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Strawson vs. Carnap: A primer

The Carnapian linguistic turn was never widely accepted; most of Carnap’s interlocutors, early and late, did not take it seriously. Only the “left wing” of the Vienna Circle warmed to it; most other scientifically-oriented philosophers, including Schlick, Reichenbach, Russell, Popper, Quine, and Feigl, rejected it. Most of them misunderstood it quite fundamentally, and certain others (Ayer, Urmson, Rorty) attacked or ridiculed the Carnapian linguistic turn without grasping what it even was (see my book, pp. 34-5). Resistance to it remains obdurate, insofar as it’s even discussed.  The idea is that you can’t just do away with all the grand old philosophical problems, you have to take them at face value.  There is an austere, Quinean version of this impulse, but most people (or rather, I should say, most philosophers) want there to be something right about our everyday intuitions mediated by natural language, especially about the conflicts among such intuitions that result in the classic philosophical problems. These people tend to go for something more like an argument Peter Strawson first made fully explicit (in his contribution to the Schilpp volume). Carnapian explication, he said, misses the point. It is no substitute for philosophical analysis (of any kind) because “typical philosophical problems about the concepts used in non-scientific discourse cannot be solved by laying down the rules of use of exact and fruitful concepts in science. To do this last is not to solve the typical philosophical problem, but to change the subject.” (Schilpp volume, p. 506)

Carnap responded that philosophers (and especially ordinary-language philosophers) were too fixated on language as it is and as they have been acculturated to it:

In my view, a language, whether natural or artificial, is an instrument that may be replaced or modified according to our needs, like any other instrument. For [Strawson], ordinary language seems to have an essentially fixed character and therefore to be basically indispensable, just like our body with its organs, to which we may add accessories like eyeglasses, hearing aids, and the like, but which we cannot essentially change or replace. However, a natural language is not an unchangeable function of our body, but something we have learned; therefore we can replace it by another language. (Schilpp volume, p. 938)

He then argued against the assumption of ordinary-language philosophers that technical and artificial languages are “not autonomous, but essentially parasitic. . . on natural languages,” maintaining that while the mother tongue is ordinarily used as a meta-language when we learn technical languages, this approach is socially and historically contingent, not essential. In general, he denied the sharp break between natural and artificial languages that Strawson assumes (ibid., p. 934), suggesting that we see them as complementary tools, not substitutes:

A natural language is like a crude, primitive pocket knife, very useful for a hundred different purposes. But for certain specific purposes, special tools are more efficient, e.g. chisels, cutting machines, and finally the microtome. If we find that the pocket knife is too crude for a given purpose and creates defective products, we shall try to discover the cause of the failure, and then either use the knife more skillfully, or replace it for this special purpose by a more suitable tool, or even invent a new one. [Strawson’s] thesis is like saying that by using a special tool we evade the problem of the correct use of the cruder tool. But would anyone criticize the bacteriologist for using a microtome, and assert that he is evading the problem of correctly using a pocket knife? (p. 939)

This is still often misunderstood. Eric Loomis and Cory Juhl (in a 2006 encyclopedia article on explication), for instance, advance two “obvious rejoinders”: “(1) pocket knives are not replaceable by microtomes for most ordinary uses” — but Carnap makes this point himself. And “(2) someone who was having trouble using a pocket knife in an ordinary circumstance would not be helped in the least by being shown the workings of a microtome.” So Carnap’s analogy, they say, fails to address “Strawson’s charge of the irrelevance of explication for the unraveling of perplexity involving ordinary notions” (p. 291; see also their 2010 book on analyticity, pp. 55-7, 162-3). But “perplexity involving ordinary notions” arises in philosophical discussion mainly because “ordinary” notions are being imported into contexts outside the “ordinary” ones they were evolved to be useful in.  When an “ordinary” notion is being stretched beyond its its range of typical and unproblematic usage, explication is required almost by definition, since the “ordinary” notion no longer applies (in its “ordinary” sense, which is what we’re talking about here).

Loomis and Juhl, like most other commentators, accept Strawson’s sharp distinction between “ordinary” and “scientific” contexts as well as between “ordinary” (or “natural”) and “constructed” languages.  (It seems to me that a position like Strawson’s requires such a sharp distinction, but as far as I can see Strawson is not aware of this; in any case, he does not appear to make this assumption explicit or to justify it anywhere.)  Carnap specifically rejects it; “I have the impression that Strawson’s view is based on the conception of a sharp separation, perhaps even a gap, between everyday concepts and scientific concepts. I see here no sharp boundary line but a continuous transition.” (Schilpp volume, p. 934)  In his original typescript, Carnap is even more explicit: “The process of the acquisition of knowledge begins with commonsense knowledge; gradually the methods become more refined and systematic.  The term ‘science’ is sometimes used especially for the procedures and results of a rather advanced stage in this process of this development of systematization; but there is nowhere a sharp boundary line.”

More fundamentally, Loomis and Juhl’s defence of Strawson ignores what Dick Jeffrey called Carnap’s “voluntarism” about language, to which Carnap devotes most of his reply to Strawson. Carnap’s point was that ordinary notions have no authority over us; we are the boss, the history of science gives us every reason to doubt that our thought is somehow bound by them. Philosophical perplexity about ordinary notions largely derives from applying them outside the context they evolved in, and in such cases, no analysis of the ordinary notion, however subtle or elaborate, will help. However familiar the tool — and however intuitively convincing, even apparently inescapable, the categories it presents us with — it has reached the limits of its usefulness and must be supplemented by other, more precise tools — newly invented ones, which we can specify to our requirements and are therefore more or less under our control.  Intuitive familiarity, “face value appeal,” might be one reason among many for preferring one tool to another, but fit with the rest of our knowledge, such as it is, is surely a better reason, and likely to win out in the long run against immediate familiarity to current intuitions.

UPDATE: This post now has a sequel.

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