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Non-cognitivism: A very modest proposal

This year’s conference season is over (for me at least), and I will now once again, I hope, be able to devote a few shreds of surplus attention to keeping my posts here a bit more regular.  The latest conference I went to was in Vienna (where I always like to go anyway); the last day of it was on the Berggasse right next to where Freud’s office used to be (and a Freud museum now is).  I’m sure that someone somewhere must have remarked on the irony that the Berggasse is the continuation of the Schwarzspanierstraße, where Beethoven died — in the building Otto Weininger sought out to commit suicide in 75 years later.  (Freud, by the way, unlike Wittgenstein, was apparently unimpressed by Geschlecht und Charakter.)

One thing that came up a number of times at this very interesting conference, organized by Christian Damböck (together with Meike Werner and Günther Sandner), was Carnap’s “non-cognitivism.”  The word was used in a number of different ways, which I found very confusing.  I propose that when talking about Carnap, at least, we stick to what Carnap himself meant by it, which seems especially appropriate since, as far as I can tell, he actually introduced the term.  At the beginning of his reply to Kaplan in the Schilpp volume (his only extended exposition of a logic of normative statements), he explains why he intends to avoid the widely-used term “emotivism,” and characteristically proposes an ugly but less tendentious neologism in its place:

My own conception of value statements belongs to the general kind which is customarily labeled “emotivism”. However, this term is appropriate only if understood in the wide sense in which Stevenson speaks of “emotive meanings”. He warns explicitly (pp. 59f.) that his term does not refer to momentary emotions in the ordinary sense, but rather to attitudes. However, since the term “emotivism” is sometimes associated by critics with too narrow an interpretation which today is rejected by most of the adherents to the conception. . ., it is perhaps preferable to use a more general term, e.g. “non-cognitivism (with respect to value statements)”. (Schilpp volume, pp. 999-1000)

Is anyone aware of an earlier use of the term “non-cognitivism”?  I’m not.  If anyone who reads this knows of an earlier instance, please let me know (keeping in mind that Carnap wrote the above in 1957 or so, six years before it was published, and circulated it widely in mimeograph) — and I will correct this post accordingly.

And what does Carnap mean by it?  He gives two formulations of the “thesis of non-cognitivism”: first, in a “very weak” form:

If a statement on values or valuations is interpreted neither as factual nor as analytic (or contradictory), then it is non-cognitive; that is to say, it is devoid of cognitive meaning, and therefore the distinction between truth and falsity is not applicable to it. (p. 999)

After a page or two in which he explains (as above) why he avoids the term “emotive” and “emotivism,” and introduces the term “optatives” (for what Hare calls “imperatives”), he gives a stronger version of the thesis: “There are pure optatives.”  (p. 1001).

He goes on in the following pages to explain that he means this to say that pure optatives can be introduced into constructed languages (not that they must be, of course); he takes no position on the question whether a vague or approximate version of the distinction between normative and descriptive sentences can be found in ordinary language.  He does go to some pains to stress that he means his thesis to obtain even if it is not (as e.g. it is presented in Hare) an appropriate explication of any distinction in ordinary language.

This thesis is simply Hume’s point about the impossibility of deriving an “ought” from an “is.”  Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy” is just the assertion of that possibility.  In Hume and Moore (and of course in Carnap) this simple logical claim is combined with other elements.  I propose, though, that we restrict the application of the term “non-cognitivism” to just this minimal core, and find other words to describe the elements it is combined with by these and other authors.

At the Vienna conference last week there was talk, for instance, of “democratic non-cognitivism” and “authoritarian non-cognitivism,” among other extravagances.  Not surprisingly, in the discussion someone said that he completely rejected non-cognitivism, which he called absurd.  When I asked him later what his objection was to the simple minimal Humean claim of the underivability of ought from is (i.e. to what Carnap meant by non-cognitivism), he said, “no objection whatever — that part I have no problem with.”  So I suggest we try to keep things clear and simple, to avoid pointless disputes.

12 thoughts on “Non-cognitivism: A very modest proposal

  1. concerning the vegetarianism parallel: I absolutely agree, but the idea would be that people like Freyer, Carnap, Reichenbach all adopted the same kind of “non-cognitivism” which emerged in the German Youth Movement. So, unlike Gandhi and Hitler, Carnap and Freyer do have something in common here. They both were at the Hoher Meißner, they discussed topics in philosophy of values together, and therefore in a way their non-cognitivism was joint work. If this is actually the case, then it becomes highly relevant that in Freyer non-cognitivism became embedded in a facsist world-view, in Carnap and Reichenbach rather in a democratic one.

  2. I do not have the Schilpp volume here, but as far as I remember, Carnap distances himself from Dewey there, being a naturalist; emotivism might sound like a Deweyian conception and this is one of the reasons why (as far as I remember) he rejects the term.

  3. just a final remark: if the aim of André’s proposal is only to restrict the term “non-cognitivism” to late Carnap’s conception of pure optatives and to use different terms for Carnap’s and Reichenbach’s earlier meta-ethical conceptions, I just could say: Well, why not! Possibly it might be a good idea to use a different term for the earlier conceptions. The only problem I have here is that I have no idea about what kind of term might be useful as a replacement here. Any Suggestions?

    1. No, it’s not a matter of early or late Carnap. I think that what Carnap defined as “non-cognitivism” was the same non-cognitivism he’d held for most of his life. He may have combined it with different doctrines along the way, but even there I see more continuity than discontinuity. I think that part of what you mean by non-cognitivism is better described by Dick Jeffrey’s term “voluntarism” (a self-conscious re-purposing of an old-fashioned philosophical word).

      On the whole, though, I have to admit that I try to avoid “ism”-words as much as possible since they tend to be extremely vague and ill-defined, and conduce to cross purposes. I was saying something along those lines to my 7-year-old the other day (with respect to political isms, not philosophical ones), to which he instantly responded, “oh, so I shouldn’t talk about magnetism?” — at which I can only sigh and admit that I’m guilty of overgeneralization.

  4. P.S.: the reason why Carnap rejected the term “emotivism” was clearly to distance himself from naturalism – pure optatives are pure because they are by no means justified by a historical context or the like …

    1. By “pure optatives” Carnap meant optatives with no “cognitive component,” i.e. purely normative sentences as distinct from instrumental or partly instrumental ones. This is a matter of grammar, so to speak; it is a question of classifying sentences as belonging to one category or another. The social or historical context has nothing to do with it. A sentence is purely optative if it simply expresses a prescription (to use Hare’s term) and gives no factual or descriptive reason for that prescription, e.g. simply “insert size 2 wooden peg into pre-drilled hole” without the factual reason (usually suppressed in such cases as it’s taken for granted) “if you want the cabinet to stand up when you’ve finished putting it together.”

      As for the naturalism part, I don’t understand what you mean. “Naturalism” was not much discussed in the 1950s; it’s not even quite clear to me what Quine meant by it at the time. Most people used it back then to mean something more like “anti-supernaturalism.” What Carnap says in the quotation I cite in this post is that he wants to avoid “emotivism” because of the implication that it refers only to momentary and isolated preferences rather than longer-term or more considered ones. I don’t see the connection to “naturalism.”

  5. Thanks for the interesting comments! – Only two remarks. First, the point in the discussion at our conference as mentioned above was (if I remember it correctly) that non-cognitivism has to be rejected, because we need certain regulative ideas such as the categorical imperative and the like, in order to derive our values. This, however, is certainly both a cognitivist thesis and one that Carnap never might have accepted. Second, the idea of our conference was to stress certain external factors, political and cultural notions, which were formative for the development of early non-cognitivism (or whoever one might call this conception after all). If we are interested in these aspects, it becomes highly relevant that different non-cognitivists (or whoever we might call them) were commited to entirely different political and ethical conceptions; some of them were democrats, other were advocates of fascism. I do not see why this should be irrelevant?

    Christian (from Minneapolis where we tomorrow will present some portions of our Viennese conference at HOPOS)

    1. Certainly it’s of great interest that non-cognitivism could be put to so many different uses. But I think it still would have to be shown that any of those uses has any relation to non-cognitivism itself. Gandhi, Hitler, and Elvis Costello were all vegetarians, but I’m not sure I’d want to attribute any of their other doings to vegetarianism.

  6. We missed you! Thanks for your post. (Hopefully, you can, as you alluded, write more often over the summer.)

    1. Thanks — it’s nice to know there are others reading this than just the innerer Carnap-Kreis! I will try to write more in the next couple of months than I have been in the last few.

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