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More on “ontological pluralism”

Some afterthoughts on my previous remarks about “ontological pluralism.”  I said there that

A “string of symbols” cannot “come out true in some languages but false in others, while meaning what it actually means,” because “what it actually means” is not specifiable language-independently. To suppose that a string of symbols “actually” means something independently of the language it is expressed in is just to take an external statement literally, at face value.

Of course there may be multiple explicata for a single explicandum, but this is not a case of a string of symbols coming out true in some languages but false in others; the different explications are not prima facie comparable; they mean different things as they are framed in different languages, just as positive-integer-valued real numbers are not (without further ado) to be identified with the natural numbers resulting from the Dedekind axioms. Nor are the Dedekind natural numbers to be identified, initially, with the Frege-Russell natural numbers. Of course we can seek to conjoin the two languages, or locate both within a single larger language, such as ZFC, but even then “number” means something different under the two proposed explications, even though they are within the same linguistic framework.

Something Howard Stein pointed out over two decades ago, but is almost invariably missed in discussions of Carnapian explication — not only among would-be Carnapian metaphysicians — is the fact that, since explicandum and explicatum are generally embedded in different languages, the relation between them is not internal but external, in the sense that the question whether a given explication is a good one, or whether its uses “sufficiently resemble” those of its explicandum (for given purposes), or whether one explication is preferable to another, are external questions, framed in a third language that (in that case) includes pragmatic or normative components (see Stein’s 1992 paper, linked to above, p. 280).

Carnap’s pluralism was consistently linguistic. He did not regard ontological assertions as having cognitive significance, though he thought some of them could, at a stretch, be given practical (normative) significance — but only with respect to choices among languages or explications (i.e. to choices among “worlds” only insofar as these are linguistic proposals). 

2 thoughts on “More on “ontological pluralism”

  1. “Carnap’s pluralism was consistently linguistic”. That’s perfect.

    I have problems with Eklund (2007, 12) when he says that ”We can either conclude that we should think of Carnap as an ontological pluralist guilty of a blunder, or that Carnap probably was not an ontological pluralist after all. I am inclined to embrace the former alternative.”

    I would say that Carnap is a linguistic pluralist and a ontological deflationist, because he considers ontological questions (as in ESO, external questions of existence) as pseudo-questions. I know that Eklund uses the notion of ‘semanticist’ (more precisely strong semanticist) in a very similar way to my notion of linguistic pluralist, but he rejects that Carnap is one. I also don’t think that’s the case, because Carnap doesn’t think like Hirsch (who is a semanticist), i.e., that external questions are just verbal disputes.

    Another issue that I have with Eklund’s reading of Carnap (2007, 10) is regarding his notion of “equally good languages”. He says that an ontological pluralist should accept that we can have those “equally good languages”, but I don’t know what he’s talking about. How do we measure this? Languages (or even frameworks) can only be compared on a practical basis.

    For example, a mathematician accepts some framework of natural numbers because he/she uses in his/her science. Another person who doesn’t need this kind of framework, because it’s not relevant in a practical respect, doesn’t need to add this framework to his/her language. Should we presume that the language of the mathematician is better because it’s richer than the the second one? I would say that if languages can be compared only from a practical aspect, I don’t see why the first is better than the second. Of course in the first case, we have a larger domain of quantification and more concepts, the mathematician’s language is indeed richer. But why should we add more and more explicit definitions, styles of variables, domains of quantification and so on if we won’t use them? That would just make more work for no practical gain (maybe we can even generate more confusions along the way).

    Best regards,
    Ricardo Goulart

    1. I agree that questions of language choice are interesting, but not even touched on by the meta-ontology literature, and raise issues that Carnap doesn’t address directly in the many contexts where he invokes “convenience” as the only ultimate choice criterion. This is why Florian Steinberger and Alexander George, among others, raise issues about the coherence of this view and diagnose something like an infinite regress in it. I actually think Carnap does, in the end, have a coherent overall view that I’ve made a beginning in trying to spell out.

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