Here’s something you frequently hear said about ontological commitment. First, that to determine the ontological commitments of some sentence S, one must look not at S, but at a regimentation or paraphrase of S, S*. Second (very roughly), you determine the ontological commitments of S by looking at what existential claims follow from S*.
Leave aside the second step of this. What I’m perplexed about is how people are thinking about the first step. Here’s one way to express the confusion. We’re asked about the sentence S, but to determine the ontological commitments we look at features of some quite different sentence S*. But what makes us think that looking at S* is a good way of finding out about what’s required of the world for S to be true?
Reaction (1). The regimentation may be constrained so as to make the relevance of S* transparent. Silly example: regimentation could be required to be null, i.e. every sentence has to be “regimented” as itself. No mystery there. Less silly example: the regimentation might be required to preserve meaning, or truth-conditions, or something similar. If that’s the case then one could plausibly argue that the OC’s of S and S* coincide, and looking at the OC’s of S* is a good way of figuring out what the OC’s of S is.
(The famous “symmetry” objections are likely to kick in here; i.e. if certain existential statements follow from S but not from S*, and what we know is that S and S* have the same OC’s, why take it that S* reveals those OC’s better than S?—so for example if S is “prime numbers exist” and S* is a nominalistic paraphrase, we have to say something about whether S* shows that S is innocent of OC to prime numbers, or whether S shows that S* is in a hidden way committed to prime numbers).
Obviously this isn’t plausibly taken as Quine view—the appeal to synonymy is totally unQuinean (moreover in Word and Object, he’s pretty explicit that the regimentation relationship is constrained by whether S* can play the same theoretical role as we initially thought S played—and that’ll allow for lots of paraphrases where the sentences don’t even have the appearance of being truth-conditionally equivalent).
Reaction (2). Adopt a certain general account of the nature of language. In particular, adopt a deflationism about truth and reference. Roughly: T- and R-schemes are in effect introduced into the object language as defining a disquotational truth-predicate. Then note that a truth-predicate so introduced will struggle to explain the predications of truth for sentences not in one’s home language. So appeal to translation, and let the word “true” apply to a sentence in a non-home language iff that sentence translates to some sentence of the home language that is true in the disquotational sense. Truth for non-home languages is then the product of translation and disquotational truth. (We can take the “home language” for present purposes to be each person’s idiolect).
I think from this perspective the regimentation steps in the Quinean characterization of ontological commitment have an obvious place. Suppose I’m a nominalist, and refuse to speak of numbers. But the mathematicians go around saying things like “prime numbers exist”. Do I have to say that what they say is untrue (am I going to go up to them and tell them this?) Well, they’re not speaking my idiolect; so according to the deflationary conception under consideration, what I need to do is figure out whether there sentences translate to something that’s deflationarily true in my idiolect. And if I translate them according to a paraphrase on which their sentences pair with something that is “nominalistically acceptable”, then it’ll turn out that I can call what they say true.
This way of construing the regimentation step of ontological commitment identifies it with the translation step of the translation-disquotation treatment of truth sketched above. So obviously what sorts of constraints we have on translation will transfer directly to constraints on regimentation. One *could* appeal to a notion of truth-conditional equivalence to ground the notion of translatability—and so get back to a conception whereby synonymy (or something close to it) was central to our analysis of language.
It’s in the Quinean spirit to take translatability to stand free of such notions (to make an intuitive case for separation here, one might, for example, that synonymy should be an equivalence relation, whereas translatability is plausibly non-transitive). There are several options. Quine I guess focuses on preservation of patterns of assent and dissent to translated pairs; Field appeals to his projectivist treatment of norms and takes “good translation” as something to be explained in projective terms. No doubt there are other ways to go.
This way of defending the regimentation step in treatments of ontological commitment turns essentially on deflationism about truth; and more than that, on a non-universal part of the deflationary project: the appeal to translation as a way to extend usage of the truth-predicate to non-home languages. If one has some non-translation story about how this should go (and there are some reasons for wanting one, to do with applying “true” to languages whose expressive power outstrips that of one’s own) then the grounding for the regimentation step falls away.
So the Quinean regimentation-involving treatment of ontological commitment makes perfect sense within a Quinean translation-involving treatment of language in general. But I can’t imagine that people who buy into to the received view of ontological commitment really mean to be taking a stance on deflationism vs. its rivals; or about the exact implementation of deflationism.
Of course, regimentation or translatability (in a more Quinean, preservation-of-theoretical-role sense, rather than a synonymy-sense) can still be significant for debates about ontological commitments. One might think that arithmetic was ontologically committing, but the existence of some nominalistic paraphrase that was suited to play the same theoretical role gave one some reassurance that one doesn’t *have* to use the committing language, and maybe overall these kind of relationships will undermine the case for believing in dubious entities—not because ordinary talk isn’t committed to them, but because for theoretical purposes talk needn’t be committed to them. But unlike the earlier role for regimentation, this isn’t a “hermeneutic” result. E.g. on the Quinean way of doing things, some non-home sentence “there are prime numbers” can be true, despite there being no numbers—just because the best translation of the quoted sentence translates it to something other than the home sentence “there are prime numbers”. This kind of flexibility is apparently lost if you ditch the Quinean use of regimentation.
I’ve been wondering about this aswell. Here’s one thought I’ve been having recently. It’s related, but a bit off-piste.
Oftentimes Quine is presented as a friend of ontology. Pick up any book about metaphysics of mathematics, and Quine is cited as someone who has argued that they exist.
The worry I have is that I don’t really read Quine as a friend of ontology. He’s a friend of trying to figure out what our ontological committments are. And famously Quine thought something along the lines of “what someone is committed to by my lights turns on how they are best translation into my language”. But wasn’t Quine skeptical of the idea that there was some language that was semantically priviledged? Sure, we might have pragmatic reason to prefer one language to another (maybe science goes easier) but that’s all. The consequence is the infamous thesis of “ontological relativity”. But that’s badly named, as least as I understand it. It’s not the thesis that there is varies from some standpoint to another. Rather, its the thesis that there is no language for settling ontological committments that is the uniquely priviledged one.
(FWIW, I think that the Sider-style naturalness stuff fits nicely as an opposing view. There is some language which is priviledged: the one that carves nature at the joints.)