2/4/01 9:46 AM      3/2/01 5:46 PM



Blobjectivist Quine and his Posits

Matjaž Potrč

University of Ljubljana, Slovenia




Blobjectivism is an ontology that allows for just one entity, rich in its complexity. It is a view compatible with modern physics. Ultimate and regional ontology are distinguished. Truth is construed as indirect correspondence according to blobjectivism.

Quine’s ontology is regional. It is a product of thought and language and does not appeal to the ultimate reality in any direct way. Reference to objects is the last stage of a genetic construal.

Regional character of Quine’s ontology is enhanced by his introduction of posits, which basically come at two stages: as elementary bestiary of the science of physics and as construal of everyday objects. Genetic construal of posits links them to the stuff before they get recognized as objects, appearing as the values of bound variables. Continuity between two kinds of posits is stressed by Quine, in accordance with his naturalistic epistemology and holism.


A)    Blobjectivism

Blobjectivism is an ontological view (Horgan, Potrč 2000) that allows for the existence of just one material object, the blob, comprising the whole universe. This one blob is rich and enormously complex. Such a view is compatible with interpretation of modern physics, which sees the universe as a diversified multidimensional field. Although not much can be said about the WORLD as it ultimately is, according to the highest ontological standards, a lot may be stated and thought about the ontological details at the level of regional ontology. Truth is then accordingly construed as an indirect kind of correspondence.


I)                   Just one entity, rich and complex

Blobjectivism is the ontological view that allows for the existence of just one material entity, the blob. Although blob does not have any parts, it is enormously rich and complex. The thought that something is just one, without parts, and also complex may appear as unusual at first sight.


II)                 Compatibility with modern physics

Blob as the material entity is intended as an ontological interpretation of our universe. It is very difficult to determine what are parts in our world, be it at the level of the supposed elementary particles, or at the level of everyday objects. The hypothesis in physics that there exist elementary particles such as atoms, electrons, quarks or muons, may be questioned from the point of view of another hypothesis, namely that the basic physical stuff are waves and not particles.

            It is at least possible to interpret the universe as one big physical field. This field, although one, is then enormously rich. It consists of a multitude of subfields, with their mutual interaction, none of which however can count as a part of this field. Whatever we are inclined to call entities comes as congealings in the multidimensional space of this one field.


III)              Ultimate and regional ontology

If we talk about the so called entities in the field, however, we do not find ourselves in the area of ultimate ontology anymore. We do not talk about the WORLD as it ultimately is in its reality. We become regionally attuned. We target the regional congealings in the blob.


IV)              Truth as indirect correspondence

It is important to realize that truth, in this vein, is most naturally construed as having to do with indirect correspondence. As we talk about tables, trees and people, we do not assert something about the WORLD as it ultimately is. We do assert something about it regionally though. Although table does not exist as the ultimate ingredient of reality, it may be recognized regionally as being rooted as a congealing in the multi-dimensional space of the WORLD. But this then means that we talk about the table in an indirect manner. Truth about the table is construed as an indirect correspondence. The table is rooted in the blob, and although ultimately it does not exist, it is well construed indirectly as an inhabitant of the world’s regional ontology.



B)     Quine’s ontology

What has blobjectivism have to do with Quine? It is argued here that Quine provides a regional ontology that is compatible with blobjectivism. Particularly, it is important to learn that in Quine’s view, ontology is a product of thought and language. If it appeals to the ultimate reality of the world, it does so in a highly indirect way. The reference to objects is also not something given in that it appears as a last stage of a genetic construal.


I)                   Regional stuff

The basic thing about Quine’s ontology is that it is a regional enterprise. It certainly does not say anything about the WORLD as it ultimately is. To the contrary, it concentrates on regional stuff, be it at swarms of atoms and molecules, or at the composites of these molecules, such as tables. Both these kinds of entities are regional. They are not something that is ultimately there in the world, but something that we recognize in the world being as such. Although Quine delivers perhaps the most accurate characterization of ordinary objects, such as tables in that he says that they are whatever material fills a space during a sequence of time (Horgan 1991, Potrč to be published b), he also in fact underlies his skepticism in respect to their ultimate existence. Tables as vague objects ultimately do not exist.


II)                 Ontology is a product of thought and language

Regional character of the ontology interesting Quine is stressed by his use of and by his appeal to thought and language. Quine’s main works are in this area. “Word and Object” (1960) has the appeal to language and ontology in its title. If we take just the most famous story involving “Gavagai”, we see that the field linguist in order to fulfill her task of radical translation, uses just the psychological behavioral data, whatever from the visual and auditory stimuli arrives at her sensory surfaces, in order to form hypotheses about the meaning of the expression she happens to encounter. It turns out that the expression’s interpretation will ultimately remain indeterminate, due to the incompatibility of the conceptual schemes involved (the linguist and the aborigin’s ones). The hat does not ultimately contain any real RABBIT, but a mind and language bound construal of an entity.

            In wider terms, Quine’s ontology stays the product of language and thought. This goes also for his famous criterium of being: “to be is to be a value of a bound variable”, about which more later. Certainly Quine does not go fishing for the ultimate being of heideggerian kind in any of those deep waters. As he affirms it repeatedly, he prefers to stay at the surface.


III)              Ontology does not appeal to the ultimate reality in any direct way

This all means that Quine’s ontology does not appeal to the ultimate reality, to the WOLRD as it really is. Quine’s ontology does appeal to this WOLRD, but in a highly indirect manner. As we talk about the table, in Quine’s view, we are not talking about the WORLD as it ultimately happens to be. We are talking about something we basically construe by the help of thought and language, although whatever we construe will ultimately have its support in this WORLD. But only indirectly so. The table is not the ultimate denizen of the world. It is a denizen of the WORLD in a highly indirect manner though, in that thought and language are important for its construal.


IV)              Reference to objects is the last stage of a genetic construal

Reference to objects is not a simple thing for Quine. It comes as the last stage of a genetic construal that first involves behavioral data. Then the language eventually breaks in. And only finally, on this basis, we achieve the reference to objects. (Quine, 1973)

            It is known that Quine spent lot of his time with ur-behaviorist Skinner, which shows his interest for psychological construals. He also was influenced by Piaget’s research in genesis of child’s learning and ultimately of acquiring such capabilities as recognizing numbers. We seem to talk here about the early stages of child’s development, say around two up to four years.

            In any way, it is clear from all this that Quine does not start with the ontological data as with ultimate facts, but that he derives them from considerations having to do with psychology and language. So ontology really depends on thought and language also in as far as its genetic construal is involved.



C)    Posits

Posits or whatever we recognize in the world to exist, further enhance the regional character of Quine’s ontology. Posits come at two stages: they figure first whatever we recognize as the elementary bestiary of the science of physics, and second they come as whatever we recognize and construe as everyday objects. It is interesting to notice that the genetic construal of this second sort or everyday posits links them to the stuff before they become recognized as objects. Being aware of this, we may then look at the dictum that to be is to be a value of a bound variable. Everyday objects are epistemic construals upon the elementary physical stuff where another kind of posits are recognized. Considering this, we may see that objects of reference themselves, for Quine, constitue a link between physical and everyday posits. This accords well with the continuity, repeatedly stressed by Quine, between science and the everyday, ands also with his basic beliefs in a need for epistemology to be naturalized. And in the end with his open sea boat reconstructing holism. Under the veil of appearance of his logical construals, Quine turns out to be a deeply dynamical regional ontologist.


I)                   Posits enhance regional character of Quine’s ontology

Quine’s paper “Posits and Reality” (1955) was the preparatory paper for his book “Word and Object”. Although he later calls it superseded, it stays as a fact that here is the very thought of Quine’s philosophy in a nutshell. We may accordingly treat it in this manner.

            The word posit reminds us on something that is posited by us, by the help of our thought and of language, and thus it does not remind us on something that exists just independently of these in reality. Posits are something that we recognize to be there. It is not implied thereby though that whatever is recognized is entirely dependent on us, as it would be in a Berkleyan manner. Posits do have their roots in reality, but nevertheless whatever we recognize to exist is predominantly fabrication of our thought and language. This seems to indicate quite clearly that posits really and ultimately do not exist independently of our epistemic powers.

            If all this is true, then posits mark Quine’s ontology as a basically regional enterprise. Whatever is recognized to exist cannot happen irrespective of thought and language. It is intimately bound to them. Posits are not the ultimate ingredients of the world, their ontology is regional and thought and language dependent.


II)                 Posits come at two stages: as elementary bestiary of the science of physics and as construal of everyday objects

Posits come at two basic stages. The first stage – which is as always the starting point for Quine – is whatever we recognize to exist in the best science concerning reality we have, namely in the science of physics. But what is recognized to exist at this stage, indeed? Science of physics will posit such elementary particles as atoms, electrons, quarks and muons – whatever name will be ‘in’ at some time and in some region for elementary particles of which the world is constituted. These creatures are sometimes called the elementary bestiary of the science of physics. They are all posits, they are what scientists recognize by the means of thought and language as the elementary ingredients of the universe. But this is not the only possibility, for physicists may also posit waves or fields and not parts or particles to be the basic stuff the universe is made of.

            On the other hand, there are posits of the manifest world, such as tables, cats and trees, to which we refer and which we are accustomed to treat as objects. Obviously these kind of posits, the objects, must in some manner be related to the basic physical stuff on which we exercise our epistemic and conceptual chunking.

            It is a well a known fact that Quine’s main question is about how to bring both these kind of posits together, so that they would come in a kind of continuity. In fact, Quine repeatedly stresses continuous link between the science and the manifest picture of our everyday world.


III)              Genetic construal of posits links them to the stuff before they get recognized as objects

An interesting thought about how to understand this link between science and the manifest world comes if we just simply look at the story about how objects as posits to which we refer come into being. This is the already mentioned genetic story of object’s construal. As mentioned, Quine does not jump straightly to objects. ‘Mama’, for example, is primarily not an object. It is close to ‘red’, at least as the learning story in its genetic construal goes. ‘Mama’ is a kind of stuff first in the psychological genealogy, similarly as ‘milk’, ‘coal’, ‘water’, ‘snow’ are stuffs as well. It is only at a later genealogic stage that ‘mama’ is recognized as an important object for a child. But first, ‘mama’ appears as a kind of stuff for the child.

            Now, if we somehow link this to the story of posits, then stuff certainly is closer to the elementary bestiary of physics story, interpreted in a wave manner. So we may suppose that upon these data, in a kind of supervenient relation, the objectual and referential chunking of the manifest image appears.

            But this would then mean that the relation between physical posits and everyday posits is inherent in the genetic reconstruction of Quine’s objects.


IV)              Objects appear as values of bound variables

It is more widely known though that objects appear as values of bound variables for Quine. Here is his dictum again:


            To be is to be a value of a bound variable.


What does this mean? Well, there are constants


            a, b, c.


There are variables


            x, y, z.


And of course there are predicates such as F, G.

            Now we have Albert,




And we say that Albert is a fisherman




We stayed with a constant and a predicate.

            The next shows a variable instead of the constant




We immediately see that the above expression is not well formed. What is missing? We need to bind it to a quantifier, we take an existential one:


            (Ex) Fx.


OK, now we have a well formed expression. We may recognize something to exist in the world: a fisherman. The expression may be interpreted as affirming the existence of a fisherman.

            We have bound variable here, and the real story seems to be that we have recognized something to figure in the expression as a variable. We have recognized something to exist in the world. There may be a physical basis for this. But even more important is that we chunk the thing with the means of our logical apparatus, which involves thought and language. We have posited the existence of a fisherman. This is the being or existence that interests Quine. And his thought is that there is no other interesting kind of being around. Particularly, the being of the ultimate reality is not interesting, we stay at the regional level, where thought and language determine reality.


V)                Continuity between two kinds of posits is stressed by Quine, in accordance with his naturalistic epistemology and holism

Quine is known for his naturalistic epistemology. The knowledge, he claims, is continuous from what the science tells us about the world, up to what we may know about the world according to its manifest image. It follows that the theory of knowledge needs to be related to science, and that a holistic picture is appropriate.

            Two kinds of posits – the ones posited by science and the ones posited by everyday talk – are continuous. The question may also be put in terms of stimulations of our sensory surfaces and of recognition of objects on this basis.

            As neither kind of posits is independently ontologically real, this accords well with Quine providing a regional ontological story, compatible in this with the blobjectivist ontology. In this sense of indirect correspondence taken as the starting point, Quine’s ontology may indeed be used by a blobjectivist as a clear example of regional ontology.



Horgan, Terence, 1991, “Metaphysical Realism and Psychologistic Semantics”, Erkenntnis 34, 297-322.

Horgan, Terence and Potrč, Matjaž, 2000, “Blobjectivism and Indirect Correspondence”, Facta Philosophica 2, 249-270.

Quine, W.V., 1953, From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).

Quine, W.V., 1995, From Stimulus to Science (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).

Quine, W. V., 1955, “Posits and Reality”, in The Ways of Paradox (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press), 246-254.

Quine, W. V., 1973, The Roots of Reference (La Salle ILL: Open Court).

Quine, W.V., 1960, Word and Object (Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press).

Potrč, Matjaž, 1999, “What’s Cooking? World a la Carte”, in Meixner U. and Simons, P, (eds.), Metaphysics in the Post-Metaphysical Age (Kirchberg: Wittgenstein Society), 116-122.

Potrč, Matjaž, to be published a, »Some of my Memories on W.V.O. Quine«.

Potrč, Matjaž, to be published b, »Quine's Categories«.