Reflections on St. Sylvester’s Eve (again)

From the obituary for Peter Strawson in the Guardian in 2006:

When his erstwhile tutor Paul Grice declared, “If you can’t put it in symbols, it’s not worth saying,” Strawson retorted: “If you can put it in symbols, it’s not worth saying.”

I actually agree with both of them, I think, though the versions of each I would go along with would insert an “often” or “usually” before “not worth saying.” Carnap, my philosophical grandfather (since Howard Stein, my Doktorvater, was a student of Carnap), would presumably have had more sympathy with Grice in this case than with Strawson (he said as much in his reply to Strawson in the Schilpp volume), but might also have agreed with his student Stein that there are things worth saying that, as Howard put it, can be “usefully vague” (by “vague” I assume he means something like “not amenable at the moment to any sort of formal or symbolic treatment”). He might also have added that the point wasn’t to put something into symbols but to make it more precise, that being “in symbols” is in itself no guarantee of precision, and that precision is (a) a matter of degree; (b) purpose-relative.

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Frege a plagiarist? Really?

The subject of one of my diatribes got very worked up about my post alluding to her (without naming her) a couple of years ago, and wrote a detailed reply that is — justifiably — rude in response. It only came to my attention just now, hence this belated acknowledgement. Looking at my own post from this distance, I admit that I should not have speculated about her motives for claiming that Frege had “plagiarized” the Stoics. That was a mistake, and looks way ruder than I meant it to be. I should have figured out a more graceful transition from the example of her paper to the main point of the post.

(She also calls my post defamatory, though, and that seems disproportionate. The worst thing I accuse her of is — possibly — seeking attention, and she herself seems to think, in her reply to my post, that one possible motivation for pursuing an academic career is to seek attention. My post doesn’t link to her paper or even mention her name; the point of the post wasn’t her paper so much as my perennial gripe that philosophy, like so many of the traditional humanistic disciplines, is succumbing to the economics of attention. I thought her paper was an obvious example of that, but even if I was wrong, I doubt whether my opinion could count as defamatory, even in the more informal sense she probably had in mind.)

There remains a substantive difference, however, which her reply to my post serves to highlight. She says there “I do not accuse Frege of plagiarism. . . I just show that he plagiarized the Stoics. The title [“Frege plagiarized the Stoics”] is descriptive . . .” That claim, as I will now briefly argue, falls apart.

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Carnap against analytic metaphysics

Wouter Cohen and Benjamin Marschall, two graduate students at Cambridge (one of my long-ago almae matres), have a terrific new paper in the latest issue of The Monist (the issue whose theme is “Against Metaphysical Grounding”), arguing that Carnap was not only — as everyone knows — against German idealism and the various metaphysical schools current in Germany between the wars (including the wilder and woolier outgrowths of phenomenology such as Heidegger), but would have been just as opposed to the current metaphysics emanating from analytic philosophers.

This might seem totally obvious, and not worth writing a paper about, but actually, if you look at analytic philosophy right now, not only is it once again in the grip of metaphysics, but many of those so gripped think their metaphysics is entirely reconcileable with some not-too-nitpicky version of logical empiricism, or of Carnap anyway. Theirs is a chastened metaphysics, they believe, and escapes the strictures pronounced back then. Many of those I’ve criticized on this blog, over the years, are of this persuasion, as are many I haven’t criticized. (Which means that being of this persuasion isn’t a sufficient condition to get yourself criticized on this blog.) Unfortunately, the situation isn’t very straightforward, though; there is no bright line separating the side of the angels from the dark side, and the toleration of analytic metaphysics ranges from zero to 100, with most people somewhere in the middle. So to explain why I think this new Cohen and Marschall paper is so terrific, I need to situate it in a larger picture of the place of metaphysics (and of Carnap) in current analytic philosophy.

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Frameworks again: Eklund responds to Broughton

Matti Eklund has now replied to Gabriel Broughton’s critique of his conception of Carnapian frameworks. Broughton is more than capable of fending for himself, but in the course of addressing Broughton’s critique, Eklund also takes a little swipe at my post about it, so I’ll respond briefly to that. He accuses me (as he accuses Broughton) of having unfairly attributed to him what Broughton calls the “Natural language thesis: Carnapian frameworks are natural languages.” Now of course I’m very glad he wants to back away from that, and I’m glad he now thinks the “natural language thesis” absurd, but I think he’ll have trouble convincing anyone he didn’t hold it previously. In his own self-quotation on pp. 8-9 of his reply, he explicitly conceives of a Carnapian framework as a specific natural language (English). Still, it’s never too late for repentance; no soul is beyond redemption (the Carnap Blog adheres to a broadly Christian attitude in such matters).

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Against social ontology

At first I thought the vogue for “social ontology” was just a pale reflection of the (ultimately Quine-inspired) revival of ontology over the past few decades in analytical philosophy more generally. But then just in the past ten or fifteen years, social ontology rather dramatically took on a life of its own. John Searle proclaimed, for instance, that “where the social sciences are concerned, social ontology is prior to methodology and theory.” (Imagine someone saying such things about physics — since Descartes, anyway!) This burst of enthusiasm reached its apogee in about 2015, I think it fair to say, with the launch of the Journal of Social Ontology and with Brian Epstein’s The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, perhaps the most brazen attempt in recent memory to reclaim the Platonic mantle of philosopher king. Historians, economists, sociologists, and assorted others working in the trenches were told that (unbeknownst to them) their disciplines were in crisis, and could only be rescued if they jettisoned their “foundations” and accepted Epstein’s application of “the sophisticated toolkit of metaphysics” to understand what they were even talking about. (p. 9). That theories or questions of actual social science were left out of the picture (and the book) didn’t bother philosophers, who mostly reviewed The Ant Trap glowingly.

Now it’s certainly true that, as Ladyman and Ross very sternly and thoroughly pointed out, philosophers have also been doing this sort of thing with the ontology of the physical and biological sciences more generally. But they’re more careful there. They evidently think that the poor benighted social sciences need especially conscientious bossing around by wise philosophers. Philosophers of physics or biology take it for granted that they need to know something about the subject they are providing with the ontology the scientists themselves thoughtlessly omitted, and mostly accept that their ontological supplements can’t conflict with what the scientists think they’ve tentatively established. It would be considered childishly anthropomorphic to think that the philosopher in her armchair could think up a better set of basic concepts from scratch for, say, chemistry than the chemist in her lab. 

Epstein’s equally anthropomorphic efforts, though applauded by philosophers, did not go over so well with social scientists. His book was thoroughly eviscerated by Robert Sugden in the Journal of Economic Literature, who pointed out its complete irrelevance to anything in economics, and ended his review with a famous quotation from Neurath on the dispensability of “foundations.”

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Mea culpa

Sean Morris’s new collection of papers on Carnap and Quine has now come out with CUP, and looks very interesting. I hope to comment on several different papers in it, if there is time, over the next couple of months. Right now I will comment on the first paper, by Sander Verhaegh, which meticulously documents the initial encounter between Carnap and Quine in Vienna and (mainly) Prague in 1932 and 1933. Verhaegh establishes without any doubt that I had got the timing of this initial encounter a bit wrong; I had thought, for some reason, that Quine’s recollection of eagerly reading the Syntax as it emerged from Ina’s typewriter referred to 1932, and thus to the first draft of the Syntax. This mistake was significant because Carnap arrived at his principle of tolerance after completing the first draft, sometime in late 1932 — the first appearance of this principle in print, it is generally agreed, was in the paper “Über Protokollsätze” published in Erkenntnis in late 1932 (Benson gives the date of 30 December 1932), a response to Neurath’s paper on the same subject. Verhaegh establishes that what Quine witnessed emerging from Ina’s typewriter wasn’t the first draft at all, it was the second draft (close but not identical to the final book).

This matters because I had occasionally invoked this inaccurate understanding of the chronology (in this blog and elsewhere) to explain how Quine could have missed the principle of tolerance. In his Harvard lectures on Carnap (published in Rick Creath’s Dear Carnap, Dear Van, 1990), the principle of tolerance is absent. Nor does it come up in any of Carnap’s notes on discussions with Quine, or in their correspondence during this period.

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Disagreement about philosophical disagreement

Jared Warren fancies himself “the lone contemporary defender of conventionalism in logic and mathematics” (p. 343 of his book Shadows of Syntax, 2020). His notion of “conventionalism” is somewhat offbeat (see below), but even so, he exaggerates wildly.  

Warren goes out of his way to distance himself from Carnap, though admitting in asides that Carnap comes closer to his own “conventionalist” position than any other philosopher of the past. (I’m not so sure.) Carnap seems mostly (I haven’t read the whole book yet) to be portrayed as the garrulous old uncle who insists on boring us at dinner parties, and who may have got certain things right (perhaps by accident), but was too easily led astray by Neurath and other colorful personalities to be emulated as an inspiring forerunner. 

This affords Warren ample opportunities to rap Carnap over the knuckles and tell us what Carnap should have thought or written, to bring him into conformity with Warren’s own more consistent and better-informed version of “conventionalism.”  Warren does not, however, despite this frequent use of such normative language (addressed to Carnap), regard the question whether his own conventionalism is “correct” as a normative question. No, there is a fact of the matter about that; Warren is right, in his view, and everyone else is wrong. And yes, he means factually right! He has arrived at the “uniquely true and correct theory.”  

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Update: Carnap’s Diaries

Time to revive this blog again at last — after a somewhat excessive post-pandemic interruption — with an update about a recent publication that will interest anyone who’s at all concerned with Carnap or the Vienna Circle: the first two volumes of Carnap’s diaries are now out in book form, published by the Meiner Verlag (the venerable philosophy publisher who issues those green volumes — the Philosophische Bibliothek — that generations of German philosophy students have grown up with). Volume 1 (1908-19) includes all Carnap’s wartime diaries; volume 2 (1920-1935) has all the famous passages about the Vienna Circle in it that are quite familiar from the secondary literature by now, not just the Carnap literature but also adjoining ones about Gödel, Neurath, and on the Vienna Circle more generally. Volumes 3 and 4 (from 1936 through 1970) aren’t out yet, but are on the way.

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Hylton (on Carnap vs. Quine) on analyticity

Peter Hylton reckons he’s got to the bottom of the debate on analyticity between Carnap and Quine. He hasn’t, but he comes surprisingly close to getting Carnap very right at certain points — which makes it all the more disappointing when he then backpedals and decides not to follow through on those episodes of insight.

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The Endarkenment: Carnap to the rescue?

Finally someone has made an issue of this urgent and fundamental problem, and even diagnosed it as a (partly) philosophical problem. — Or rather I should say, finally I stumbled on the book where someone does this! To my embarassment, it’s not even something new, but was published six years ago, by Oxford, so it’s not as if it’s been hiding in the shadows or anything: The Great Endarkenment by Elijah Millgram. He comes at the problem from a different angle than I did in my book, but it’s unmistakably the very same problem, and he paints it in even darker colors than I did, if that’s possible. But like me, he thinks there are resources within the philosophical tradition (if not within the philosophy profession as currently constituted and incentivized) to resist the great endarkenment he writes about.

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