answer, since it is really just a re-expression of the content of the question. If you define 'everything' as meaning 'whatever there is', then 'everything' becomes the answer to the question 'What is there?' by definition, so you cannot disagree with it if you accept that definition of 'everything'. Of course, you can adopt the view that 'everything' has some other meaning, and therefore disagree with Quine on that basis, but then you would be making the mistake of arguing at cross purposes.

Likewise you can define 'everything' to mean 'all that exists', in which case you cannot argue against the statement that everything exists except by arguing about the definition.

It is a truism to say whatever exists exists, and it is hardly less of a truism to say everything exists if you define 'everything' to mean 'whatever exists'.

Addendum

To cover your comments on my answer...

When Quine says 'everything' is the indisputable answer to the question 'what is there?', I say it is sensible to assume that by 'everything' he meant 'everything that there is', ie that he was employing a deliberate tautology. You seem to be suggesting that by 'everything' he instead meant 'everything that there is and some things that there are not'. Since that would render his claim patently wrong from the get-go, what on Earth makes you think he would be so stupid as to have intended your interpretation of his words?

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  • "the mistake of arguing at cross purposes" So I can say whatever I please provided I assume definitions which would make anyone disagreeing with me argue at cross purposes. Good to know. Feb 22 at 10:19
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    I think you are missing my point. You are quite free to argue against the validity of Quine's assumed definition of everything. You would be arguing at cross purposes if you criticised his reasoning from the assumption, rather than questioning the validity of the definition itself. Feb 22 at 10:27
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    You are still missing my point, which is that in Quine's view everything exists by definition, so why wouldn't you accept it? Feb 22 at 14:29
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    Sure I'm making it up. I'm not Quine. I never responded to any of his increasingly fawning requests to meet me, so I don't have it on his authority that he meant what I claim he meant. I am making what I believe to be the only sensible interpretation of his words. Despite all his shortcomings, he wasn't a complete idiot, so what else could he have meant? Feb 22 at 18:04
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    @Speakpigeon: Quine is not writing a machine-assisted proof. He is not required to present his argument in a fixed format such as what you propose. The word "everything" is so slippery that I would venture to say it lacks a "standard" definition altogether. The only sensible interpretation of the quoted passage is as an implicit definition.
    – Kevin
    Feb 22 at 20:46
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This has to be understood as a part of the linguistic turn, where classic philosophical problems were reconceptualized as problems of language. In this case, the fundamental question "What exists?" is rephrased as "What is there?" and answered with "Everything." In the same paragraph, Quine goes on to explain "this is merely to say there is what there is". That is a seeming tautology, but it has a marked resemblance to Quine's infamous

"Snow is white" if and only if snow is white
Philosophy of Logic

which is an attempt to bring philosophical rigor to the concept of definition.

That brings us to the question of whether this is, in fact, something every philosopher would agree with. Plato, for instance, thought the entire phenomenal world was an illusion. So either his "everything" would have almost no overlap with Quine's "everything" or he would disagree that "everything" exists. I think this traps Quine in a dilemma. Either he's spouting a tautology with no actual content, making everyone's agreement with it trivial, or he's using a word with multiple referents as a way to manufacture a false consensus.

So, is Quine saying anything of value here? Many philosophers would argue that the linguistic reframing of philosophy "solved" problems only by removing all the important content, and ending up with tautologies. That seems like a fair criticism in this particular case.

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  • Surely you are missing Quine's point. He didn't say that the entire phenomenological world was not an illusion. He didn't actually say what individual things did or did not exist. He said, in effect, that whatever exists exists. Feb 22 at 20:40
  • While I generally find your answers informative, I wonder whether you're using the right word — phenomenological? Or phenomenal? Just a reminder Plato was dead a couple of years before Husserl 😉 See point 3 in my profile
    – Rushi
    Feb 23 at 1:35
  • @Rushi - Thanks for the catch Feb 23 at 14:54
  • @MarcoOcram Yes, but Plato's "everything" wouldn't be Quine's. I'll unpack that a bit more Feb 23 at 14:56
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According to your summary, Quine did not propose the answer "Everything there is" (which would be circular), but rather the answer "Everything". This may be initially plausible but on closer analysis runs into insurmountable problems. Thus, in set theory, we have the well-known paradox that the set of all sets does not exist. So technically speaking Quine's answer is incorrect.

In fact, it is well known that some famous philosophers did deny that anything exists; George Berkeley comes to mind. Before him, Leibniz denied that physical entities exist in a fundamental way, and argued that they only exist as phenomena, similar to a rainbow; the truly existing entities are monads, located not in a physical realm but rather in a fundamental metaphysical realm.

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Quine's position is motivated by two considerations. One is a very hard-headed and pragmatic approach to philosophy. Quine advocates a strongly empiricist approach to philosophy that is minimalistic and reductionist. For example, he was strongly influenced by behaviourism, which was popular in the middle of the 20th century. Quine's preferred ontology is extremely sparse, which is why he uses the metaphor of a desert landscape.

Secondly, Quine is keen to use formal logic as a way to improve and regiment the way we describe the world, in order to overcome the limitations and ambiguities of natural languages. First-order logic provides a mechanism for quantifying over things and for stating that some predicates are instantiated and others are not. 'Everything' is a quantifier. Quine proposes to use this mechanism of quantification as a criterion of existence. There are existing things and we can quantify over them; but we cannot quantify over things that do not exist. Hence his dictum that to be is to be the value of a variable.

However, there is plenty of room to disagree. Here are a few examples:

Propositions such as, "Santa Claus does not exist" or "the lumeniferous ether does not exist" are meaningful and true. We can also introduce quantifiers, e.g. "none of Santa's reindeer exist". Quine and others work around this by treating names as definite descriptions.

"All dragons are fictional" is true. "Han Solo is my favourite of all the characters in the Star Wars films" is true. We might treat this as quantification over things that exist in a fictional domain.

Numbers and sets are said to exist. Quine's preferred option is to say they exist as abstract objects and that the justification for this lies in the indispensable role that mathematics plays in our understanding of science.

We can speak meaningfully of things that do not exist but might. If my parents had chosen to have another child, I would have a younger sibling. If we wish to preserve our planet for future generations that may or may not exist, we need to take better care of it. According to some theories, if the universe were empty, matter would spontaneously come into existence. Some philosophers prefer to approach claims like this by using an extended domain of things that subsist rather than exist. Or they may speak of existence within a possible world. Or they may speak of a domain of possibilities that become concrete at particular worlds. Quine was skeptical about any of this, but his views on existence are not as influential as they used to be.

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  • Your answer is interesting but does not address my question. - 2. "Quine advocates a strongly empiricist approach to philosophy" He was delusional, then, for his claim that everyone would agree that everything exists is purely theoretic as you explain yourself and therefore not justified by empirical data. - 3. "in order to overcome the limitations and ambiguities of natural languages" You can't do that by using a theory of logic which is patently erroneous. Feb 22 at 17:27
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For these type of questions about existence I find the proponents of Eleatic Monism (like Parmenides) had the most impactful and easy to understand wisdom.

It is easy for humans to talk/speak in a "two-headed" (contradictory) way about what there is and what there isn't. Yet, how can we truthfully talk about anything which does not exist? The simplest statement of existence according to them, which no one initially troubles with, is something along the lines of what is is, and what isn't isn't. This seems defaultly true. But what isn't? We can say such words about non-existence, but we can't actually talk truthfully about something which truly does not exist. The wisdom is, we are confused when we do so. We can try to talk about non-existing things, and often say such phrases, but that is only because we are confused, two-headed mortals. They thought essentially, or pointed out, that from what exists we can't truthfully say anything about non-existence. Yet we do it all the time.

This is why I think Quine's statement is just echoing the old wisdom, everything is really everything because non-existence can't be captured by "everything" truthfully, our most "powerful term", even if existence is not infinite (finitude being a tenet of Paremenedes). It's non-contentious due to so much pedigree of this thinking for over two millenia. Everything exists is just a two-millenia old rephrasing. That is our limitation, or the limitation of existence, to only be able to speak of existing things, even if we often speak (erroneously) like we can speak of non-existence.

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