Abstract: Quine’s Metametaphysics

W. V. Quine stands out as one of the foremost figures of 20th century analytic philosophy. This chapter aims to show that a significant part of his work’s enduring value lies in its contribution to metametaphysics, which will include showing how some more contentious aspects of Quine’s thought can be seen as indispensable to it; we will problematise the widespread belief that one can isolate basic elements of Quine’s metametaphysics without eroding their warrant.

§1 introduces the broad context. §2 examines Quine’s most clearly metametaphysical work (and the desired backdrop for many analytic philosophers): ‘On what there is’. Finding the story incomplete here, we explore other elements of Quine’s corpus in turn. §3 analyses the nascent naturalism evident in ‘Two dogmas of empiricism’, §4 explores how the principle of charity becomes significant in Word & Object, and §5 shows how the eponymous principle of ‘Ontological relativity’ aims to defuse the puzzles of indeterminacy. In the process we will see how Quine’s concerns stemming from naturalism in general, and from the problems of indeterminacy in particular, make it hard to separate the basic picture from his more controversial full-blown approach – hard, that is, to avoid ontological relativity. This is bad news for those wishing to use Quine as a neutral backdrop to analytic metaphysical debate, but good news for those who value the distinctive philosophical tradition within which Quine’s work is a key development.