Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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2. What is there?
In its characteristically philosophical form, this is not a question of detail (for example, are there mammoths?) but about the most general kinds of thing: are there universals, or only particulars? – is there mind or spirit, or is there only matter? – is there anything that exists without being in space and time? Thus the debate on the first of these questions between Platonists and nominalists, or on the second between idealists and materialists, might in each case be described as a difference of opinion about the correct ontology. So might the conflict over whether values are objective aspects of reality, or rather ‘in the eye of the beholder’, a matter of how we react to things rather than the things themselves (see Emotivism; Projectivism).
The questions ‘What kinds of thing ultimately exist?’ or ‘… really exist?’ or ‘… exist in themselves?’ are even more characteristically philosophical forms of the general ontological question. To understand what usually lies behind these additional terms one needs a grasp of (1) the concept of a reduction and (2) the distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves.
Reduction. Berkeley famously claimed that material objects were just collections of ‘ideas’ (see Berkeley, G. §3). He did not mean that there were no chairs or tables, but that such things did not have a material, non-mental component; what really existed was all mental. There are spirits and their ideas, and we speak of chairs and so on when the latter occur in familiar, stable groupings. In modern terminology, he was claiming that material objects can be reduced to ideas. There are other common examples. In political discourse we often speak of what a particular state has done – but without having to suppose that there are such things as states distinct from the individual people who compose them. A once-popular thesis about the nature of mind was that there is nothing but bodies and their behaviour, and that words apparently naming mental states and happenings are just convenient ways of indicating types of behaviour (see Behaviourism, analytic; Reductionism in the philosophy of mind).
Things-in-themselves. We may distinguish between the way a thing appears, which will depend partly on the faculties and situation of whoever is perceiving it, and the way it is, independently of how anyone perceives it. The latter is the thing-in-itself. The terminology was made instantly famous by Kant, arguing that space and time (and therefore everything in space or time) were merely the way in which a non-spatiotemporal reality, things-in-themselves, appeared to humans (see Kant §5).
Craig, Edward. What is there?. Ontology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N039-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/ontology/v-1/sections/what-is-there.
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