[FOM] Alonzo Church on The Ontological Status of Women and Abstract Entities

John Corcoran corcoran at buffalo.edu
Thu Sep 15 14:27:00 EDT 2005

[Bibliographic note: Following is the conclusion of a lecture that the
logician Alonzo Church presented at Harvard University on April 18,
1958. In this excerpt, which was first published on the web site of
Cathy Legg, Church was arguing against the nominalistic approach of the
philosophers Nelson Goodman and Willard van Orman Quine. ]

The Ontological Status of Women and Abstract Entities
by Alonzo Church 

Goodman says somewhere that he finds abstract entities difficult to
understand. And from a psychological viewpoint it is certainly his
dislike and distrust of abstract entities which leads him to propose an
ontology from which they are omitted. Now a misogynist is a man who
finds women difficult to understand, and who in fact considers them
objectionable incongruities in an otherwise matter-of-fact and
hard-headed world. Suppose then that in analogy with nominalism the
misogynist is led by his dislike and distrust of women to omit them from
his ontology. Women are not real, he tells himself, and derives great
comfort from the thought -- there are no such things. This doctrine let
us call ontological misogyny . 

There are various forms which such a doctrine may take. The misogynist
may follow the example of Ryle and say that the world of women has no
independent existence, it does not exist in addition to man's world but
is an aspect of it; and though it may be convenient to speak of women
independently, it is also misleading, and actually one should not ask
such questions as whether women exist. But if this doctrine stands in
isolation and does not affect the circumstances under which he agrees to
my assertion that there is a woman in the room, or admits that some
women have made important scientific discoveries, then it is clear that
the denial of ontological status to women is only a matter of
psychological comfort to the misogynist and has no further significance.

Instead of this the misogynist may take the more profound course which
follows Goodman and Quine, attempting to construct a comprehensive
theory that is adequate in general for purposes of understanding and
communication, but at the same time avoiding ontological commitment to
women. It is an interesting logical question how far such a theory is
possible (without inconsistency with experimental and observational
results). I think it may have at least as much success as has attended
the corresponding search for a nominalist theory. 

Just as propositions are replaced by inscriptions in order to avoid
ontological commitment to the former, so a woman might be replaced by
her husband. Instead of saying that a woman is present, we might speak
of men as having two kinds of presence, primary presence and secondary
presence, the observational criteria for secondary presence of a man
being the same which the more usual theory would take as observational
criteria for presence of a woman. And similarly in the case of other
things that one might think to say about women. Certain difficulties
arise over the fact that some women have more than one husband and
others none, but these are no greater than the corresponding
difficulties in the case of propositions and inscriptions. 

Actually the task might be lightened by taking advantage of the
fortunate circumstance that every woman has only one father. And for
this reason ontological misogyny is a doctrine much easier to put into
satisfactory nominalistic theory, and probably more logical order than
is the Quine-Goodman finitistic nominalism. 

But the question of the logical possibility of such a theory must be
separated from the question of the desirability of replacing the
ordinary theory by this ontologically more economical variant of it.
Quine and Goodman emphasize the economy of nominalism in supposing the
existence of fewer entities. But the economy which has commonly been the
concern of the logician, and of the mathematician dealing with
foundations, has been simply economy of assumption, which might be
thought to include (among other things) economy of ontological
assumption, but certainly not as its primary or most important element.
Surely there are other criteria by which to judge a theory. And though
we may be obliged to grant that the ontological misogynist has made a
successful application of Ockham's razor, in that he has reduced his
ontology without losing the adequacy of his theory, we may still prefer
the more usual theory which grants existence to women. 

To return to Quine and Goodman, it is possible, even likely, that the
failure of their program will demonstrate the untenability of their
finitistic nominalism. But the success of their program, like that of
ontological misogynist, would leave us to choose between the rival
ontologies on other grounds. It is only in the former case that Quine
and Goodman could be said in any sense to have settled the
nominalist-realist controversy. But it is in any case a major
contribution to have clarified the meaning of the dispute, by putting
the opposing doctrines on a sounder basis and showing their relevance to

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