Absolute Generality 4: Hellman on the problem

I’ll return to the second paper in the Absolute Generality collection, Michael Glanzberg’s ‘Context and unrestricted quantification’, in due course: but as it happens I’ve just read Geoffrey Hellman’s ‘Against “Absolutely Everything”‘, so I’ll comment on that while it is tolerably fresh in my mind. There are four main sections in the paper — an attempt to state a version of anti-absolutist skepticism, an argument for anti-absolutism based on indefinite extensibility, an argument based on the possibility of ‘factually equivalent’ ontologies, and then a section explaining e.g. how the anti-absolutist makes sense of apparently absolutely general quantifications as in ‘there are no talking donkeys’. I’ll take these sections in turn.

Hellman’s attempt to state a version of anti-absolutist skepticism is actually a bit of a fumble. He starts off by saying that the skeptic (if that’s the right word) can state a position ‘without self-destruction’ by mentioning the purported quantifier ‘absolutely everything’ and saying, negatively, that in the end he can’t give a stable coherent content to it. So far so good. However, Hellman then asks whether there is a defensible positive thesis that the skeptic can articulate. He starts talking about ‘the intensional aspects of ontological commitments’ in a way which I found a bit baffling (it’s hardly a Quinean notion of ontological commitment that’s in play). But then in the end, Hellman says that ‘essentially the same idea’ can be given presented in the negative mode, with the skeptic standing ready to offer e.g. an indefinite extensibility argument whenever the absolutist attempts to use a supposedly absolutely general quantifier, thereby backing up his (the skeptic’s) claim not to be able to give coherent content to it. The excursus looking for a ‘positive’ thesis seems to achieve nothing. So let’s pass on.

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