There are major challenges facing anyone who seeks to establish a workable ontology for the various situations of everyday life. Ontology is a descriptive pastime concerned with ‘being’, while the language of everyday life is performative and more concerned with ‘doing’; formal ontology is precise and explicit, while the ‘ontologies’ of natural language are vague, untidy, and catholic in their inclusiveness. While applied ontology goes some way to modelling the conceptual relations underlying the way we talk about this of that area of the world, such local ontologies generally depend on topic-specific domains and are certainly not flexible enough to allow us to model “the world in its totality”.1
In the first part of the following, I start from the view that ‘the world’ is the unregimented domain of whatever human beings might conceivably hold to be ‘real’. I examine the implications of such a view, and the criteria by which we can decide whether or not some thing is permissible in our widest view of reality. I also look at several strategies for banishing entirely impossible entities and suggest certain pragmatic criteria by which we might allow a limited or instrumental commitment to ‘problematic’ entities in metaphysics. Thereafter I develop a personal understanding that, for want of a better name, I’ll call “antirealist fictionalsm”. It probably counts as a version of quietism.
The world is generally understood to be the totality of whatever is in the world, whether we set “the world” as the physical universe, as the domain of human history, experience, and expectation, or as some overarching cosmic order1. Whatever our language can imagine or formulate is, trivially, ‘in the world’; but unless we’re willing to accept a vague, context-free universality of being that can include – without further distinction – whatever we might conceivably formulate, we have to set some limit to what is and is not real. What resources – and what metaphysical and epistemological justification – can we bring into play when deciding that such-and-such an entity or relation is permissible within our widest ontological domain? Should we restrict the term “ontology” to the explicit, formalised ontologies of philosophy and the natural sciences, or should we allow its extension to the domains of the social sciences – and even beyond, to the implicit ontological domains of economic, political, and social action? Conversely, if we seek to generalise from some theory-specific ontology to reality as a whole, where do we set the limits of the ‘reality’ we’re willing to take into consideration?
1 Etymologically, the Latin term “mondus” and the Greek term “kosmos” have the general sense “that which is ordered or arranged”; the English term “world” comes from the proto-Germanic “wer-ald”, or “age of Man”.
1 Katherine Munn evokes this problem in her introduction to Popular Ontology (Katherine Munn and Barry Smith (Eds), Ontos-Verlag, 2008); several of the authors in the collection suggest mereological approaches similar to that outlined in section 4 below.