Ontology and Existence

Course schedule

See here: schedule.



Ontology is central to philosophy, and always has been. The study of existence has led to some of the most radical worldviews and has repeatedly been criticized for leading to nonsense. But time and again, ontology reemerges as an unavoidable and defining element in our overall philosophical understanding of the world. This course studies some of the deepest questions of ontology, including the following:

  • What is it for something to exist?
  • Why should we believe that there are objects at all?
  • Are there multiple ways in which something can be said to be?
  • What do qualitative similarities and differences amongst objects consist in?
  • Is metaphysics an intellectually fruitful enterprise?
  • What is it for parts to form a single whole?
  • Does the world exhibit a layered structure?
  • How should we understand our ability to talk about non-existing things?

Contemporary ontology is flourishing, engaging some of the best living philosophers to produce their most creative work. Contemporary ontology is highly diverse in its starting points, and methods. Although we will mainly read recent articles in this course, many of them show a deep indebtedness to the philosophical tradition, using formal tools to provide clearer or more accessible formulations of old views, or formulating new powerful arguments that resurrect views long thought dead. We will discuss how Armstrong and Lewis reinvent the theory of universals, how McDaniel draws on Heidegger’s thought to formulate an alternative to the Quinean paradigm, and how Fine draws on Aristotle’s hylomorphism to offer a new theory of parts and wholes. Assuming that students already possess quite some knowledge of the historical figures and/or possess a thorough handle on formal machinery, the readings illustrate how one may draw productively on historical texts in contemporary debates, and how philosophical views can motivate new creative applications of formal tools. We will also repeatedly discuss broader methodological questions, such as what sort of starting points we should resort to in developing our metaphysics, and such as when it is legitimate to demand an explanation and when not. Above all, however, we will attempt to make up our own minds on a range of philosophical questions.


Teaching outcomes

The overall aim of the course is to enable you to participate in ongoing debates of contemporary metaphysics through the further explication, defense and criticism of current standpoints. You will:

  1. form an informed view about some of the central topics of contemporary ontology
  2. become aware of the different methodologies and starting-points that are adopted in current debates
  3. learn how historical sources and formal tools enrich the development and defense of views in contemporary ontology
  4. offer a presentation that is up to the standard of a typical conference in contemporary metaphysics, and includes a Q&A session in which you deal with questions and objections
  5. write two essays that approach international publication standards, each offering the reasoned defense of a claim about one of the topics discussed in the course


Class structure

Seminars and lectures. Classes will be divided into: (1) time for two student presentations, (2) a lecture on a new topic, and (3) discussion of the main reading for that class. A tentative schedule will soon be posted here.



Evaluation will focus on two essential skills expected of those in the philosophy profession: the ability to present and effectively debate issues, and the ability to write an informed, clear and persuasive paper. In light of this, you will be assessed on the basis of the following:

One individual presentation of a chosen paper (20%). Your presentation will last for 30 minutes in total and will consist in explaining and defending the views expressed in one of the papers in list [B] above. The presentation will be delivered as if you were presenting at a conference. The presentation will include at least ten minutes of Q&A, and you will also be assessed in your ability to handle questions and potential objections in the way expected of you at international conferences. Strategies for preparing and delivering talks will be discussed in a preparatory class on presentations.

Two essays of 3000 words each: one at the end of blok 1 (40%), and one at the end of blok 2 (40%). These papers will be assessed considering three criteria: (1) how well do you understand the views and arguments you’re writing about, (2) how good are your own arguments, and (3) is your essay clearly conveying its message and well-structured? Strategies for meeting these requirements will be discussed in detail in a preparatory class on essay-writing.



All the readings below will be made available here. I will give the password in class.


[A] Main readings (read and discussed by everyone), will include the following:

Armstrong, David M. [1980], ‘Against “Ostrich” Nominalism: a Reply to Michael Devitt’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 61, pp.: 433-9. Reprinted [1997] in D. H. Mellor and A. Oliver (eds.) Properties, Oxford University Press.

Black, Max [1952] ‘The Identity of Indiscernibles’, Mind 61 (242): 153-164.

Carnap, Rudolf [1932] ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’, Erkenntnis: 60-81.

Devitt, Michael. [1980] ‘“Ostrich Nominalism” or “Mirage Realism”’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 61, pp.: 440-9. Reprinted [1997] in D. H. Mellor and A. Oliver (eds.) Properties, Oxford University Press.

Fine, Kit [1999] ‘Things and their Parts’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 23 (1): 61–74.

Hacking, Ian [1975] ‘The Identity of Indiscernibles’, Journal of Philosophy 72 (9):249-256.

Lewis, David [1983] ‘New Work for a Theory of Universals’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 61: 343-377.

Lewis, David and Lewis, Stephanie [1970] ‘Holes’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 48 (2): 206-212.

McDaniel, Kris [2009] ‘Ways of Being’, in D. J. Chalmers, D. Manley & R. Wasserman (eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press

Paul, Laurie A. [2010] ‘The Puzzles of Material Constitution’, Philosophy Compass 5 (7): 579-590.

Quine, Willard V.O. [1963], ‘On What There Is’, in From a Logical Point of View. Harper & Row, New York: pp. 1-19,

Schaffer, Jonathan [2009] ‘On what Grounds What’ in D. J. Chalmers, D. Manley & R. Wasserman (eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press

Turner, Jason [2011] ‘Ontological Nihilism’, in K. Bennett & D. W. Zimmerman (eds.), Oxford Studies in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press: 3-54.

van Cleve, James [2008] ‘The Moon and Sixpence: a Defense of Mereological Universalism’, in T. Sider, J. Hawthorne & D. W. Zimmerman (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics. Blackwell Pub.


[B] Students will be asked to individually present a paper, chosen from a collection which will likely include at least the following papers:

Baker, Lynne Rudder (1997). ‘Why Constitution is Not Identity’, Journal of Philosophy 94 (12):599-621.

Bennett, Karen [2004] ‘Spatio-Temporal Coincidence and the Grounding Problem’, Philosophical Studies 118 (3): 339-371.

Fine, Kit (1994). Essence and modality. Philosophical Perspectives 8:1-16.

Hawley, Katherine [2009] ‘Identity and Indiscernibility’, Mind 118 (469): 101 – 119.

Hawthorne, John (2002). ‘Causal Structuralism’, in James Tomberlin (ed.), Metaphysics. Blackwell. pp. 361–78.

Ladyman, James and Ross, Don [2007] Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. Oxford University Press UK: Chapter 1.

Lewis, David [1990] ‘Noneism or Allism?’, Mind 99 (393): 23-31.

Paul, Laurie A. [2012] ‘Metaphysics as Modeling: the Handmaiden’s Tale’, Philosophical Studies 160 (1):1-29.

Ramsey, F. P. (1925). Universals. Mind 34 (136):401-417.

Unger, Peter K. (1979). I do not exist. In Graham F. Macdonald (ed.), Perception and Identity. Cornell University Press.

Routley, Richard [1982] ‘On What There is Not’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43 (2): 151-177.

Cleve James Van, (1985). Three Versions of the Bundle Theory. Philosophical Studies 47 (1):95 – 107.

Wilson, Jessica M. [2014] ‘No Work for a Theory of Grounding’, Inquiry 57 (5-6): pp. 535–579.