Motto : Crapula ingenium offuscat. Traduction : "le bec du perroquet qu'il essuie, quoiqu'il soit net" (Pascal, Pensées, L : 6/107).

Ce blog est ouvert pour faire connaître les activités d'un groupe de recherches, le Séminaire de métaphysique d'Aix en Provence (ou SEMa). Créé fin 2004, ce séminaire est un lieu d'échanges et de propositions. Accueilli par l'IHP (EA 3276) à l'Université d'Aix Marseille (AMU), il est animé par Jean-Maurice Monnoyer, bien que ce blog lui-même ait été mis en place par ses étudiants le 4 mai 2013.

Thèmes de recherche : Métaphysique analytique, Histoire de la philosophie classique, moderne et contemporaine,

Métaphysique de la perception et de la cognition. Austrian Philosophy. Méta-esthétique.

Philosophie du réalisme scientifique.

dimanche 1 septembre 2013

The Boundless

Unearthing the ontology of matter from the ground of mass nouns

Henry Laycock

         Introduction: mass nouns, ontology and boundlessness[1]

The essay is no more than an ambitious, programmatic sketch, argued as best I can, for what would have to be a considerably more ambitious enterprise – a developed and integrated general theory of what, for want of a better word, I am calling ‘matter’. Rough and ready though it is, the project is ambitious, in striving to bring together questions of reference and denoting, logical form, and ontological – preferably, ontic – commitment, with major categories of natural / physical phenomena, such as mixture, chemical transformation, and fluidity in its relation to solidity, along with associated conservation principles. The crucial integrating principle between these two seemingly very different groups of phenomena – between logico-semantic questions, and questions much closer to the philosophy of chemistry – is a fairly systematic, and essentially novel, wide-ranging semantical taxonomy of nouns and their occurrences, some of which I classify as ‘boundless’.

At front and centre of the work, there is a question close in form to Quine’s, concerning what there is. The question concerns ontic categories as reflected in the general structure of our thought and talk – categories of being, that is, recognised implicitly by all of human folk.[2] It is a question that falls within the sphere of analytical, non-speculative metaphysics – and to that extent, within a broadly Aristotelian tradition. However I part company with Quine in particular, in offering no single all-inclusive answer to the ontic question; there is in my view no such unique answer. My concern, indeed, is with just the one specific category of being – that of stuff or matter, concrete stuff like sugar, water, iron, coffee, salt, and clay. What Davidson once called ‘the problem of mass nouns’ must therefore be among my chief concerns: the problem has by no means been resolved; mass nouns are quite poorly understood, and the issue runs both broad and deep.[3] Quine himself approaches this problem repeatedly, and with an exceptional seriousness – seeming to see it as potentially a sort of threat to our crystalline paradigm, the established and ‘adult’ discourse of objects. [4]
Furthermore, there is little doubt that this discourse – a certain fragment of which is brilliantly represented in the predicate calculus – is not well suited to the formal properties of mass nouns. In fact, this is something of an understatement; for although there are features of mass nouns that can be very well modelled in this calculus, there are some major features that it is impossible to represent within the system. And what to the true votary might seem especially disconcerting is that precisely this latter set of features is displayed by count nouns too. In the case of count nouns, the features reflect an aspect of the underlying abstract concept which I call the numerical neutrality of the object-concept. The fact is – as is increasingly widely recognised – that the predicate calculus is an instrument of limited power, even for capturing some major semantic features of count nouns as a general class. Most commonly noted here is the essential singularity of variables (or by the same token, the limitations on predication to its to distributive forms). There are several other such major inadequacies.[5] To the extent that one is interested, with Quine, in ontology, it is certainly arguable that these inadequacies are of no great import. However, when the self-same failure occurs with mass nouns, the ontology here is massively affected, indeed distorted almost beyond recognition. Notwithstanding the obvious historicity of (actual) systems of formal logic, there is a naive but widespread tendency (determined largely by modes of instruction) to view the present system as the ultimate incarnation of reason, descending, as it were, directly from the Platonic heaven of perfect forms. Needless to say, nothing could be further from the plain truth.

Like count nouns, mass nouns as a general class are an extremely diverse group. And there are many words among the concrete mass nouns, words like ‘furniture’ and ‘traffic’, that are not, in any sense I use, words for kinds of stuff or matter. Nevertheless, a specifically metaphysical interest in the denotation of those mass nouns that are in fact words for matter – words, very roughly, for material stuffs or substances in the chemical sense – may be naturally characterised as falling under the philosophy of matter. And it is fair to say that the place of matter within metaphysics, and its relationships with the traditional categories of individual substance, property or general attribute and species, genus or kind, have never been very clearly established.[6] Indeed, since the scientific revolution, the ontic category of matter has rarely been examined, or even recognized as such, within philosophy. The ancient and mediaeval worlds faced no such absence of sustained philosophical enquiry into the categories of nature.

There are, of course, those for whom the very phrase ‘philosophy of matter’ suggests no more than an inappropriate encroachment of philosophy upon the realms of chemistry and physics. In the case of consciousness and mind, it may be said, philosophy still plainly has some role to play; but what, after all, can philosophy possibly hope to contribute to our understanding of matter? The suggestion, in essence, is that there is nothing of legitimate interest here to be explored.[7] A full and satisfactory answer to the question would defend one central notion here at play, the notion of a category, and would highlight the deep and largely negative influence of an a prioristic scientism in modern thought. However, as Quine and Davidson have often stressed, ontic categories, qua logical or quasi-logical, call for very broad respect.[8] Having declared that what ‘thus confronts us as a scheme for systems of the world is that structure so well understood by present day logicians, the logic of quantification or calculus of predicates’, Quine adds – speaking, once again, for himself –

The doctrine is that all traits of reality worthy of the name can be set down in an idiom of this austere form if in any idiom. It is in spirit a philosophical doctrine of categories.[9]

But notwithstanding this very natural affinity, the present attempt to re-instate the category of matter in ontology has no less in common with the pre-Socratic spirit than it does with Quine. And in this sense, I find myself obliged to step outside the boundaries decreed by Quine. The basic and compelling lesson of the pre-Socratics, as I have learned it, is that the category of stuff or matter diverges profoundly from that which dominates the present day; and what was said by one philosopher of the past century is no less true today:

The minds of men in the twentieth century, for whom a belief in the stable identity of objects is part of the ruling mode of thought, must make an effort of science and will to recapture the universal presence of becoming.[10]

Words for objects, count nouns, are tellingly dubbed by Bloomfield as ‘bounded’ nouns; whereas it is a central feature of the pre-Socratic view of stuff like air and water that it is boundless. Parenthetically, I should say that I am no more interested in the promotion of what has been called a ‘stuff ontology’ (whatever that might be) than an in defending an ‘ontology of things’; ‘ontologies’ in this sense, as it seems to me, are akin to games of chess. I do however reject the Quinean claim, echoed more recently (and if anything less equivocally) by others, that we have no option but to talk and ‘think in terms of things’.[11]

Nevertheless, the most serious defect in current thinking on these matters is a defect in our thinking about things. The simple reason why the so-called ‘problem of mass nouns’ is a problem is that the standard count noun framework is deficient. The problem of mass nouns is a relatively new one within philosophy; and it appears to have come into focus, precisely in the light of Frege’s pre-existing formal framework.[12] The default form of object-talk is taken to be singular, and on such a basis, much of what we say cannot be adequately understood. Correlatively, the shift in perspective I take to be required, to clearly view the structure of the formal landscape, is probably the most challenging aspect of this work. At the same time, the idea that the tail of our most recent form of logic should wag the dog of thought, in general and as such, looks all too much like yet another way of closing off the paths of free enquiry. At the end of the day, the system which effectively excludes matter from ontology, along with the character of its remarkable transformations, is no more, I think, than just another prejudice or dogma – but a unusually powerful dogma for all that, backed up and reinforced, as it seems to be, by certain inescapable features of the human condition. It is with these conditions that the argument begins.

         I. Ontology in the web of belief

1.0 Ontology and life-world. We live and breathe within a network of ideas – what Quine has called the web of belief, and others, our conceptual structure (framework, scheme). Speaking not of beliefs but words, Quine writes of a ‘structure of interconnected sentences [as] a single fabric including all sciences, and indeed everything we ever say about the world’. That everything we ever say about the world may be thought of as a single interconnected – developing and expanding – totality is surely plausible.[13] But this totality is far from being homogeneous; the structure is composed of distinct elements. Among the basic elements of such a scheme, most fundamental has to be an inferential framework for belief and reasoning, a framework linked, albeit somewhat loosely, to existing formal systems of the predicate calculus. Beyond this, any such scheme, for embodied thinking beings such as we, cannot but include both ontological and epistemic elements – and in particular, a contrast between ‘how things look’ and ‘how they really are’. And in extremely general, highly abstract terms, our beliefs concerning how things really are, are just what make up our ontology.[14]

The ontic point of view is an objective point of view, and this is so, because we have no choice but to conceive the world objectively – as independent of experience, not as merely ‘data’ for our senses. As the organic, thinking beings that we are, possessed of reason and perception, we cannot avoid the contrast of appearance and reality. And this is no mere fact of human nature; it is the uniquely and compellingly rational explanation for the heterogeneous phenomena of experience themselves. The contrast lays the basis for an explanation of many aspects of the subjective content of perceptual experience in terms of the objective relationship between the way things are, and the way we are as subjects. That the world indeed is the way in which we spontaneously infer it to be – in accordance with the cognitive distinction we spontaneously draw within perception, between the nature of the objects of perception and the character of appearances, perspectives and points of view – itself constitutes the explanatory basis of that spontaneous distinction.[15] We are inevitably rationalists of the intellect, and cannot but be realists.

What is sometimes (and often enough pejoratively) called ‘folk’ ontology, is in fact the theory of a system of objective categories of being. It can in my view make no claims, in cosmic terms, to be inclusive, to embody all that does or could exist, but simply reflects the objective categorial content of human thinking and perceptual experience of things. The system itself is implicit, or embodied, in an enormous mass of experientially grounded, commonplace beliefs about the world, and it is among the missions of philosophy to attempt to make this abstract system of beliefs and categories explicit. That this should be possible in the first place is a function of the fact that thought, unlike experience, is not intrinsically limited or bounded. As such and in itself, its character is free and open; and as involving concepts, is inherently universal – capable of contemplating the objects of mathematics, the boundless character of time and space, the thought of others, the structure of language, the nature of negation, the nature of the non-existent, the concept of existence itself; and, again, the basic contrast of appearance with reality. It is the task of reason, abstract thought alone and not experience, to isolate, identify, and thereby make objective ontic categories explicit.[16] And rendered thus explicit, ontology is counted as a discipline within the broad domain of metaphysics.[17]

Yet, from the standpoint of the total fabric, there is one element within the scheme – the counterpart of that domain which may be called the life-world – that looms uniquely large.
Quine puts the central point concisely in this way:

Linguistically, and hence conceptually, the things in sharpest focus are the things that are public enough to be talked of publicly, common and conspicuous enough to be talked of often, and near enough to sense to be quickly identified and learned by name; it is to these that words apply first and foremost.... our ordinary language of physical things is about as basic as language gets.... Our conceptual firsts are middle-sized, middle-distanced objects.[18]

A kindred principle of primacy, for those same concrete entities of everyday experience, is also urged by Peter Strawson, who speaks of a unitary ‘conceptual framework’ in terms of which we think and act – and in particular, as the symbolic animals we are, pursue our linguistic practises of reference and communication. Fundamental to this framework, he insists, is a system of enduring physical objects; and the relationships between these objects and human beings, with their characteristic perceptual and motor capacities, figure centrally in his account. The objects themselves, he remarks, must not only be three-dimensional objects with some endurance through time – they

must also be accessible to such means of observation as we have; and, since those means are strictly limited in power, they must collectively have enough diversity, richness, stability and endurance to make possible and natural just that conception of a single unitary framework which we possess. Of the categories of objects which we recognize, only those satisfy these requirements which are, or possess, material bodies... Material bodies constitute the framework.[19]

In a nustshell, Quine tells us that our everyday talk of physical objects ‘is about as basic as language gets’, that the things in sharpest focus, the ‘conceptual firsts’, are middle-sized bodies, and Strawson similarly maintains that material bodies are what ‘constitute the framework’ – that they are, as he also puts it, ‘the basic or fundamental particulars’ in our overall conceptual scheme.

Now there is something very plausible, and even true, about these cognate claims. The question is, exactly what? It seems both natural and reasonable to characterise these passages as thumbnail sketches of a central, fundamental feature of our world-view – our overall perspective or viewpoint, in some fairly literal sense, upon the world at large. What they are surely not, however, are ontic claims in a straightforwardly objective sense.[20] Rather, they are claims about the cognitive frame and contents of the human lebenswelt – about the kinds or categories that play a central role within the thought, experience and life activity of human beings (and presumably of other creatures much like us elsewhere). That physical objects do in fact constitute an ontic category is not, realistically, contentious: it is rather the significance of claims of ‘primacy’, ‘centrality’, and ‘framework-status’ that are in question; these are claims of an entirely different kind. In effect, I suggest, what both Quine and Strawson highlight, in their remarks about our total scheme of thought, is a vast, essentially pragmatic factor, broadly understood. At bottom, their concern is with the implications of embodiment for thought about the world, since it is our specific form of embodiment itself – along with the life-supporting environment in which we live and breathe – that constitutes the ultimate, physiological / organic basis of our lebenswelt, and consequently of our world-view.

These accounts are thereby of a piece with Heidegger’s account of our being in the world, which also places central emphasis on our relationships with other bodies; and for Heidegger, it is the concrete physical interaction with these things – crucially, our treatment of reality as manipulable – that counts as ‘basic’. For him, our most intimate relationships with the rest of the world are no mere matter of observation, even less of contemplation, but consist in direct intervention, in the usage and handling of individual tangible objects. Although, therefore, the ontic ‘point of view’ is an objective point of view, this point of view – more properly, this conception – nevertheless exists within the broader frame of reference.[21]

As both Quine and Strawson in effect suggest, the life-world forms the framework of the web or scheme itself. And yet, as Quine also remarks, ‘for all the difficulty of transcending our object-directed pattern of thought, we can examine it well enough from inside.’ Human beings exist in a vastly complex organic relationship with a physical reality which exists, for the most part, independently of them. As living organisms, as the embodied conscious beings we are, we possess a highly specialised physiological system of sensory receptors, filters, and focussing devices, matching our needs, interests and motor capacities, given the conditions in which we find ourselves. The interplay of the perceptual / cognitive system with the vast totality of physical process in the immediate environment, from the flood of neutrinos to the wash of gravity waves, must select out as central just those categories bearing on our particular mode of embodiment and our environmental niche. The dimensions of this highly complex organic relationship naturally include physical and biological factors, along with psychological and cognitive dimensions – all of which are plainly open to empirical investigation. It is among the tasks of empirical enquiry, along with mathematics and philosophy, to identify, explain, and thereby transcend such elements.[22]

The fact is that our cognitive frame of reference and our common point of view are necessary features of our life world – we are essentially embodied, and there is no other reference-frame; human perceptual experience of an independent reality cannot but be grounded and rooted in a spatio-temporally localised point of view, in which the focus of direct experience – in stark contrast with that of thought – can be nothing other than the here and now: our attention is almost unavoidably directed to this, that and the other; and Quine’s individuating, ‘object-directed pattern of thought’ prevails. Such is life that we are, as both authors rightly note, compellingly preoccupied with local, ‘middle-sized’ things. And not only is it the case that our experience and presence in the world are essentially local, limited and bounded, but also, to belabour the obvious, the value of experience is by no means purely cognitive. Experience is not only informative; it is characteristically interesting, and typically enjoyable.[23] Though we cannot but be rationalists of the head, we are also, and inescapably, empiricists at heart. We are profoundly immersed in and at home with the rich and deeply engaging world of the senses, with sights and scenes, sounds and colours, tastes and touches; and home is surely where the heart is.[24]

Insofar as it is shaped by our experience – which is, in a word, massively – our world-view is itself not merely cognitive. Hence in direct proportion to the scope and depth of influence of the pragmatic framework, the task of an objective, independent ontic account becomes more challenging.[25] The scheme embodies or reflects the life-world; but at the same time, being ontically realistic, it cannot but transcend it. The relationship of reason to experience cannot then be entirely harmonious. The possibility of tension, strain and stress (if not outright distortion or confusion) between the poles of our embodied, experience-saturated particularity and our inbuilt, viewpoint-independent realism cannot be counted out. The tensions are sometimes expressed as ontic disputes – disputes about, just for instance, the nature of colour, or as questions about the relationship between ‘is red’ and ‘looks red’ – and are also present in such simple facts as this, that there are often two ways of describing appearances themselves. How are we to describe the appearance of the surface of a circular or square table, for example, if not viewed from a central position perpendicular to the surface – round or not, square or not? Indeed, the evidence suggests that insofar as ontic categories are concerned, there may be deep distorting pressures from the life world.

As plausible claims about the basic role of bodies within the web of belief, therefore, these claims of fundamentality must be distinguished from purely ontic claims as to the primacy of bodies. Such claims seem to be a feature especially of the still-influential Aristotelian tradition, and are succinctly presented in the Categories: speaking of his so-called ‘primary substances’ or concrete individual things, Aristotle writes

Everything else is either said of primary substances as subjects, or in them as subjects ... if primary substances did not exist, it would be impossible for anything else to exist.[26]

The ontic thesis is, indeed, a logico-semantic thesis: primary substances are presented as the logically primary objects of both reference and predication; a primary substance is described as ‘this-something’, such that everything else (general attributes, relations, etc.) is either ultimately predicated of such objects, or has a logico-ontic dependence on them (tropes, or particularized attributes – the redness of Rudolf’s nose, and suchlike). Aristotle here forges a remarkable equation between being a subject of concrete reference or ostension, and constituting a fundamental element of being: on his account, so it would seem, the basic cosmic principle is precisely isomorphic with a symbolic human act.

Now it can hardly be said to be intuitively obvious that such phenomena as radiation, gravitational and magnetic fields, gravity waves, the geometrical structure of space-time and indeed the all-encompassing space-time continuum as such, must be counted either as physical objects themselves or as somehow ‘secondary’ modes of being to such objects. And in any case, Aristotle’s argument appears to beg a crucial question. The claim that primary substances are the basic, independent subjects of predication, whereby everything else is either predicated of or present in them, presupposes that we are somehow already in possession of the exhaustive list of ‘everything else’. However, Aristotle nowhere provides an argument to the effect that primary substances, along with his small list of items that are ‘said of primary substances as subjects or in them’, exhaust the general categories of what there is.[27] And as it happens, at least one plausible candidate for ontic status – the very one of present interest – is manifestly absent from Aristotle’s list of ‘everything else’. It is often remarked that matter, material stuff or hyle is nowhere mentioned in the Categories. The suspicion must remain that any supposed logico-ontic primacy of bodies is ultimately epistemic or pragmatic primacy, albeit in a metaphysical or logical disguise.

In a passage which is eminently worth quoting at some length – a passage which also echoes much of what was said concerning bodies as they figure in the life-world (and so in the remarks of Quine and Strawson) – Peter Simons has this to say on Aristotle’s argument:

Aristotle’s Categories theory of substances as concrete individuals dovetails less with physical and metaphysical than with linguistic and epistemological concerns. Material things, organisms, geographical features and heavenly bodies are our constant companions through life. We are born of them, marry them, make them, change them, destroy them, buy and sell them, explore them. We fill our waking and sleeping hours talking and thinking about them. Piaget’s psychogenetic studies and Strawson’s transcendental arguments suggest we could not communicate or even think were we not able to manipulate them, identify, trace and reidentify them. For this to be possible, they must be discriminated by us into sorts, and each sortal concept must connote conditions of persistence and reidentification. To achieve this is, in Quine’s words, to learn to divide reference, mastery of which affords us the formal concept of individual and sets us on the road to understanding number. It is the key to further cogntive achievements....[28]

1.1 Drawing boundaries: linguistics and mass nouns. So far as the distinctively modern philosophical consciousness is concerned, awareness of the fact that a distinct and sui generis category of matter actually exists in the domain of metaphysics has begun to dawn, so it would seem, only within the past sixty years or thereabouts. This we owe in large part to Otto Jespersen’s achievements in linguistics. It is to Jespersen that we owe our formal recognition of the lexical classes of mass and count nouns, our adoption of the matching  terminology of ‘mass’ and ‘count’, and especially our growing awareness of the problematic nature of the former category. It is to his introduction and philosophically-coloured examination of the dichotomy of ‘mass words’ and ‘thing words’, in the early decades of the 20th Century, that Quine initially refers in Word and Object.

Jespersen writes of ‘mass words’, contrasting these with what he calls ‘countables’ or ‘thing words’, and speaks of them as words for substances. The thought that such words have a kind of special metaphysical significance receives expression in the following oft-quoted passage:

There are a great many words which do not call up the idea of some definite thing with a certain shape or precise limits. I call these ‘mass-words’; they may be either material, in which case they denote some substance in itself independent of form, such as silver, quicksilver, water, butter, gas, air, etc., or else immaterial, such as leisure, music, traffic, success, tact, commonsense, and ... satisfaction, admiration, refinement, from verbs, or ... restlessness, justice, safety, constancy, from adjectives.[29]

Just what sort of an idea is that of a substance such as water, air, or butter – a substance ‘in itself, and independent of form’, what Jespersen calls an uncountable – and what exactly is its metaphysical significance? First and foremost, it is crucial to acknowledge that like count nouns, mass nouns are an extremely diverse group; and while there is a reasonably clear semantical distinction between the two groups, it is evident that mass nouns do not as such denote an ontic category distinct from that of countables or things. There is a sense in which, as Quine puts it, the contrast is ‘in the words’; it is no more than syntactic and semantic. Whether we refer to knives, forks and spoons as such, or as cutlery, there is no corresponding ontic contrast.

Nevertheless, the contrast between knives and forks, or cutlery, on the one hand, and soup and cheese on the other, is an ontic contrast. It is an ontic contrast either between count and mass nouns, if we opt for ‘knives and forks’, or between two kinds of mass nouns, if we opt for ‘cutlery’. Yet mass nouns in general have certain universal properties whose significance emerges perhaps most clearly in such cases. In particular, the absence of ‘a certain shape or precise limits’ – the concept, in effect, of a boundary – is a feature equally of cutlery, of flour, and of wine. And precisely because of this absence of a boundary or limit, it is not only such stuff as flour and wine, but also such things as knives, forks and spoons, that may be said to be scattered all over the place: the concepts of both multitude and mass are universally, as I shall say, non-unitary or non-singular, and so impose no boundaries or limits on their application. Hence while mass nouns are sometimes contrasted with count nouns in terms of the idea of failing to draw boundaries, the fact is that this ‘failure’ is no less relevant to count nouns, when used in plural contexts. Individually, the ideas of knives, forks and spoons are the ideas of determinate things with specific shapes or precise limits, but collectively, the scatter of knives, forks and spoons needs know no bounds. Bloomfield’s graphic talk of words for discrete things as ‘bounded’ nouns concerns their application only in the singular; but qua multiplicity, knives and forks – much like flour and wine – may be scattered without limits , and are in principle entirely boundless.

The intuitive point mentioned by Jespersen – that the idea of a substance (‘in itself and independent of form’) is not (unlike the ideas of chairs and tables, cats and dogs) the idea of a definite thing with certain shapes or precise limits – is therefore, and in the very simplest way, no more than half the truth. On the basis of Jespersen’s remarks, it might seem that there is a kind of challenge, in grasping the idea of a substance ‘in itself and independent of form’, precisely because it is not the idea of a definite thing with a certain shape or precise limits. It might seem that for just this reason, the imagination here confronts a certain difficulty or unease. Like the idea of a chair or table, the idea of solid block of ice or butter is one thing; but the idea of a substance in itself and independent of form – the mere idea of water, gas, air, and so forth – is quite another. But then, is this idea of a substance in itself and independent of form a mere abstraction?[30] Is it perhaps a condition of adequate imaginings, that what is thus imagined should have a certain shape or limits? However, to ask such questions, or to think of the issue in this manner, is deeply misleading. For just this challenge does not seem to hold for cutlery ‘outside the box’, or scattered furniture, or jewelry. The challenge, rather, in the case of water, butter and the like, would seem to lie in the absence of individual constituents – the absence of a corresponding scatterable multiplicity. Both stuff and things, conceived in aggregate, are in principle boundless: the difference is that things are essentially particulate and therefore countable with count nouns, whereas stuff, with matching nouns, is not.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that within the life world, materials are very commonly present and manifest within the frame of object-dominance. In contrast with the roles of everyday physical objects, the practical roles of materials in our lives are very often, or typically, mediated by something else – the physical objects themselves. In that sense they are often less immediate, occurring as they commonly do in the form of bounded objects composed of the materials in question; or in cases in which the materials are not themselves the materials of which anything is actually made – as with dry goods such as sugar, flour and salt, and liquids such as wine and beer – the materials are neatly packaged, or bottled, by the use of containers, and so, in a different way, do not occur distinct from physical objects. Concerned about identity, we track the ice cube, not the ice; the bottle, not the wine inside it.[31] These are plainly features of the objective environmental situation in which we inevitably find ourselves; our existence is only possible within a situation whereby most matter has long since condensed from hot gases, dust and so forth into the form of discrete solid objects. Indeed it is only where a substance is not solid, and is not playing a role within the life-world – not bottled or contained – that the very distinction between materials and physical objects is potentially made manifest within perception. And as it happens, there is only one substance of which this is typically true. Atmospheric air, of course, is both invisible and virtually intangible; but water, while invisible as vapour, condenses from this state and falls visibly and palpably as rain, gathering to flow in rivers, passing through lakes, entering the oceans.[32] And in Part IV, I shall defend the intuitive idea that the relative stability and re-identifiability of many material objects – the basis of our own and maybe any referential framework – simply has no analog, where fluid matter is concerned: here, in the nature of the case, there are no landmarks – no stable, bounded ‘this-somethings’. In physical theory, materials are arguably more fundamental than bodies – many properties of bodies derive from those of matter (density, colour, taste, resilience and so forth, although, of course, not size or shape). Hence from a strictly ontic point of view, there is no reason to suppose that the lebenswelt  primacy of bodies should be incompatible with a more basic, ‘boundless’ role for matter.

1.2 Encounters of philosophy with mass nouns. Now certain logical questions about mass nouns like ‘water’, alongside related ontic questions about stuff like water, are considered at some length by Quine. Indeed, these issues occupy a distinctive and important place within his thought; and in the case of mass nouns, they are sometimes cast in an epistemic-cum-genetic mode.[33] He writes, for example, that along with adjectives like ‘red’, mass terms like ‘water’ can be learned

quite well before [a child] has mastered the ins and outs of our adult conceptual scheme of mobile enduring physical objects, identical from time to time and place to place.[34]

By way of contrast, it is

only when the child has got on to the full and proper use of individuative terms like ‘apple’ that he can properly be said to have taken to using terms as terms, and speaking of objects.

And so far as stuff or matter is concerned, he writes that

Water is scattered in discrete pools and glassfuls, and red in discrete objects; still it is just ‘pool’, ‘glassful’, and ‘object’, not ‘water’ or ‘red’, that divide their reference.

All of this, so I believe, is more or less correct; but its role within Quine’s overall account is very difficult to comprehend.[35] For, notwithstanding the above remarks, Quine nevertheless insists that we

persist in breaking reality down somehow into a multiplicity of identifiable and discriminable objects, to be referred to by singular and general terms. We talk so inveterately of objects that to say we do so seems almost to say nothing at all; for how else is there to talk? It is hard to say how else there is to talk ... because we are bound to adapt any alien pattern to our own in the very process of understanding or translating the alien sentences.

The implication is clear: ‘our own pattern’ is object-directed exclusively; and it is at this point that, having remarked on ‘the difficulty of transcending our object-directed pattern of thought’ Quine continues by suggesting that ‘we can examine it well enough from inside.’[36] However when we do so, we discover, dismayingly, that much of it just does not fit the object-directed pattern (as Quine had pointed out above). The overall account thus appears to be – and as it stands just is – completely incoherent.

Furthermore, the problem is not only the immaturity or undeveloped state of childhood – the mastery of individuation, he observes,

seems scarcely to affect [mature] people’s attitude toward ‘water.’ For ‘water,’ ‘sugar,’ and the like the category of bulk terms remains, a survival of the pre-individuative phase, ill fitting the dichotomy into general and singular.

In this respect, Quine speculates, the species suffers a certain underdevelopment or conceptual / linguistic lag; we may have ‘in the bulk term a relic, half vestigial and half adapted, of a pre-individuative phase in the evolution of our conceptual scheme’.[37] There is a kind of hiatus between aspects of our conceptual development and the concrete things of everyday experience – these, after all, are our ‘conceptual firsts’ and embody the refined apparatus of divided reference. Otherwise viewed, the tension I have remarked between the poles of our embodied, experience-centred particularity and our viewpoint-independent realism is resolved in favour of experience. It is a consequence of the dominance of objects in our life-world and overall conceptual scheme, that whatever does not fit the object-directed pattern cannot have independent recognition as an ontic category. Incoherently, as it would seem, the recognition that the pattern is not in fact all-inclusive somehow constitutes the basis for retrospectively enforcing its all-inclusive rule. Thus contrary to the data which he himself recognises, we are bound, Quine paradoxically insists, to adapt the ‘alien pattern’ of terms which do not individuate to ‘our own objectifying pattern’.
But now viewed from the standpoint of the internal structure of the web of belief, as I have so roughly sketched it, there is a way of making sense of what Quine says. And the key to this is simply that Quine’s constituent ideas be assigned to separate elements within the web, thereby removing the incoherence; and much the same procedure will be called for in the case of Strawson’s claims. The suggestion that there is here a failure to distinguish between the pragmatic life-world sense in which material objects are primary, central, or fundamental to our conceptual scheme, and a sense in which they might be thought to be objectively, ontically or quasi-logically fundamental, presents itself as a uniquely plausible explanation of Quine’s straightforward incoherence.[38]

A position which is virtually identical with Quine’s in certain key respects is promoted by Strawson; having identified a range of non-individuating mass noun sentences including ‘It is raining’, ‘Snow is falling’, and ‘There is water here’, Strawson writes that these sentences,

neither contain any part which introduces a particular, nor any expression used in such a way that its use presupposes the use of expressions to introduce particulars.

And he continues:

in feature-placing propositions... we can find the ultimate propositional level we are seeking... facts of this feature-placing kind we can see as what ultimately underlie our talk of the basic particulars.If any facts deserve... to be called ultimate or atomic facts, it is the facts stated by those propositions which demonstratively indicate the incidence of a general feature. These ultimate facts do not contain particulars as constituents but they provide the basis for the conceptual step to particulars. The propositions stating them are not subject-predicate propositions, but they provide the basis for the step to subject-predicate propositions....

Yet just like Quine, Strawson treats these considerations as issues which must be accommodated, via a genetic / evolutionary explanation, to a conceptual framework itself  dominated by the category of material objects:

But we can readily enough acknowledge that the introduction of particulars is so fundamental a conceptual step as to leave the primitive pre-particular level of thought as, at most, no more than vestigial in language.

And once again, the incoherence can be avoided, by charitably reassigning talk of the pre-particular or pre-individuative to the ontic element, and the talk of the primacy of objects and of  individuation to the life-world.[39] An elucidation and exploration of this ontic element will constitute the central body of this work.

In the case of both the writers I have singled out, the vital distinction between the ‘pragmatic’ life-world / world-view sense in which material objects count as primary, central, or fundamental to our conceptual scheme, and a sense in which they might be thought to be quasi-logically, objectively or ontically fundamental, has been substantially elided or effaced. Strawson, in particular, appears to assimilate what he calls ‘our ontology’ to the structure of the world as we embodied beings live it, the life-world or our overall conceptual scheme.[40] And yet, at the same time, he follows Aristotle in urging the objective, life-world independent logical primacy, as fundamental subjects of predication, of concrete objects, in which case his remarks about a logically yet more basic level would seem to contradict the claim of primacy. Quine, of course, promotes both pragmatism and the scientific world-view, and so would perhaps, in a different way, hope to reject the very contrast between a human-centred web of belief and an objective or realist ontology.

         II. The abstract form of matter and expressions of existence

2.0 The idea of a singular subject. It is commonly remarked – both inside philosophy and out – that ‘mass nouns lack a plural form’, or ‘do not pluralize’. As mere comments on English syntax, such remarks are unobjectionable: it is perfectly obvious that in the usage of native speakers, then unless the contest is generic, words like ‘sugar’, ‘gold’ and ‘water’ resist the plurality morpheme ‘-s’.[41] Typically or often, however, remarks about the absence of a plural form are bearers of a deeper meaning – not altogether unreasonably, they are understood to mean that mass nouns cannot but be singular, or that they are invariably singular, and that in a semantic sense. In many cases, nouns in English have both semantically singular and plural occurrences, whether they are syntactically marked or not (as with the contrast of ‘this sheep’ and ‘these sheep’). Yet in their non-generic uses, mass nouns are incapable of being pluralized, and for just this reason, it is directly concluded that mass nouns are always and only singular.

The view is not only influential; it has far-reaching ontic significance. Perhaps most obviously, it implies that references involving concrete mass nouns must be understood as references to discrete instances, or units, of stuff.[42] And at first blush, this may seem eminently reasonable. We are aware, in everyday experience, of discrete aggregates of stuff: here are two glasses of water, and I may observe, and point to, the water in each glass. How then could this water possibly fail to be one instance of the kind or concept water, and that water another? The thought has genuine appeal; and if it is, indeed, correct, then for water no less than for chairs and tables, to be has got to be the value of a variable. The association between talk of this and that, and singular references to objects, is indeed a strong one. Helen Cartwright puts the point in terms of singular variables, and writes:

         All water is liquid H2O
we may set out the (apparently) equivalent proposition
         Given any x, if x is some water, then x is liquid H2O’.[43]

A value of a variable, in sentences such as the above, can only be this or that water; and whatever can be said to be some water can presumably be referred to in this way. In these cases, she notes, variables take values of a special type, values which satisfy the axioms of a mereology or Boolean algebra. And if this is our starting point, we shall certainly be obliged to expand upon the everyday ‘Aristotelian’ picture of what, in general, concrete objects can be like. Physical reality will then begin to merge with something much like an abstract theory of sets: while singular count nouns typically denote enformed or structured objects – individual dogs, cats, chairs and tables, galaxies and molecules – mass nouns then denote objects of a purely mereological type, actually or potentially scattered set-like entities, with parts but without elements or members.[44]

Now if for the moment we simply accept the singularity hypothesis, and turn to the natural grammar of English, the actual syntax of mass nouns will seem remarkably anomalous, and ought surely to be deeply puzzling. In non-generic contexts, it is true, grammar rules out plural talk of ‘waters’, ‘salts’, and so forth. Yet concrete singular constructions – ‘a water’ and ‘a salt’ – are also counted out. Indeed, mass nouns also reject the quantifiers appropriate to singular contexts (‘each’, ‘every’, etc.); and based on the quantifiers they do accept, it is not just strikingly evident, but even commonly remarked that mass nouns far more closely resemble plural nouns. Alongside ‘all dogs’, ‘some dogs’, ‘more dogs’ and ‘most dogs’, the phrases ‘all water’, ‘some water’, ‘more water’ and ‘most water’ are well formed – while, once again, the singular constructions are ruled out. In attempting to theorize the semantic content of mass nouns, it seems especially odd that a few syntactic phenomenon, and chiefly, the absence of a plurality morpheme, should prevail over a mass of non-singular syntactic data. The plain fact is that the standard semantic model for mass nouns provides no explanation whatsoever for these phenomena; they are treated as the merest anomalies.[45]

A plausible explanation is, however, available, and my initial aim is to very briefly lay it out.[46] From the premise that ‘mass nouns do not pluralize’ to the conclusion that they are invariably singular, there is a key implied assumption – that nouns or their occurrences must, always, be semantically either singular or plural. The assumption, I suggest, is simply false; and once abandoned, the otherwise anomalous behaviour of mass nouns becomes manifestly intelligible. Naturally, there is a certain resistance to letting go of the assumption, since doing so rests upon acknowledging a major hiatus between the existing count-noun framework and the relevant data-set. Further, to complicate matters somewhat, there is real and significant overlap between the scope of the count noun paradigm and the semantic features of mass nouns – between, e.g., the semantics of singular count nouns, and the semantics of non-plural mass nouns. And in the nature of the case, this overlap is such as to give those who rely on the paradigm the hope – perhaps even the expectation – that no such hiatus really exists.

Now although neither group is sharply demarcated or defined, mass nouns are standardly contrasted with count nouns or CNs; and the very contrast of these groups implies that however exactly they are defined – the issue is contentious – mass nouns are either identical with, or a proper subset of, the class of nouns which are non-count, non-count nouns or NCNs. These two wide-ranging groups then constitute mutually exclusive, and semantically more or less exhaustive, categories of nouns.[47] Furthermore, it is clear that occurrences of CNs are themselves semantically either singular or plural (a difference often marked syntactically in English nouns) – and these two sub-categories do indeed exhaust the general category of CNs. It seems then eminently reasonable to advance the hypothesis (a plausible principle in its own right) that qua non-count, mass nouns are semantically non-count, and thereby can be neither singular nor plural. And given this, the basic shape of the relationships between these groups appears to be a fairly simple one, and can be represented by the following tableau:[48]

         Table I
         (neutral plural)

1. Singular
2. Non-singular
(‘not one’)

  3. Plural    
 (‘at least one’)

 4. Non-plural  (‘not at least one’)



Purely insofar as the semantics of mass nouns are concerned – as against the analytic structure diagrammed above – Jespersen’s account precisely coincides with this. In one surprisingly little-quoted comment, Jespersen states outright that by comparison with countables or thing-words, ‘Mass-words are totally different, logically they are neither singular nor plural, because what they stand for is not countable’.[49] It is in this connection that Jespersen writes of the need for an ideal language, ‘constructed on purely logical principles’. And in such a language, he suggests, a distinctive logical form would be called for, ‘when we left the world of countables (such as houses, horses, days, miles, sounds, words, crimes, plans, mistakes, etc.) and got to the world of uncountables’.[50] Jespersens’s seminal but neglected remarks are no less cryptic than they are intriguing.

But Jespersen states unequivocally that a logical analysis of mass nouns would require ‘a form which implied neither singular nor plural’.[51] This claim has also been affirmed, more recently, by Tom McKay. McKay notes that although both mass and plural nouns do indeed share a common non-singularity, plural discourse

has natural semantic units that are the same as those of singular discourse, but stuff discourse has no natural semantic units, and reference and predication seem to proceed on a different model than that of an individual and a property.

In consequence, in the case of words like ‘water’, he urges that we

should not expect a successful reduction to singular reference and singular predication, something that the application of traditional first-order logic would require. When we say that water surrounds our island,  our discourse is not singular discourse (about an individual) and is not plural discourse (about some individuals); we have no single individual or any identified individuals that we refer to when we use ‘water’.[52]

We have, in short, no individuals when using ‘water’, and to this extent, McKay and I are in complete agreement on both semantics and ontology.[53]

2.1 The intimate kinship of mass and count nouns. On the bold assumption, then, that the tableau has it right, it will be simply incorrect to talk about the contrast between mass and count nouns – as if there were just one, and furthermore, one which defined the entire relationship between the categories. In fact, in anything other than purely morphosyntactic terms, speaking as if a contrast is what matters is profoundly misleading. Quite apart from the point that there is not a single contrast on display between these nouns – but rather, two – the fact is that, quite crucially, the semantic commonalities between the groups are no less fundamental than the differences. Mass nouns share with plural count nouns the feature of non-singularity; and share with singular count nouns the feature of non-plurality. Hence, among other things, the so-called mass / count contrast over ‘cumulative reference’ is by no means the contrast it is said to be, since Quine’s cumulative principle applies to both: adding water to water results only in more water; just so, adding apples to apples results only in more apples.[54] Again, the non-singularity of both mass nouns and plurals is directly reflected in their common quantifiers. While non-count nouns, like plurals, never associate with quantifiers used in singular contexts, those non-singular quantifiers which are not essentially plural are shared. Thus unlike ‘many’, the quantifiers ‘all’, ‘some’, and ‘most’, and in most of its occurrences, ‘any’, are shared by mass nouns and non-singular CNs alike. Arguably then, the key contrast here is not so much that of count and mass nouns, as that of singular and non-singular nouns, whether count or non-count. It seems vital to recognize the centrality of non-singularity as such, since not only the forms of predication in general, but also the lexical aspect-related concepts of change or process of particular relevance to mass nouns, and the behaviour of bare nouns in general, are best understood when associated with non-singular nouns as an inclusive class; or so I argue in the sequel. The ‘problem of mass nouns’, so I’ll be urging, is misleadingly so-called: the problem is no less a problem of non-singularity – and for both the NP and the VP features of a sentence – than of mass nouns or uncountability as such.

But why then, it may be asked, are the referential determiners for mass nouns morphologically indistinguishable from semantically singular expressions? Why should ‘this water’ look exactly like ‘this dog’? As Leech notes, syntax ‘is much less rich in dimensions of contrast than is semantics’, and the point is illustrated in this morphosyntactic parallel.[55] There are three semantic categories here (singular, plural, and non-count) but the syntax of demonstratives can only take two forms, and to understand their taxonomy, we need a bifold contrast merely of the plural and non-plural – a class encompassing the singular along with the non-count. Since ‘water’ is itself non-plural – but not thereby semantically singular – the water in a glass can only be referred to as ‘this water’. Quantificational differences are marked in English, but English syntax marks no contrast, in referential contexts, between singular and non-plural – potentially thereby inviting a fateful conflation of the two.[56] Notice here also the significance of the contrast between the use of  rigid and non-rigid designators in such a non-singular context. It is not implausible to suppose that demonstrative reference – this water – designates a determinate amount of water, and that must, strictly speaking, lose its identity, and thereby cease to exist, if it is in the least amount diminished.[57] But the water in a glass, thus denoted – whatever liquid water that happens to be – can for example be said to slowly evaporate, and plainly cannot, as it evaporates, remain the same water from one moment to the next; but at the same time, the water, thus denoted, cannot be said to cease to be until all of it has ceased to be.[58]

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the contrast of ‘this water’ and ‘this dog’ runs deep. Notwithstanding the fact that talk of the same stuff of some specific kind is prima facie meaningful, this is not to say that words like ‘water’ give a criterion of identity for whatever may be designated. Quite the contrary: as Quine has noted, they do not.[59] Insofar as mass nouns occur in seemingly referential contents, their mode of reference diverges substantially from that of reference which is singular. And the explanation of this phenomenon, so I’ll urge, is to be found in the fact that mass nouns are not essentially referential in the first place.

Contrast then the semantic character of reference to an individual – an individual dog, for instance – with that of reference to some water. To grasp the concept or meaning content of the general count noun ‘dog’ is to grasp the kind-identity criteria for dogs (such as they may be). The identity of some particular individual dog – this or that dog – can then be specified by combining the use of the general term with the use of a (non-plural) demonstrative, ‘this’ or ‘that’. Thus combined, we understand precisely which single item of the kind is at issue. But now if we agree for the sake of argument that what an expression like ‘this water’ picks out is indeed a certain determinate, self-identical amount of water, then it seems plain that the identity of that water must be a function of the identity of the amount; and the identity of the amount is not specified by the combination of ‘water’ with ‘this’.[60] Much as with ‘dog’, ‘water’ provides the kind-identity for the substance; but the identity of the amount depends on the answer to the question of how much water it is, and it is not the task of either the concept-word itself or the determiner to provide that information. The concept delivers the kind, but sets no bounds or limits on its application; and the determiner merely enables us to point out some stuff of the kind.[61] Furthermore precisely what is identified or pointed out is determined – to the extent that anything is determined – by the language-independent context, and in particular, by the presumed presence of some isolated and determinate amount of stuff. The amount itself remains unspecified by the referential phrase, the use of which is itself compatible with the presence of any amount whatsoever.

In short – and precisely parallel with the idea of a number of objects of a certain kind – the idea of an amount of stuff of a certain kind introduces an additional factor, beyond that of a certain kind of stuff itself. The identity of some stuff of a specific kind depends not only upon the nature of that kind, but also on the amount of matter it embodies – a feature which it may or may not have in common with stuff of the same kind elsewhere, and which is no part of the concept in itself. Arguably, then, a sentence apparently involving reference to matter definitely or indefinitely designates some particular, determinate and self-identical amount of stuff of the relevant kind, whereby the amount itself is wholly adventitious, from the standpoint of the kind of stuff itself. Hence ‘water’ as such does not determine what is to count as the same water, and words like ‘water’ have no built-in principle of individuation – no principle of identity, whether numerical or quantitative, for what may be called the referential embodiments of the concept. The concept as such, as I urge in detail in the sequel, is merely that of boundless or ‘undifferentiated’ stuff.

Insofar as we may speak of ‘identity-conditions’ for what we are referring to, in a situation of this kind, the information-content of ‘this water’ falls short of the identity-conditions of this water. In this sense, Jespersen is right: although water, air and clay are plainly taxonomic, kind-specifying terms for stuff or matter, they do not, all by themselves, introduce ‘the idea of some definite thing with precise limits’. There are good reasons for this disconnect between the content of mass concepts and their referential application: there is quite simply more to the concept of an amount of water, than to the concept of water in itself. Reference to some water introduces a concept which goes beyond the concept embodied in the noun itself – a concept which functions in a pragmatic mode, precisely because its content is not encoded in the semantics of that noun or concept-expression. Reference, in short, adds complexity; for not all talk of stuff is referential, even in the minimal sense of involving the use of bound variables. Mass nouns can occur in sentences, true or false, without determiners, boundless and ‘bare’; and here, the corresponding concepts can have application, even in the absence of Fregean arguments.

Henry Laycock
Queen’s University


[1] This is a draft of part of a longer work. Questions and comments are welcome, but please do not quote without permission. The work originates in an attempt to supplement the argument of Words without objects, prompted by Tom McKay’s critical notice of that book. Other than McKay, I must express my gratitude to several individuals for their support, helpful advice, comments, and encouragement. In particular, I must mention Johanna Seibt, Sebastian Rodl, Pierdanielli Giaretta, Mark Steen, Paul Needham, Lorne Maclachlan, Massimiliano Carrara, Josh Mozersky, David Bakhurst, Tim Elder and Philipp Blum. I have also learned much from the insights and comments of Kathrin Koslicki, the questions of Jennifer Hornsby, and the writings of Peter Simons.
[2] In other words, these categories are either essentially pre-scientific, or at least originally pre-scientific.
[3] The understanding of mass nouns and their significance has come to occupy a steadily growing space in regions overlapping logic, ontology, computing, linguistics, cognitive science, and the philosophy of language.
[4] We are prone to talk and think of objects; we talk so inveterately of objects that it is hard to say how else there is to talk’, etc.  Quine – albeit buried in scattered fragments, beneath the superficial edifice of what he himself describes as a ‘reductive artifice’.
[5] The elementary failure to distinguish between the truth-conditional semantics of ‘some’ and ‘a’, used as indefinite articles, is one such failure; the inability (as I’ll urge) to represent the truth-conditions of sentences involving bare uses of count nouns is another. There are also common failures, or serious distortions, with regards to the natural-language readings of the symbolism of the calculus, and commonplace incorrect accounts of what, in non-technical terms, quantification itself amounts to. Some of these issues result from the fact that the semantics of the calculus (unsurprisingly) are exclusively truth-conditional. The issues are considered in the sequel.
[6] I contrast such an interest with a narrowly semantic and especially model-theoretic interest, popular among linguists, where the question of correspondence with external reality is no part of the project. (Ironically, as it seems to me, this point applies especially to Aristotle, who has much to say concerning hyle, but whose analytic powers seem nonetheless to fall short in this case.)
[7]As Edward Feser notes, ‘many modern philosophers have uncritically swallowed the idea that physical science tells us everything we need to know about matter and that mind alone is problematic, so that a “philosophy of mind” is needed in a way that a “philosophy of matter” is not’.
[8] There is, of course, the further question, of what defines ‘the logical’. Do formal systems lay down the law for natural languages; or is the boot on the other foot? Here, I side with Peter Strawson over Quine.
[9] Word and object, 237.
[10] ‘Hegel’s History of Philosophy’, in Philosophy and its Past, by Jonathan Ree, Michael Ayers and Adam Westoby; Harvester Press, 1978.
[11] See, for example, the ‘Introduction’ to his Four Dimensionalism by Theodore Sider. Here, it seems, Sider makes the boldly a priori assumption that we cannot talk or think at all without the use of quantifiers, and if we are to say anything about stuff, he opines that ‘Somehow, “quantifiers” over stuff must be introduced without slipping into talk of things’ (6). But the force of this ‘must’ is unclear, as the argument to follow makes plain; and to say that the ‘conceptual scheme of ordinary thought’ seems to ‘model the world as a world of things’ (as Sider does) seems orthogonal  to the commonplace and intuitive dichotomy of ‘stuff and things’.
[12] It is Davidson who speaks of ‘the problem of mass nouns’, following Quine’s unconvincing attempt to answer Jespersen in Word and Object.  See Davidson, ‘Truth and meaning’, p.
[13] The connections themselves, however, are typically constituted by (unspoken) thoughts.
[14] In this sense of the term, there can be no such things as ontologies, and so no such thing as an Aristotelian, Bergsonsian or Davidsonian ontology – unless these be nothing more than the attempts by particular individuals to make that single system of objective  categories of being explicit.
[15] Notice that the point is consistent with its turning out that, for example, ‘The object is red’ means ‘The object looks red under the normal conditions which obtain within the life-world’.
[16] It would perhaps be more accurate to say that ontology in this sense incorporates ‘folk ontology’, since it might well go beyond it. But it seems to me extremely doubtful that ontology as refined by science could turn out to be incompatible with everyday ontology, the categories of which are not empirical but formal, logical or quasi-logical categories.
[17] Metaphysics as a whole, at least for some, is itself the theory, description, or ‘account’, of the entire web of belief. That, it seems to me, is the view of Peter Strawson in particular.
[18] Word and Object, pp. 2-4.
[19] In his ‘The very idea of a conceptual scheme’, Davidson is apt to construe such accounts as ontic, descriptions of reality per se (albeit relativised, in Quine’s case at least, to some ‘system of calibration’). This, for reasons I consider in the sequel, is understandable, although the accounts are not best understood as mere descriptions of reality at all; but concern the impact on us of that limited portion of reality which is germane for us. But again, in Quine’s case, the entire philosophy is underpinned by the deep anti-realism of the US philosophical tradition.
[20] On the other hand, whether or not Quine and Strawson would recognize any such ‘straightforwardly objective sense’ is very much a moot question.
[21] The mot juste is ‘conception’, since it is, as Descartes forcefully urges, impossible to imagine how things really are; imagination merely recapitulates perception, while things themselves are best described in the non-perspectival language of coordinate geometry, physics, and the rest of science, along with the matching ontic categories.
[22] Individual perspectives may be transcended through maps – geographical, stellar, galactic or cosmic – or better yet, through algebraic coordinate geometries; but the issue of ‘primary and secondary qualities’ is probably the locus classicus of the question of transcendence.
[23] Life is by and large worth living, and a disembodied life, if intelligible, would be no fun.
[24] It is the heart that defines what constitutes the home, and not the home, somehow otherwise defined, that determines where the heart is.
[25] The work of Daniel Casasanto and colleagues on aspects of the psychological dimensions of embodiment are gripping. See, for example, Casasanto, D. (2011). ‘Different Bodies, Different Minds: The body-specificity of language and thought’. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 378–383.
[26] Categories 2a33-34, 2b4-6. Closely related to this idea of fundamentality is the idea of an ontic hierarchy – an idea which is influential to this day. Thus for Quine, the ‘tentative ontology for science’ is described as the hierarchy of ‘physical objects, classes of them, classes in turn of the elements of this combined domain, and so on up’. W. V. O. Quine, The Ways of Paradox, 1966, 231. And for Strawson, the hierarchy is ‘the series that starts with particular, and goes on with property or kind of particular, property or kind of property or kind of particular, etc.’‘Singular Terms and Predication’, Journal of Philosophy, 1961, 407.
[27] In the later Metaphysics, as everyone knows, matter does make its appearance – but again, in the view of many commentators, it appears as no more than a ‘constituent’, along with form, of the ‘compound’ concrete individual substance, and so, perhaps, considered in itself is merely an abstraction; but its ontic status seems never very clearly resolved.
[28]‘Farewell to substance; a differentiated leave-taking’. Analysis
[29] The Philosophy of Grammar, p.198.
[30] Thus Hegel: ‘it matters not to a block of marble, whether it receive the form of this or that statue or even the form of a pillar. Be it noted however that a block of marble can disregard form only relatively, that is, in reference to the sculptor: it is by no means purely formless... it is an abstraction of the understanding which isolates matter into a certain natural formlessness. For properly speaking the thought of matter includes the principle of form throughout, and no formless matter therefore appears, anywhere even in experience as existing’ (Logic).
[31] Such facts as these may be conducive to the thought that materials are dependent modes of being or abstractions, and even that reference is our linguistically basic and most natural mode of contact with the world.
[32] In general, arguably, phenomena of flow and circulation within an ecosystem pertain not primarily to individual physical objects, but distinctively to kinds of matter (water on our planet, liquid methane, for example, elsewhere in space and time).
[33] As mentioned in the Introduction, Quine approaches the issue with a strange seriousness, seeming to see it as a kind of threat to our ‘adult’, established talk of objects.
[34] Word and object. The difference between the noun and the adjective is simply this, that ‘water, for us, is rather like red, but not quite; things can be red, but only stuff is water.’ (SoO)
[35] More or less, since it is arguable (and will be argued) that depending on precisely how ‘individuative’ is defined, it is certain types of occurrence of a noun that (actually) individuate, rather than the noun itself, which as such has only the potential to individuate,
[36] SoO p.9.
[37] ‘Speaking of Objects’
[38] Indeed as a proposal for transforming a prima facie incoherent thesis into a coherent thesis, the proposal represents an extension of the principle of charity in interpretation. On the other hand, Quine’s remark that it is we who ‘persist in breaking reality down somehow into a multiplicity of identifiable and discriminable objects, to be referred to by singular and general terms’, itself embodies his profoundly anti-realist assimilation of ontology to a subject-centred life-world. Ultimately, what we see in Quine is a striking manifestation of the power of the life-world to dominate and warp our grasp of ontic categories.
[39] For reflective thought, the most characteristics consequence appears to be this, that bodies are conceived with Aristotle as possessing independent existence, and thereby primary, while matter is conceived as dependent, and thereby secondary, and perhaps even as a kind of abstraction.
[40] He writes, for example, that we think of particular things and events as included in the topics of our common discourse, as things about which we can talk to each other. These are remarks about the way we think of the world, about our conceptual scheme. A more recognizably philosophical, though no clearer, way of expressing them would be to say that our ontology comprises objective particulars.
[41] And ‘flesh’, it seems, will never take it.
[42] This is exactly what a Fregean function / argument model would require.
[43] ‘Heraclitus and the Bath Water’, 479-480.
[44] These are objects that exemplify Quine’s principle of ‘cumulative reference’.
[45] And they are by no means peculiar to English: words with the grammar of mass nouns are a pervasive feature of most natural languages; see for instance Linguistlist...
[46] The argument which follows is derivative from others; see Laycock (1998, 2005, 2006).
[47] Some nouns are plausibly classified as neither as count nor as non-count, such as ‘scissors’, ‘pyjamas’ and ‘trousers’ – nouns that require numeral classifiers to be involved in counting.
[48] There are numerous contexts in which occurrences of plural nouns can be read as ‘at least one’ instead of ‘many’ – these I call neutral readings of the plural – but such readings cannot apply either within referential contexts or in the context of plural or collective predication. There, the plural must be understood non-neutrally, as ‘many’, or ‘at least two’. The matter is considered further in the sequel; and see Table III.
[49] Selected Writings of Otto Jespersen, p. 272, Routledge Revivals (2010).
[50] The Philosophy of Grammar, p.198, my emphasis. As it happens, of course, an ideal language ‘constructed on purely logical principles’ had been conceived some fifty years earlier, although Jespersen himself seems to have been unaware of this. Created with a view to the analysis of statements about the realm of numbers, the basic breakthrough in Frege’s Begriffsschrift famously consists in replacing the Aristotelian subject / predicate treatment of sentences with a formalism based on the mathematical duality of function and argument.
[51] The Philosophy of Grammar, p.198. There are here the makings of a conflict between the insights of linguistics and the theories of logicians. In my view, the seductive power of Frege’s model notwithstanding, it is the linguists who have been the pathbreakers in the understanding of natural languages in general and of mass nouns in particular. It is a built-in feature of the discipline of linguistics (unlike that of logic!) to take natural language syntax seriously; so much the better for linguistics. In creating a formal concept-script aimed at the representation and analysis of statements about numbers (plausibly conceived as objects), Frege makes the principles of identity and countability structurally fundamental to the entire logical enterprise. And there is no question but that Frege’s profound analysis of arithmetic underpins a deeper understanding of quantification, along with an analysis of multiple generality, the related distinction between singular and general sentences, and the nature of compositionality. Nevertheless, Frege did not regard his ideography as other than a substantial fragment of a comprehensive ideal language.. Thus, even if ‘this worthy goal cannot be reached in one leap’, he writes, ‘we need not despair of a slow, step-by-step approximation’. ‘Mechanics and physics’, Frege continues, are the first two fields ‘for which we can predict a further development of the notation’ (Begriffsschrift)
[52] ‘Critical Notice of Words without Objects’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, July 2008.
[53] That stuffs are absolutely ‘uncountable’, as I have urged, is also, according to Robert Koons, a view shared by E. J. Lowe and Michael Dummett. See his review of Tuomas E. Tahko (ed.), Contemporary Aristotelian Metaphysics, Cambridge University Press, 2012, 263pp.
[54] Ironically, a fairly standard move involves reducing both the plural and non-count forms of non-singularity to special kinds of singularity – in the plural case, to sets or atomic mereological sums, and in the non-count case, to atomless mereological sums. However, such moves are incapable of explaining the (non-singular) behaviour of mass or non-count quantifiers.
[55] Semantics, Penguin.
[56] Corresponding to the threefold semantic contrast of singular, plural and non-count, there are two pairs of semantic contrasts among determiners which are syntactically marked in English. There is the referential contrast of plural and non-plural in the form of ‘these’ and ‘this’; on the other hand there is the quantifier-contrast of singular and non-singular – ‘each’, ‘every’ and ‘a’, versus ‘all’, ‘some’ and ‘most’ (‘the’ and ‘any’ are all-purpose determiners).
[57] We need, following Helen Cartwright, to distinguish between what this water might have in common with that water – what may be called the ‘universal amount’, or just amount of water, and this water itself – what I propose to call a ‘measure’ of water, about which more will be said in due course.
[58] Thus, to anticipate, what it is, that is being said to slowly evaporate, is not some determinate amount of (liquid) water – since any such amount cannot survive the loss of any (liquid) water – is water simpliciter – that is, stuff of the kind, merely, and not some stuff of the kind. The point applies to any stuff involved in a cognate process of change – the wax of a burning candle steadily diminishes, but the wax that it is at any particular moment – this wax, say – cannot diminish, but can only cease to be. Closely analogous points could be made about rigid and non-rigid forms of plural reference.
[59] In review of Geach.
[60] It is by no means self-evident that such determinacy is guaranteed by the concept; this is a respect in which uncountable concepts differ from countable or numerical concepts. It is of course possible to assign a measure (a liter, a kilo, etc) to an amount of water, but the mere assignment of the measure goes no way towards guaranteeing an objectively determinate amount.
[61] The same water must be the same amount of water, where that amount is an additional information factor, not contained within or given by either the concept-word or the entire referential expression itself. And there is a further worrisome issue here – a worry concerning the sense in which, given the intrinsic limitations on exactness, when it comes to measuring as against counting, an expression such as ‘this water’ does enable us to identify a specific amount of water, in the sense of ‘identify’ in which the word is associated with identity and re-identifiability, strictly understood.



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