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An Interview with Philosopher Eli Hirsch 

Eli Hirsch is the Charles Goldman Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University and is known for his influential work in metaontology, particularly his support of quantifier variance and commonsense ontology. Simpliciter spoke with Hirsch about a number of topics including challenges to his views, his major influences, and philosophical progress.

Over your career, you've argued for a metaontological thesis called quantifier variance. Could you explain what quantifier variance is and how it relates to diagnosing ontological disputes as merely verbal?


Maybe it’s most natural to start with the ontological disputes themselves. There are different ontological views in the literature. Mereological essentialists say that an object cannot persist with a change of parts. So if you take a twig off a tree, you end up having destroyed that tree and replaced it with another tree. At the other extreme, there are four-dimensionalists, who say that objects are made up of temporal parts, and any two objects make up an object, so there exists some object made up of Socrates’s nose and the Eiffel tower. And there are a number of other ontological views as well. 


Now, one thought that I have applies to a certain range of ontological positions— positions about visible objects, or something like that—where for each position, you can describe an “ontological language,” such that the speakers of that ontological language will assert the same sentences that the ontologist is asserting. Note that a sentence is an utterance, not a proposition. So, for example, we can describe ME-English, which is a language just like English except that the speakers all assert sentences that the mereological essentialist would assert. For example, speakers of this language would say things like “If you break a twig off that tree, you’re going to destroy it.” But the semantics of ME-English are stipulated such that the speakers are speaking the truth when they make those assertions—the truth conditions of that sentence make it true that the tree would go out of existence. And we can do the same thing for the other positions. For example, we can describe 4D-English, which is a language just like English except that the speakers all assert sentences that the four-dimensionalist would assert. And so on. 


These different ontological languages will assign certain sentences different truth conditions, and some of these sentences will involve existence. So, for example, the sentence “there exists some object made up of Socrates’s nose and the Eiffel tower” will be true in 4D-English and false in ME-English. The conclusion of all this is that the meaning of the term “existence”—the concept of existence—has to vary across languages. And that’s what quantifier variance is: it’s the thesis that the meaning of the existential quantifier can vary across languages. 


So there are these different ontological languages corresponding to the different ontological “positions,” and the speakers of each of these languages speak the truth in their respective languages, even though they appear to utter contradictory sentences. The next step is to say that what’s really going on is that these ontologists aren’t really engaged in a genuine dispute. It’s just that they’re hooking on to one ontological language or another. The four-dimensionalist ontologist is speaking 4D-English while the mereological essentialist ontologist is speaking ME-English, so they’re not really disagreeing with each other and their dispute is empty. 


You often defend your views using the notion of charity. Can you explain what charity is and how it might lead one to adopt views similar to yours?


Here, the background assumption is about how we interpret languages. It seems that coming to understand a language involves interpretive charity, which was discussed by Quine and Davidson, among others, and basically means interpreting people so that their assertions generally come out true. And I don’t know how else we could interpret a language. We just have to watch people playing the game and ask ourselves what the rules of the game are. And we’re going to describe the rules in a way that makes the most sense of what these people are doing. I mean, if it looks like they’re playing chess, you’re not gonna say they’re really playing dominoes. So if I come across a community of speakers who say the sorts of things that four-dimensionalists say, then the charitable interpretation is that they are speaking the truth, insofar as you can assign intelligible truth conditions to their sentences, which I think you can do. So then the charitable interpretation is that they are using those sentences to describe the truth in their words. 


Now, I emphasize three modes of charity, though there are others. One mode that’s particularly important is what I call charity to understanding, which says that there’s a defeasible but very strong assumption that speakers of a language are not making a priori mistakes about relatively simple sentences. Consider van Inwagen’s view, organicism, which says that there are no composite objects except for living things. Van Inwagen says that the statement “there is a table” is false. And it’s not just false, it’s a priori false. So there’s a very simple sentence, which you’d have to say everybody who speaks English, except for a few very weird philosophers, are making a priori mistakes about. But that violates charity to understanding. And I think it’s an enormously powerful consideration that people are not making a mistake when they say “there is a table.” Because that will mean that they don’t even understand what they’re talking about, in some sense. Another mode of charity is charity to perception, which says that we should assume that people don’t make mistakes about what’s going on right in front of their eyes. Van Inwagen thinks people do make mistakes about what’s going on right in front of their eyes. And then there’s charity to retraction. If people change their minds, if they retract what they had previously said, then there’s a charitable assumption that what they’re saying now is right, and that what they said earlier was wrong. In these ontological disputes, ordinary people do not retract their views on the basis of hearing these strange things. 


So charity to understanding, perception, and retraction all add up to a case that speakers of plain English are not speaking 4D-English, they’re not speaking organicism-English, they’re not speaking ME-English, but they’re speaking a perfectly good language in which what they say is true. 

You've previously cited Putnam and Carnap as important influences, and Quine has also made some remarks reminiscent of your own. What sort of influence have these philosophers had on your views, and how do you see your views as different?


I used to think of my view as just coming out of Putnam’s, but the more I developed my own view and emphasized my opposition to anti-realism, the more I felt distanced from him. One of Putnam’s most central ideas is some kind of Kantianism/pragmatism/anti-realism. And I think of that as a real mouthful, a really hard and obscure view. I don’t think of my own view as anything like that. I believe that there is an objective reality which is being described in different words and quantifiers by these different languages. So that’s how I think of my relationship to Putnam. Carnap is different. I never really understood what he means by the distinction between internal and external questions, but his basic idea of choosing a language is certainly very, very close to what I’m saying. So it’s possible that at bottom, my view is very much like Carnap’s. But even in Carnap, there’s definitely some kind of anti-realism going on there. So I would say that the main difference is that in both Putnam and Carnap, and most clearly in Putnam, there’s a kind of anti-realism that I’m very anxious to distinguish myself from. 


My relationship to Quine is less clear. I think that my formulations skirt issues about inscrutability of reference. I’m very interested in that issue, but it doesn’t really become central to my formulations. And it’s very central to Quine’s ontology and to his ontological relativity, which I think of as a more extreme view than quantifier variance. It’s again some kind of a relativist or anti-realist view. My view has never gone into issues about the inscrutability of reference or radical translation. So I guess I just skirt those Quinean questions. 


You mentioned that quantifier variance doesn't lead to any kind of anti-realism. What might motivate people to think that quantifier variance leads to anti-realism, and why in fact doesn't it? Is this a genuine challenge to your views?


To put the most negative spin on my critics—and this is an exaggeration—but it’s like that joke: how many tails would a dog have if the word “tail” referred to legs? Almost everybody agrees that the correct answer to that question is “one.” Even if the word “tail” referred to legs, dogs would still have one tail, though the speakers of that language would correctly assert the sentence “dogs have four tails.” The change of language doesn’t change the reality. And it’s almost as if people make the mistake in that joke. If we spoke 4D-English, the sentence, “There exists something composed of Socrates’s nose and the Eiffel tower,” would be a true sentence. And even so, there would not have existed something composed of Socrates’s nose and the Eiffel Tower. So I think that some people somehow just don’t get this point. They somehow think that, according to Hirsch, we could change our language in such a way that there would exist something composed of Socrates’s nose and the Eiffel Tower. But no, we couldn’t.


So one should not make that mistake. But more seriously, there is some kind of intuition here which I myself am not invulnerable to, and which I think Ted Sider has expressed in the question, “So according to Hirsch, what’s the world really like?” And my official answer to that question is, “Choose the language and I’ll tell you what the world is really like. I could talk to you in ordinary English, in 4D-English or ME-English; tell me what language you want, and I’ll tell you what the world is really like.” But I appreciate that there is a sense of perplexity here. In my writings, I say that I don’t need to get involved in stuff like facts and states of affairs, and how you individuate or identify facts and states of affairs. But I think that there is certainly an impulse to ask, “So according to Hirsch, what’s the state of affairs?” In English, you say “there isn’t something like that.” And then in this other language, you say the words “there is something like that.” So do those words express the same state of affairs? Are there different states of affairs for these different languages? If you ask me what I think is the sore spot for my view, it has to do with those kinds of questions. 


All I keep saying is that each sentence in one language is truth-conditionally equivalent to a sentence in the other language. But there’s some notion of a fine-grained fact, which is not just given by truth conditions, but something more fine-grained than that. There’s a view that you find in lots of people like Kaplan and Salmon which says that in order for two sentences to express the same fine-grained fact, they have to have the same syntactic structure and corresponding words have to have the same intension. I’m bothered by the whole notion of fine-grained facts, and in a couple of places I say that if you’re a quantifier variantist, you ought to get rid of fine-grained facts. But maybe they’re not so easy to get rid of. And the question which has been raised, especially by John Hawthorne, for years, is “Do we have the same fine-grained facts from one language to another?” And I think there are ways to answer that. But I think that is the main source of discomfort with quantifier variance. Sometimes you can get the feeling, as Sider says, “So what’s the world like?” Again, my official answer is “Choose the language and I’ll tell you what.” But something does bother me about that question. 


You mentioned Ted Sider's response to your views, which makes use of a special concept of "heavyweight existence," sometimes rendered as EXISTENCE. Roughly speaking, EXISTENCE is supposed to most accurately track how the world really is, and carve up reality "at the joints." Sider has argued that disputing ontologists are in fact all using the concept of EXISTENCE, rather than each using their own, distinct concepts like ME-existence, 4D-existence, and so on. He has argued that our existence claims are "magnetically pulled" to carve at the joints of reality, and such pressure trumps considerations of interpretive charity. So, despite the fact that it would make many assertions come out false, we should still interpret ontologists as employing the concept of EXISTENCE.


But Gerald Marsh has actually argued that this debate between you and Sider is itself a verbal dispute. Just as you try to deflate disputes in first-order ontology, he tries to deflate this metaontological dispute. What do you make of Marsh's attempt?


In certain cases, I don’t see any way to translate one view into the other in terms of truth-conditional equivalence. For example, I say that the dispute between Platonism and nominalism in the philosophy of mathematics is not verbal for this reason: I don’t see how the nominalist can give truth conditions to what Platonists say. And similarly I just don’t see any way that I can interpret Sider’s view as being true, or how he can interpret my view as being true. I mean, it has to be worked out—it’s not just a matter of saying “hey, we have this disagreement, let’s just say charitably that each side is right.” There’s got to be some way of explaining how the sentences asserted by each side are truth-conditionally equivalent to sentences asserted by the other side. I don’t know how to do that with respect to my disagreement with Sider. Maybe it can be done, but I don’t know how to do it. 



At one point Marsh suggests that maybe we can focus on how you and Sider each use the term "interpretation." Marsh suggests that on a Hirsch-interpretation, charity trumps naturalness, while on a Sider-interpretation, naturalness trumps charity. Is that a viable way to do it?


I mean it’s a nice idea. When I think about the dispute between the four-dimensionalists and mereological essentialists, I’m thinking that for any sentence asserted on one side, I can produce a truth-conditionally equivalent sentence on the other side. Here, you may have given me some kind of sketch about how that can be done. But what if Hirsch says to Sider, “There is no such thing as EXISTENCE.” Give me a sentence in Sider-English which is truth conditionally equivalent at that point. I don’t know if Marsh has done that. I see the kind of move he’s trying to make. But I need a sentence that is truth-conditionally equivalent, in my language, to Sider’s sentence “The table doesn’t EXIST.” 


To the extent that I can make sense of this concept of EXISTENCE, I’m not disagreeing. But really, in other works of mine I have said, and am saying now, that I’m very skeptical of EXISTENCE. And at this point, I think Sider pretty much agrees with me that ordinary people are not making mistakes in what they say. But I basically do reject that notion of EXISTENCE. And that’s not a disagreement that I know how to charitably eliminate. 


We also wanted to ask about ethics. What do you make of the following (oversimplified) argument? It tries to adopt your techniques to deflate a moral dispute:

The Kantian, speaking K-English, says "killing one person to save five is wrong," while the utilitarian, speaking U-English, asserts the negation of this sentence. On considerations of charity, we should interpret each person as speaking the truth in their respective languages. So it's a verbal dispute.


On certain meta-ethical views, when you say “abortion is wrong,” you’re just expressing some attitude. And disagreements about whether abortion is right or wrong are just disagreements of attitude—something comparable to a disagreement about what TV show to watch. A disagreement of attitude cannot be eliminated by translation: if you have a pro-attitude, and I have a con-attitude, that remains, and there’s no way of deflating that. Naturalists think that the statement “abortion is is wrong” is simply equivalent to some ordinary biological facts. If we are two naturalists, arguing with each other, I think we should dismiss it as a verbal disagreement. I’m describing some biological facts, you’re describing some biological facts, and we don’t disagree about biology. So we’re just using the words “good” and “bad” to describe different biological facts. But I can’t take naturalism seriously. What I can take seriously is non-naturalism—the view held by G.E. Moore, and nowadays held by Parfit and by Scanlon—which says that the property of being right or wrong doesn’t just express a feeling and can’t just be translated into some biological or physical facts. Why would that turn to a verbal disagreement? Give me the equivalences! If you and I are both non-naturalists, we both believe there is this property of rightness. And I say that abortion lacks that property, and you say abortion has that property. Give me the truth-conditional equivalences here. It’s not obvious that it’s going to work. 


Couldn't we do this by specifying the features of an act that would lead a Kantian to call it "right," and the features of an act that would lead a utilitarian to call it "right"?


Right away, that just doesn't seem to be plausible. How are you going to make that fit into the idea that there's this irreducible property of rightness? 


I was taking this to be an argument that there is no such irreducible property — each party is employing their own concept of rightness, and thus the despite is verbal.


I don’t know about that. Because it seems to be when you talk about Kant-rightness and utilitarian-rightness, you’re already rejecting non-naturalism. Because otherwise, what do you mean by Kant-rightness? By Kant-rightness you’re going to mean those physical, biological properties with respect to which Kant would have said “that’s right.” So I think you’re already introducing the apparatus for making it into a verbal dispute. You’re getting rid of the irreducible non-natural property. I’m not saying that that’s at all an easy idea, that irreducible non-natural property. But I don’t think you can deflate this dispute easily. 


But if this argument presupposes that non-naturalism is false by presupposing different notions of rightness, then analogously wouldn't the kinds of arguments you give in metaontology presuppose that there are different concepts of existence?


The stuff about charity is not an argument against EXISTENCE. It’s an argument about what ordinary people are saying. EXISTENCE is a different issue. This was Sider’s move—to say that ontologists are speaking their own language of Ontologese, about EXISTENCE. I wasn’t taking it that way to begin with. And, you know, van Inwagen didn’t say that, and David Lewis didn’t say that — they seemed to be taking themselves to just be speaking English. And I was making some responses at that level. When Sider came along and said “no, really, our discussions are about EXISTENCE, a heavyweight concept of existence,” then yeah, stuff about charity doesn’t obviously work for that. It might, but it doesn’t obviously work for it. And I never intended it to work for that. My objection to EXISTENCE has always been, as I’ve said, it’s just too obscure for me. 


On a more general note, many philosophers do take these ontological debates very seriously and believe that they're substantive and important. Why do you think that is?


I suggested earlier why some people might reject quantifier variance. If you can’t say what I say, which is that you can shift from one concept of existence to another, and if you think there’s only one legitimate concept of existence, then you may have to take these debates seriously. But the more serious possibility to me is that these ontological languages that I describe are not possible languages. I’ve always considered that to be a very interesting view, and I haven’t seen it defended except in some of my own work. In the last chapters of my book, Dividing Reality, I try to argue for it, but then I admit that I can’t make the argument work. On the other hand, it is a remarkable fact that when teaching students, especially beginning philosophy students, you can so easily lead them into—well, from my point of view, as a common sense, ordinary language philosopher—craziness. It’s like in two seconds you can get everybody in the class to say, “Yeah, we are one person. We are really just one person, we’re one with the absolute,” and all kinds of crazy stuff. Although obviously, many people don’t regard it as crazy. 


So I think it’s partly a rejection of quantifier variance, for reasons that I regard as not good reasons. But I don’t know if that’s the whole answer. I don’t know if I can say this seriously, but there’s just a real hunger for what I regard as obscurantism. One might more generously say there is a hunger for depth. So you get people thinking deeply, and ask them, “If you take a twig off a tree, do you still have the same tree?” And I would love it if people said “What are you talking about, are you crazy?” But they don’t react that way, at least not in a philosophy classroom. When one of my daughters was about five or six, I was in the park with her, thinking about some of this stuff. And I basically described mereological essentialism to her. And she, as a five-year-old, said, “Oh, so they must mean something different than what we mean by ‘one object.’” So maybe it’s in the genes. But I guess there’s a real hunger for depth, and I think it leads to this kind of heavyweight ontology. 


Were you ever attracted to these kinds of heavyweight ontological realist views, or have you always thought they are suspect? 


I remember sitting with some friends in a coffee house on the East Side of New York when I was maybe 17. We were all taking an intro to philosophy course, and these two guys were carrying on a debate about if you have a brick wall, and you start replacing the bricks, do you end up with the same wall or not? And they were going on and on. And I said to them, “These are just words! These are just different words you’re using.” So the answer to your question is no, I was never attracted to it. I understand now, more than I did then, the attraction to heavyweight ontology, especially given Sider’s question, “So what’s the world really like?” You know, I get more of a feeling for it now than I had for years and years. But I went directly into ordinary language philosophy, influenced by people like Strawson and Austin, and this heavyweight stuff was foreign to them. In fact, it took me years to catch on that something new was happening here. Van Inwagen thinks that there are no composite things except for living things. He was kind of a friend of mine, and I remember telling my wife, “I have this friend who’s gonna be laughed out of the profession, he’s just saying crazy, crazy things.” And on the contrary, this whole crowd of guys thought that this was great stuff! And I was just left dizzy, I didn’t know what was going on. It took me years to catch on that there had been some real shift into some different way of thinking about these things. So you might think that would be a difficult question, but the answer is no, I was never attracted to it from the beginning. 


How do you see the future of metaontology evolving?


In philosophy I think things shift in ways that are just not predictable. As I say, there was this shift from Strawson and Austin to guys like van Inwagen. And there may be a shift back. When I was a graduate student, perception was the thing. And then that dropped out of sight and philosophy of science became the thing. And now, my sense—for Brandeis students, at least—is that perception is back in and philosophy of science is in the background. 


If I want to make an optimistic prediction, it’s that this kind of heavyweight EXISTENCE stuff will disappear. Lewis and van Inwagen never talked about it. I think it was mainly Sider, to his great credit, who said “look, we need to have this notion of EXISTENCE.” Maybe this is just a hopeful prediction, but I think that it’s going to disappear. It’s just too obscure of a notion. And Sider himself, I have a feeling, may not be that enthusiastic about it anymore. That doesn’t mean that ontological debates are going to disappear because, as I said, Lewis thinks he’s got very good arguments as to why regular people are wrong in terms of the ordinary notion of existence. That can continue. 


Do you have a pessimistic view of philosophical progress generally?


Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard my views about Plato, but I certainly think there’s been some progress since then. You know, I’m generally pessimistic about everything. And philosophy is one area where you shouldn’t expect a tremendous amount of progress. Parfit has claimed that “in ethics, we are at the beginning,” just like when Euclid was doing geometry. He’s very optimistic about how we’re just going to work it out. I don’t think that’s going to happen exactly. But I think there is progress. I mean, I think Kripke’s stuff is progress. Maybe it’ll be watered-down progress, in some ways, but I think there’s progress in philosophy. 


You mentioned that you're in the process of writing a new book. Could you give an overview of what it's going to be about, and how it relates to some of the metaontological issues we've been discussing?


The book is actually finished, and hopefully will be in press soon. The name of the book is Selves in Doubt, and it’s not a book about ontology, although it has a chapter dealing with the question of whether or not some languages are better than others. The main topic is the first-person pronoun: what is meant by the word “I” and the implications of the semantics of the word “I.” I start off with some notion of what I call “‘I’-blindness,”: trying to imagine a creature like us, except it doesn’t have a first-person perspective. The book also has a chapter—and people have given me a lot of trouble about this—called “The Impossibility of Doubting the Existence of Other Selves.” So there I have an argument that it’s a priori impossible to be “sane,” in some sense of the word, without the existence of other selves. On the other hand, I have another chapter which is titled “Reasons for Doubting the Existence of Other Selves,” because I am also, in some sense, a skeptic. And the final chapter is called “Reflections on Facing Skepticism When Facing Death.” I think it turns out that there are some very deep connections between thinking about skepticism and thinking about death. So it’s, you know, sort of new stuff for me. 

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