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Words without ObjectsSemantics, Ontology, and Logic for Non-Singularity$

Henry Laycock

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199281718

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199281718.001.0001

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(p.175) Appendix II Substances and Physical Objects: Quine's Labyrinth

(p.175) Appendix II Substances and Physical Objects: Quine's Labyrinth

Words without Objects
Oxford University Press

(p.175) Appendix II

Substances and Physical Objects: Quine's Labyrinth

At Word and Object #20, Quine asserts that in the sentence

[1] Water is a liquid

the term ‘Water’ functions as a concrete singular term, much on a par with the (indisputably) concrete singular term ‘Agnes’ in

[2] Agnes is a lamb,

the difference, such as it is, being only that ‘Water’ here, unlike ‘Agnes’, denotes something that is macroscopically discontinuous. Of the referent of the sentence [1], Quine remarks that ‘there is no reason to boggle at water as a single scattered object, the aqueous part of the world…even the tightest object has a scattered substructure when the physical facts are in’. At the very same time, Quine disarmingly (and rightly) describes this account as an artifice (99), involving ‘the reduction of universals to particulars’ (98, fn.3).

In the first place, the uniqueness of Quine's Agnes notwithstanding, there is nothing save what strikes me as the implausible Leibnizian identity of indiscernibles to preclude a lamb numerically distinct though qualitatively indistinguishable from Agnes. But the notion of a liquid numerically distinct though qualitatively indistinguishable from water—in all its (microscopic and macroscopic, and not merely, à la Putnam, its phenomenal) properties—is just plain incoherent. And secondly, sentence [1] is in fact, and rather obviously, generic: it concerns a certain kind of stuff and not a concrete individual.

And this, indeed, is precisly why Quine's account involves ‘the reduction of universals to particulars’, as he puts it. [1] is surely best compared not with the likes of [2], but with sentences such as

[3] Man is an animal.

(Syntactical convenience, for the purposes of the analogy, motivates what might otherwise be thought an anachronistic non‐gender‐neutral use of ‘man’.) Now it is plain that, along with many other words, ‘man’—just like ‘water’—can play a dual role: it can appear both in generic sentences like [3], and in concrete substantival uses such as that in

[4] Agnes is a man.

(p.176) Likewise, in the case of ‘water’, we have

[5] That stuff on the floor is water.

There is nothing very special about the ‘mass terms’ in this particular respect. However, the point prompts another; for, were it the case that a ‘mass term before the copula’ figured as a concrete singular term—in effect, a proper name—while ‘after the copula’ it figured as an unanalysed predicate with a ‘separate reference‐dividing business’ (as Quine in fact maintains), then it would be mysterious indeed how it could figure in inferences such as that from

[6] Gold is a precious metal


[7] My ring is made of gold


[8] My ring is made of a precious metal.

The question, then, is this: just why does Quine explicitly advance an ‘artificial’ account—an account that is likely, to the philosophically unsophisticated mind, to seem somewhat counterintuitive? This is the fundamental question; and the answer, very briefly, seems to be this: that Quine's account of sentences like [1] is being made to bear the burden of what he himself had earlier described as the pre‐individuative character of so‐called ‘mass terms’—their use pre‐dating the apparatus of individuation and talk of objects. (On this point, see especially his earlier ‘Speaking of Objects’.) The difference between a CN and an NCN is that (as Quine might put it) a word like ‘man’ divides its reference over distinct individuals, whereas ‘water’, he maintains—along with ‘Agnes’ and with ‘red’—does not. In effect, Quine wishes to give some representation to the intuitive and entirely plausible thought that a substance such as water, although scattered or dispersed in space and time, is not also divided into discrete individuals or ‘waters’.1 Humankind, by contrast, if similarly albeit somewhat fancifully conceived as ‘scattered’ or dispersed around the globe, can hardly be conceived as merely scattered or dispersed: it is intrinsically divided into discrete individuals or men, into a multiplicity of distinct human beings. But Quine appears to think that no clear sense can be made of this ‘pre‐individuative’ talk from within our object‐oriented ‘adult conceptual scheme’; and talk of ‘individuation’ (or the lack of it) thus gives way to talk of ‘divided reference’ (or the lack of it)—a notion that in effect bridges the problematic gap, since a term that lacks divided reference may just be a conventional singular term, ‘purporting to denote’ a (p.177) single concrete (albeit in this case, ‘scattered’) thing. (Of the term ‘divided reference’, which replaces his earlier use of ‘individuation’, Quine writes that ‘its stress on division, as against multiplication, seems best suited to what I here want to bring out’: 90, fn. 1.) However, it is a fundamental principle of the present work that the insights of Quine and others concerning ‘pre‐individuative’ talk and thought can indeed be cashed out within our ‘mature scheme for the world’. It is true that no sense can be made of the thought that there is something that eludes individuation in Quine's scheme; but sense can none the less be made of this important thought.

A related factor here is what might (with tongue only partially in cheek) be described as Quine's underlying hard‐core platonism: it is because Quine is so taken by the reality—and indeed the concreteness—of the liquid, water, that he is willing to arrange for its ‘conversion’ into a concrete particular. Quine's account involves a sort of paradox: given the avowedly (if discreetly) artificial nature of the project of ‘reducing’ the ‘archaic’ or ‘protean’ category of mass terms to the orderly and well understood category of object‐words, the pre‐individuative nature of ‘mass terms’ is in effect recognized—but at the same time it is denied. When it comes to ‘troublesome’ concepts for one who favours desert landscapes, ‘explication is elimination’.

Finally, there can be no objection to the notion of water—the liquid—as a scattered object: water is one liquid among others; it satisfies the minimal criterion of objecthood, being the object of a singular, if generic, reference; and the liquid is scattered just in the sense that this same liquid may be found in many different regions—much as one and the same species of plant may be said to occur in different regions. And unlike, for instance, humility, solidity and arrogance (which are evidently attributes), liquids, generic objects though they be, are very naturally regarded as concrete. The question here concerns just what it means to be ‘concrete’; and when it is said—entirely reasonably—that things in the category of liquids, such as water, are concrete, the point is not, contra Quine, to compare them with concrete individual objects such as Agnes the sheep, but precisely to contrast them with, for instance, humility, solidity, and arrogance. To say that a liquid, unlike a virtue, is concrete is to say that its generic name corresponds to a concrete substantive and not a concrete adjective. But when it is said that trees and stars belong in the category of discrete objects, whereas air and water do not, what is meant is not the absurdity that the (generic or ‘universal’) substance water is not (formally or logically) an object, but the more interesting claim that the existence of this substance does not in turn consist of a class of discrete objects (‘waters’). And it is this point among others which Quine's Word and Object account—laudably perhaps, albeit unsuccessfully—attempts to somehow recognize.


(1) ‘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’ (Word and Object, 91).