Parsimony and ontological control: Quine and wittgenstein on the size of the world

Mitchell Atkinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this paper, I argue that philosophers, while developing ontologies, can be classed as misers or profligates. I develop the categories of ontological miserliness and ontological profligacy and supply explanatory examples. I explore the theoretical motivation of both misers and profligates in terms of thought-time and inquiry scope. In brief, misers prioritize thought-time over inquiry scope; vice-versa for profligates. I examine the extent to which conservation of thought-time is an active concern for misers and provide a miserly taxonomy for ontologies; ontologies may be cheap, expensive or impossible. I argue that profligates countenance the generative character of the ontological enterprise at the expense of exclusion and limitation. The works of Willard Van Orman Quine and Ludwig Wittgenstein provide canonic examples of miserly and profligate ontologies. I argue that Quine is an ontological miser par excellence, and that Wittgenstein is profligate in his later period and evinces an intermediate position in his early period. Finally, I discuss the theoretical stakes involved in this entire discussion, provide brief contemporary examples, and explore the extent to which the distinction between miserliness and profligacy is illusory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)85-104
Number of pages20
JournalDialogue and Universalism
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020


  • Miser
  • Ontology
  • Profligate
  • Quine
  • Wittgenstein

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Communication


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