I am unsure of what I am trying to put my finger on, but it seems like it is an enormous assumption that ontological commitments can be - or should be - necessitated by simply the language that we use. Breaking down sentences or statements into their syntactical and semantical parts and then affirm the existence of various beings or objects simply because we give them a name seems like it leads to the absurd.

Is it possible to, or is there any school of philosophy that, denies that there is an essential connection between parts of speech and ontology?

It just seems that in any other area of logical thought, if our logical/computational analysis of a statement led to the conclusion that fictional characters "must" exist, that it would constitute a red flag that would make us reconsider out path to such a nonsensical conclusion. However, within metaphysics, such a conclusion is considered a valid and reasonable.

Thank you for any assistance or insight you may be able to provide me.

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    It's trivial true that it is possible to deny any connection between language and reality. Perhaps a better wording would be is the position that language does not imply metaphysics trivially disprovable?
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 7:11
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    But it is also trivually true that language has unavoidable "ontological" commitments: if we spak, we assume that there is some sort of recipeint of our message. If we speak we assume that there is something "to speak about". Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 9:37
  • ^^^ This is EXACTLY the initial assumption I am talking about. And I have to say that I am not so sure that it is that simple. Also, I am not convinced that it is so simply the case that language a priori assumes the existence things. These basic assumptions are what lead my analytic metaphysics professor to "prove conclusively" that Mickey Mouse and Sherlock Holmes "exist. Why isn't this conclusion a major red flag that our reasoning has led us in a wrong direction? Instead, such talk is seen as a super-sexy thesis with lots of possibilities - and to me it is all trumped-up nonsense.
    – user23859
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 16:40
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    @Mauro ALLEGRANZA: it's true that all utterance is characterized by addressivity (Bakhtin, utpress.utexas.edu/books/bakess). but that in no way entails an "ontological commitent", any more than my reaching for a glass of beer entails auch a commitment.
    – user20153
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 20:26
  • @mobileink - I am embarrassed to say that I could not think of such a counterexample, but the one you brought is exactly the type of thing that I have been looking for. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but I think that the arguments for ontology and ontological commitment that arise from language tend to be tautological(?) and self-affirming. A belief that because sentences are syntactically and/or semantically correct that they also therefore entail the existence about which they speak is a belief that one must adopt a priori it seems.
    – user23859
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 22:59

4 Answers 4


This very issue is analyzed in detail in Quine's paper On What There Is, you may want to read it in full, it is short and freely available. Here is the key passage:

"We can very easily involve ourselves in ontological commitments by saying, for example, that there is something (bound variable) which red houses and sunsets have in common; or that there is something which is a prime number larger than a million. But, this is, essentially, the only way we can involve ourselves in ontological commitments: by our use of bound variables. The use of alleged names is no criterion, for we can repudiate their namehood at the drop of a hat unless the assumption of a corresponding entity can be spotted in the things we affirm in terms of bound variables. Names are, in fact, altogether immaterial to the ontological issue, for I have shown, in connection with „Pegasus‟ and „pegasize‟, that names can be converted to descriptions, and Russell has shown that descriptions can be eliminated."

This is argued against the proponents of "intentional objects", who say that talking about Pegasus would be nonsensical if Pegasus were not, therefore our very saying that "Pegasus is not" commits us to claiming that Pegasus is. Quine suggests that "Pegasus is not" can be paraphrased into Russell's definite description "There is nothing that pegasizes", which frees us from any commitments ("pegasize" is an "unanalyzable, irreducible attribute of being Pegasus"). On the other hand, if we wished to commit we could just say "There is something that pegasizes". Later Quine extended his analysis from languages to theories and developed the indispensability criterion: a theory is ontologically committed to those and only those entities that are needed as values of the bound variables for this theory to be true. He then argued along with Putnam that our current science commits us to the existence of abstract entities, like sets and numbers, because they are indispensable.

Quine's position is quite popular in modern analytic philosophy, but as everything in philosophy, it is not without critics. General critiques of descriptivism in establishing reference of proper names and natural kinds were championed by Kripke, and if descriptivism does not, in fact, adequately describe reference then it can be doubted that Russell's paraphrase is innocent with respect to ontological commitments.

An even more radical ontological disinvestment of language is known as fictionalism. As Nolan, Restall and West put it

The simplest fictionalist approach to a discourse takes certain claims in that discourse to be literally false, but nevertheless worth uttering in certain contexts, since the pretence that such claims are true is worthwhile for various theoretical purposes”.

Berkeley's quip "we ought to think with the learned but speak with the vulgar" is seen as an early expression of this position in response to the criticism that his phenomenalsim runs counter to the "ontology" of common sense. Horwich and Williams interpret late Wittgenstein in this vein, arguing that statements only have "assertibility conditions" rather than "truth conditions", and therefore language can entail no ontological commitments whatsoever.

I am not sure that linguistic arguments concluding that something "must" exist would be considered reasonable even in today's metaphysics. A classical example is the "ontological argument", whose rejection by Kant on the grounds that "existence is not a predicate" is largely shared today.

  • Thank you very much. I have tried looking to Kant for some direction in my own formulations, but my Metaphysics professor just keeps re-asserting that "Kant was a fing shiy philosopher" and that "Kant scholars are f**ing guzzling the koolaid" when they think that anything he had to say was worthwhile. (Yes, my professor is tenured, so he says what he wants). This type of constant mud-slinging puts up redflags for me that, despite the incredible amount of knowledge and capability that is possessed by my professor, he stoops to such comments because he has nothing else to refute them with.
    – user23859
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 23:08
  • @Maimonist This does sound out of line. Kant's critique was a serious challenge to the traditional ways of doing metaphysics, it had to be re-imagined after him (Hegel is often named as a leading re-imaginer). Kant's argument was that not only language but content of any cognitive medium, including perception and reason, are not binding on ontology, his "thing-in-itself" is completely unknowable.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 2:03

Yes, there are philosophical possibilities to deny that language necessitates ontological commitments. The presumption that language does necessitates ontological commitments is an invention of 20th century analytic philosophy, and it is highly contentious there too.

Arguing from language was ridiculed by philosophers throughout history. Here, for example, is how Socrates summarizes Plato's dialogue Cratylus, the only dialogue of Plato that centered on language:

Whether there is this eternal nature in things, or whether the truth is what Heracleitus and his followers and many others say, is a question hard to determine; and no man of sense will like to put himself or the education of his mind in the power of names.

Even Quine, in the very paper that inaugurated the meta ontological debate on ontological commitment, stressed that language is at best the sign, not the substance:

It is no wonder, then, that ontological controversy should tend into controversy over language. But we must not jump to the conclusion that what there is depends on words. Translatability of a question into semantical terms is no indication that the question is linguistic. To see Naples is to bear a name which, when prefixed to the words „sees Naples‟, yields a true sentence; still there is nothing linguistic about seeing Naples. ("On what there is" 1948)

As to the specific issue of the existence of fictional objects, like Mickey Mouse and Sherlock Holmes, see the SEP article on fiction for a review of contemporary positions and arguments. Four main positions are discussed: Possibilism: fictional objects are possible entities, Meinongianism: fictional objects are actual entities, Creationism: fictional objects are author dependent entities, Anti Realism: fictional objects are not entities (they do not exist).


Yes, it is possible to deny, and I do so now. Perhaps languages that are fluid, and gradually evolved for the purposes of communication. A designed language, however, this does not apply to. Take for instance, programming languages. No ontology is necessary, and it would be possible to design a language that also functioned as a programming language.

  • Okay, but wouldn't someone just retort that invented/programming languages also entail at least some sort of ontology since "x" or "y," "a" or "b" etc. in such languages does refer to an actual SOMETHING, doesn't it?
    – user23859
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 21:12
  • Perhaps, but since 'x', 'y', 'a', 'b', can all be defined and redefined, the something is by no means consistent enough to be an actual ontological commitment.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 21:54
  • But I suppose, you must allow for concepts such as 'True', and 'False', in order to converse in such a language, therefore necessitating the existance of objective truth.
    – Piomicron
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 21:58
  • Well, at least "objective" relative to what is being discussed. So, "relatively objective" would likely be what is necessitated.
    – user23859
    Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 23:00

The use of language implies "ontological commitments". By posting this answer to your question, I am committing to the weird and undemonstrable ideas that you exist, that languages exist, and that it is possible to make meaningful statements about existing things.

From this, of course, it does not follow any kind of linguistic idealism, such as "if we can talk about unicorns, then they must 'exist' in some sence at least".

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