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Amie Thomasson, "Ontology Made Easy"

September 26, 2008

Abstract: In the last few decades there has been a resurgence of interest in the old question “What exists”. This led first to a great proliferation of ontological views and to endless battles over whether numbers, properties, organisms, or artifacts exist. But lately a different line of inquiry has emerged: Are existence debates in ontology genuine debates? Are they resolvable? Or is something wrong with them that makes them not worth pursuing?

Those who answer this metaontological question can be very roughly classed into two camps. On one side are those I will call ‘serious ontologists’. Serious ontologists either explicitly defend or (by engaging earnestly in first-order ontological debates) implicitly presuppose that ontological debates are genuine, and that ontological questions have answers that we can in principle discover, though doing so is a difficult matter requiring distinctively philosophical work.

On the other side are those who, for one reason or another, think that the serious ontologist’s pursuits are misguided. While many skeptics have embraced the idea of quantifier variance or taken ontological questions to be either moot or too difficult to answer, I have elsewhere (e.g. in Ordinary Objects (2007)) taken a different route: arguing that ontological questions (properly understood) are easy—too easy, in fact, to be subjects of substantive and distinctively philosophical debates. They are easy, roughly, in the sense that they may be resolved straightforwardly—generally by a combination of conceptual and empirical enquiries. The purpose of this paper is to examine the main objections that have been raised against this approach, or that have been raised against related approaches (like the neo-Fregean’s) and might be thought to apply here. Ultimately, I will argue, the easy view is not easily assailed by any of these routes, and so remains (thus far) a tenable and attractive approach.