Quantifier variance and interpretive charity.


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The ontological literature contains several ongoing discussions which seem not to be advancing: incompatible theories of what there is are energetically defended, but these defenses do not lead to consensus. Some have suggested that the explanation for this situation is that contemporary ontology pretends to more profundity than it possesses such that in many of these debates what is at issue is not in fact some deep truth about the world, but rather which linguistic convention to use in describing it. Many ontological debates are thus shallow. Eli Hirsch is a prominent defender of this view. He propounds a thesis called Quantifier Variance according to which there are multiple superficially similar languages which are equally good at describing reality, but which differ in their semantics, especially in the meanings they assign their quantifier terms. Speakers of two of these languages might appear to disagree about ontology when in fact they are having a merely verbal dispute. Hirsch further contends that the principle of interpretive charity obliges us to interpret various ontological camps as speaking different of these “ontological languages.” To do otherwise would be uncharitable, for it would be to assign error to some party on clearly insufficient grounds. It would follow that some debates in metaphysics are shallow, and inescapably so, for we would always need to interpret their participants at talking past one another. I aim to show that Hirsch’s contention is false, and that interpretive charity will not motivate such deflation. My first chapter lays out the interrelated theses of Hirsch’s position, including quantifier variance, and holds that even though there is good reason to reject some of these theses, Hirsch still provides a potentially potent argument that certain debates are merely verbal and shallow, the argument from interpretive charity. It is to rebutting that argument I turn in my second chapter. My third chapter turns to the principle of charity itself, contending that it is doubtful we should accept a principle which would motivate the Hirschean argument. In my final chapter, I develop a semantic hypothesis which facilitates interpretive charity to speakers without quantifier variance.



Metaphysics. Philosophy of language. Ontology. Quantifier variance. Material constitution. Principle of charity. Eli Hirsch. Donald Davidson.