Jeanette Winterson and Ontological Commitment from Language?

In this paper, I want to challenge a notion I have come across in the preface of Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry [1], namely, that “The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist” to which Winterson asks the reader “What does say about time?” My thesis (and answer to this question) is thus: nothing. In this paper, then, I want to explore the metametaphysical notion of ontological commitment and the problem of making ontological commitments from language; after having brought up problems with respect to ontological commitment, I want to refute a positive answer to Winterson’s question by consulting the work of metaphysician Peter van Inwagen in his essay “Being, Existence and Ontological Commitment” [2] which poses, in my view, a reductio ad absurdum of the argument which thinks that one can read ontology off language.

Ontological commitment refers to the metametaphysical notion of committing oneself to the existence of a given entity. For instance, when one asserts that ‘the sun is hot’, it is natural to think one has ontologically committed themselves to the existence of ‘the sun’ or ‘heat.’ But, there are examples in ordinary language where this is problematic. For instance, in thinking of sets, properties, functions, relations and the like (all of which are abstract objects—if they exist), it is common to assert that these things ‘exist’ but not in an ontologically committing sense, but, rather, in some other non-ontologically committing sense [3]. I shall leave this debate here as it is and just note that it has caused problems for those thinking of the foundations of metaphysics as well as those doing ontology (and so the question of ontological commitment has a history). However, I want to introduce what Peter van Inwagen has called the ‘Martian language’ in his essay “Being, Existence and Ontological Commitment” and show how if his thesis is correct with respect to the ‘Martian language’, a positive answer to Winterson’s question begets absurdity.

In van Inwagen’s essay, he writes the following:

There are in Martian no substantives in any way semantically related to ‘ˆetre’ or ‘esse’ or ‘existere’ or ‘to on’ or ‘einai’ or ‘Sein’ or ‘be’ or ‘am’ or ‘is’. (In particular, Martian lacks the nouns ‘being’ and ‘existence’. More exactly, the noun ‘being’ is to be found in the Martian lexicon but only as a count-noun—in phrases like ‘a human being’ and ‘an omnipotent being’—and the present participle ‘being’ occurs only in contexts in which it expresses predication or identity: ‘being of sound mind, I set out my last will and testament’; ‘being John Malkovich’.) There is, moreover, no such verb in Martian as ‘to exist’ and no adjectives like ‘existent’ or ‘extant’. Finally, the Martians do not even have the phrases ‘there is’ and ‘there are’—and not because they use some alternative idiom like ‘it has there’ or ‘it gives’ in their place. [4]

So, van Inwagen presents a language in which there are certain verbs i.e., ‘to be’ and ‘to exist’ which do not themselves exist. But, one might be skeptical as to how this would fair out in ordinary language. Van Inwagen presents examples of ways in which the Martians are able to get around typical English-like ways of speaking language:

 Let us consider some examples. Where we say, ‘Dragons do not exist’ they say, ‘Everything is not a dragon’. Where we say ‘God exists’ or ‘There is a God,’ they say ‘It is not the case that everything is not (a) God’. Where Descartes says ‘I think, therefore I am,’ his Martian counterpart says ‘I think, therefore not everything is not I.’ [5]

I shall presuppose the viability of van Inwagen’s characterizations here for the sake of argument. It is from this that I want to apply a positive answer to Winterson’s thesis. Supposing that in the Hopi tribe there are no temporal distinctions i.e., past, present and future, if one, from that, supposed that these temporal distinctions therefore do not exist, van Inwagen’s argument would show that existence and being themselves do not exist—which is absurd.

I am not sure what pedagogical implications follow from teaching this novel without exploring the philosophical implications of Winterson’s quote; at any rate while the Hopi tribe and their language is interesting from a literary perspective, it does not mean much in the realm of ontology. If my thesis is correct, affirming the ability to read ontology from language entails a reductio ad absurdum (unless one wants to deny ‘being’ and ‘existence’ themselves?).

[1] Jeanette Winterson. Sexing the Cherry. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1992. Print.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, “Being, Existence and Ontological Commitment” in Metametaphysics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

[3] By ‘non-ontologically committing sense’, I mean any theory of ontological commitment which would preclude being committed to abstract objects via the usage of language.

[4] van Inwagen, 478.

[5] van Inwagen, 478.


6 thoughts on “Jeanette Winterson and Ontological Commitment from Language?

  1. Dude great post. One thing that left an ich on my back was when you gave the arguments to appeal to the existence of God from WLC, but then didnt justify or explain the premises. I know it would be extremely long but for someone like me its hard to understand all the arguments produced by WLC. Im not as bright as you hahaha. Great posts man, keep doing what youre doing!


    • Krishna, thank you for your reply to my essay.

      In the post you are replying to, I was discussing (roughly) a claim from Jeanette Winterson’s book “Sexing the Cherry”, its metametaphysical implications and a possible counter-example from “Being, Existence and Ontological Commitment”, an essay on the foundations of metaphysics by the Christian philosopher Peter van Inwagen.

      However, if you are responding to my other post regarding the debate between WLC and Alex Rosenberg, you are right to note that I only laid out WLC’s arguments against what he calls ‘metaphysical naturalism’ (what I called ‘scientific naturalism’).
      If you are interested in the defense of each premise, I will simply provide you with a link to the debate transcript:

      WLC’s arguments (the premises of which he defends, rest assured), show how Rosenberg’s views are not merely demonstrably false, but even self-refuting. It is quite a debate, really.

      (By the way, do not feel as though the arguments will be too tough to understand; with time and patience you will grasp them and engage with them on an even deeper level than you are now. If you have come to understand the arguments and want to ask questions regarding them, check out; if your question is not answered (or not exactly how you would like to ask it), feel free to shoot me a comment and I will be sure to do my best at giving a response).


      • Woops Im sorry Rashad I meant to comment on your post on WLC vs Rosenburg. And yes I knew there were justifications for the premises, I just wondered why you didnt include them. Assuming that an atheist decides to read your paper, wouldnt that person need justificatioms included? But it was great man. Im scrolling through all your papers. I feel like Im reading St. Thomas Aquinas, as if this is a completely foreign language. I love your input, amazing papers, Im learnig a lot. Thanks for the help man. 🙂


  2. Krishna,

    I see your point: Why were the justifications not given for each premise?

    My response: The purpose of that paper was to admit the implications of scientific naturalism and how Rosenberg admitted them (contrary to many contemporary atheistic thinkers i.e., Stainton (and Brooks), Nagel and Hawking). The secondary purpose was to lay out WLC’s responses to Rosenberg and lay out a case against that view (merely for the sake of presentation). If you see footnote [1] I actually leave the reader to see the debate for him(her)self. You are right, though, that if an atheistic thinkers saw my post they would think immediately that I am “rigging the dice” and not giving a fair representation.

    However, granting that I have done something unfair to the searching atheist, I would reply (in defense) that if you look at the premises of WLC’s argument, they are very intuitive premises which, even if controversial, are very plausible a priori. For instance, take the argument from endurance:

    “1. According to Dr. Rosenberg, if naturalism is true then I do not endure for two moments of time.

    2. But, I have been sitting here for more than a minute. If you think that you are the same person who walked into the room tonight then you should agree that:

    3. Therefore, naturalism is not true.”

    This argument is a very intuitive one and so, in my view, is all the more probable. However, perhaps you are correct in thinking that justification for each of the premises are needed. In a future post, I will be sure to talk more on the issue(s) of scientific naturalism, but, for now, I simply refer those wondering for his justifications to watch (or read) the debate itself. I will take your post as encouraging and constructive and I appreciate your compliments; while they are unwarranted, I appreciate them all.


    • Yeah okay that nakes sense. I just misunderstood why you didnt include the justifications but I understand why now.

      But this paper itself is great too. Its pretty much a deep inquiry the composition fallacy. She tries to determine the origins (ontology) of the meaning of something via the composition of it. This is a bit too far hahahaha.


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