Must do better

The most popular response to the Carnapian linguistic turn has not been to reject it, as Quine did, but simply to ignore it — as Williamson does, along with Chalmers, HirschEklund, and many others. Some will consider this response entirely appropriate. If the tendency of the Carnapian linguistic turn is not actually to grapple with philosophical problems but to turn away from them and change the subject, as Strawson alleges, then surely those who are interested in such problems have every right to resist the change of subject and remain focussed on the problem they set out to solve?

The problem for Chalmers, Hirsch, and Eklund in adopting such a view is that they appropriate certain pieces of Carnapian conceptual apparatus while ignoring, indeed defying, the larger conception (the Carnapian linguistic turn) that makes sense of those pieces, as I’ve argued in some of the posts linked above. Moreover, these authors share with Williamson an apparent committment to certain standards of rational argument and conceptual rigor loosely associated with the “analytical” tradition in philosophy with which they presumably identify, given their willingness to be associated with Carnap.

Williamson has made these standards remarkably explicit in his dressing-down of the profession, “Must Do Better” (published as an appendix to The Philosophy of Philosophy), where he deplores the absence in much current analytic philosophy of what he calls “discipline” or “methodological constraints.” Philosophy may be disciplined by semantics, for instance, he says, but there are other sources of discipline, e.g. logic or “the findings of other disciplines (mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, history. . .).”

To be “disciplined” by X here is not simply to pay lip-service to X; it is to make a systematic conscious effort to conform to the deliverances of X, where such conformity is at least somewhat easier to recognize than is the answer to the original philosophical question. Of course, each form of philosophical discipline is itself contested by some philosophers. But that is no reason to produce work that is not properly disciplined by anything. (ibid., p. 285)

It is hard not to read this as endorsing something like a Neurathian “universal vernacular” as the medium for philosophical argument, a vernacular in which the vague and indeterminate meanings of colloquial expressions are not taken at face value, but defer rather to corresponding explicated concepts in a scientific discipline. What is more, Williamson even endorses something not too distant from Carnapian explication:

. . . we can often produce mathematical models of fragments of philosophy and, when we can, we should. No doubt the models usually involve wild idealizations. It is still progress if we can agree what consequences an idea has in one very simple case. Many ideas in philosophy do not withstand even that very elementary scrutiny, because the attempt to construct a non-trivial model reveals a hidden structural incoherence in the idea itself. (ibid., p. 291)

But if “many ideas in philosophy” do not withstand such elementary scrutiny, why should we take them at face value? If a first stab at explication reveals a “hidden structural incoherence” in many philosophical ideas, what does it even mean to take a philosophical problem at face value, especially if where philosophical “discipline” is observed we are in any case to take vague or indeterminate terms not at face value but in their “disciplined” (i.e. their explicated) senses? Williamson may intend his remarks to apply only to a subset of philosophical ideas, but any inclusion (or exclusion) criterion for this set would itself be a philosophical idea and thus under the same suspicion as the ones to be excluded.

If the Carnapian standards Williamson holds up to the profession are maintained consistently, in short, they are tainted by the Carnapian linguistic turn — at least the burden is on Williamson and those who follow his recommendation to take philosophical problems at face value to show otherwise. Of course Chalmers, Hirsch, and Eklund may prefer to reject those standards, but then it would seem rather misleading of them to be decorating their writings with Carnap’s name. Or they could join one of the better-known attempts to refute or reject the Carnapian linguistic turn — they could revive the attempts of Quine, Popper, or Strawson, or join Mark Wilson in his more enlightened wanderings, to retain Carnapian standards of “discipline” (in Williamson’s sense) while rejecting or avoiding the Carnapian linguistic turn. (None of these attempts is going to come out much friendlier to ontological metaphysics than Carnap, which may explain the reluctance to follow this path.)

But just ignoring the Carnapian linguistic turn, while implicitly signing on to Carnapian standards of “discipline” and citing Carnap’s name, is hardly a consistent approach to ontological or meta-ontological questions. Carnap’s meta-ontology was very simple: ontological statements are coherent only within a linguistic framework. Apparent ontological statements not relative to a framework make no practical difference, are unintelligible, but can be recast as misleadingly phrased practical proposals in favor of using one language framework rather than another. Metaphysically inclined philosophers are understandably taken aback by this idea, but they would benefit by resisting the temptation to ignore it. Until and unless they confront it squarely, metaphysics after Carnap will remain “the ghost who walks,” as Huw Price puts it. Current ontology and meta-ontology — “Carnapian” or otherwise — must do better.


2 thoughts on “Must do better

  1. I’ve been hoping you’d mention Wilson’s WS as I am (slowly, slowly) making my way through it. Would be great to see more of your thoughts on his project.

    Also, as this is my first comment here, I want to say that yours is my favorite blog find of ’15 — my phil undergrad didn’t touch Carnap, clearly for the worse. Thanks for your writing!

    1. Sorry for the long wait, and thanks for the appreciative comments! I think Mark’s work of great importance, even if the packaging is eccentric and sometimes off-putting, and yes, slowly slowly is the way to get through it. I wrote something about it a couple of years ago, which I’ve now finally got around to uploading to, where it should now be available. It barely scratches the surface of some of the enormous issues Mark raises, but might point in some helpful directions. It was in a collection edited by Pierre Wagner called Carnap’s Ideal of Explication and Naturalism, which had its origins in a conference Pierre organized in Paris about five or six years ago. I recommend the whole volume; it has some good things in it by, among others, Michael Friedman, Jacques Bouveresse, Thomas Uebel, Steve Awodey, and Pierre himself, as well as a response by Mark Wilson to my piece.

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