Two Kinds of Ontological Commitment

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Participants in the debate about `ontological commitment' would benefit from distinguishing two different ways of understanding the notion. If the question at issue is `what is said to be' by a theory or `what a theory says there is', we are debating `explicit' commitment, while if we ask about the ontological costs or preconditions of the truth of a theory, we enquire into `implicit' commitment. I defend a conception of ontological commitment as implicit commitment; I also develop and defend an account of existentially quantified idioms in natural language which sees them as implicitly, but not explicitly, committing. Finally, I use the distinction between two kinds of ontological commitment to diagnose a flaw in a widely-used argument…show more content…
If the theory contains the sentence `s exist' or `There are s', then the theory says that there are s, and is ontologically committed to s. And of course, if the theory contains no such sentence, then it bears no ontological commitment to s.

I shall describe ontological commitment of this kind as `explicit' commitment. The question of explicit commitment is the question of `what a theory says there is', understood as what is claimed to exist in the course of propounding the theory. Such commitments are correctly described as `explicit' because they should be obvious to anyone who understands the language of the theory. Indeed, it seems that whether a fragment of language bears explicit ontological commitment depends on the beliefs and intentions with which it is used in a much more straightforward way than we would grant for other properties within the theory of meaning: a reasonable principle is that a sentence serves to assert the existence of, and hence is explicitly committed to, s only if its serious assertoric use is largely confined to those who both have the relevant ontological belief, and intend to express that belief by means of the sentence in question. It is because of this close connection between explicit
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