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Ontology and explication: Lavers narrowly misses the point

In his paper on “Carnap, Quine, Quantification, and Ontology,” Gregory Lavers holds forth — mostly quite instructively — on the connections between Carnap’s and Quine’s conceptions of ontology, and on the connections between these and their respective conceptions of explication. He misses a few critical details, though, and it seems to me that these apparently minor omissions undermine some, at least, of the points he wants to make.

I will start with something that looks quite trivial, but sheds (perhaps unintended) light on his understanding of the texts he discusses. His footnote 20 on p. 20 claims that his account of the relation between explicandum and explicatum (in their Carnapian senses) agrees with that of Howard Stein. What he says in the passage to which this footnote is appended, though, is this:

We just saw that, relative to an explication of number, numbers exist. And relative to an explication of the notion of reference for an arithmetical object language, numerical terms refer. One might say at this point, yes, relative to this newly introduced sense of ‘refer’, numerical terms refer, but is this the correct sense of refer — is there actually an object for which these terms stand? Since Carnap has offered an explication of the term ‘refers’ as it relates to the object language, he would say there is no question of whether the account of reference is correct. An external question then is one that asks, of ‘exists’ or ‘refers’ in some reconstructed system, if they agree with reference and existence in the unreconstructed sense — a sense Carnap saw, in Syntax and right through his semantic period, as being sufficiently unclear as to invite philosophical confusion. (pp. 19-20)

Whereas what Stein writes in the passage to which Lavers refers in his footnote is the following:

An explication is a proposed exact characterization of a concept. If the proposal is adopted, the concept so characterized is an explicatum — that is, an ‘explicated’ notion. There is a perhaps somewhat delicate issue whether the explication is to be regarded as a clarification of a notion already present before the explication has been achieved. In typical cases, something like this is so; and Carnap calls the preexisting, not fully clarified notion the explicandum: ‘that which requires explication’. That this state of affairs involves the well-known ‘paradox of analysis’ is clear — indeed, this is precisely the paradigm situation of that alleged paradox; I need hardly elaborate. That on the other hand there have actually occurred what should quite reasonably pass for successful explications in this full sense seems to me uncontroversial; for instance, although Quine is unhappy with Carnap’s account of logical truth, he is famously happy with first-order predicate logic — and would presumably agree that the exact construction of this system clarified the preexisting, insufficiently clear and precise, notion of logical inference.

Now, Carnap’s distinction between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ questions, which was introduced in his paper on ontology and is deprecated by Quine, has — if one accepts it (which means: if one agrees to use it) — an obvious application to the process of explication in general. The explicatum, as an exactly characterized concept, belongs to some formalized discourse — some ‘framework’. The explicandum — if such there is — belongs ipso facto to a mode of discourse outside that framework. Therefore any question about the relation of the explicatum to the explicandum is an ‘external question’; this holds, in particular, of the question whether an explication is adequate — that is, whether the explicatum does in some appropriate sense fully represent, within the framework, the function performed (let us say) ‘presystematically’ by the explicandum. (Stein’s paper ‘Was Carnap Entirely Wrong, After All?’, 1992, p. 280)

Stein, unlike Lavers, does not address the question whether an explication is “correct” — he very carefully describes the question he raises as “the question whether an explication is adequate — that is, whether the explicatum does in some appropriate sense fully represent, within the framework, the function performed (let us say) ‘presystematically’ by the explicandum.” What is the difference? Well, the difference is precisely the one Carnap goes to considerable trouble to make clear in ESO: external questions make no sense as cognitive questions (Lavers is clear about this part), so they should instead be taken as practical questions, i.e. as normative ones — about which it makes no sense to ask whether an answer is “correct” or “incorrect.” They become questions about whether a proposed explication is “adequate” or sufficiently useful or elegant or appealing relatively to the purpose it is being proposed to serve. Answers to such questions, for Carnap (who was a non-cognitivist — in fact, he invented the term), are not amenable to truth or falsehood; they can be consistent or inconsistent with systems of normative statements (or “comprehensive value functions,” as he called them), but not true or false.

(Later in his paper, Lavers appears to understand all this, but still does not quite spell it out.)

In another passage (p. 10), Lavers cites Quine’s well-known remark that he was Carnap’s disciple for about six years, which Lavers suggests was from about 1933 to 1939, and that during the early part of this period, Quine read the Logical Syntax as it emerged from Ina’s typewriter. Here another apparently insignificant detail gets in the way. The summer in which Quine read what emerged from Ina’s typewriter was 1932, not 1933. And why does this matter? Because it was in late 1932 that Carnap abandoned his quest for a canonical syntax language and adopted the principle of tolerance instead — perhaps the single most significant turning point in Carnap’s career. The Syntax that Quine read as it emerged from the typewriter was the first draft of the book, which still promoted its “system language [Systemsprache]” as the canonical language of science; in the second draft (written in 1933), this became Language I (one of an “open sea” of possible choices). The Carnap whose disciple Quine says he became, in other words, was the pre-tolerance Carnap.

This becomes relevant in what follows. “The concept of explication,” Lavers says, “became a central pillar of Carnap’s thought, but Quine also saw the notion of a Carnapian explication as very important.” He goes on to list the writings in which Quine mentions explication; what he omits to mention (though he was clear about this in an earlier [2012] paper) is that in “Two Dogmas” Quine actually rejects Carnapian explication, since he regards it as just as dependent on pre-existing synonymies as ordinary definition (From a Logical Point of View, p. 25). He later, in Word and Object, accepts a form of explication, but essentially just this reduced form of it, in which an explication regiments a “core” meaning to get rid of meaningless clutter adhering to a concept from ordinary language or traditional associations. “Explication is elimination,” he says in a passage that Lavers quotes explicitly, claiming that it “amounts to the same thing” (p. 12) as Carnapian explication.

But this is not Carnapian explication. (See also Gustafsson.) For Carnap, ordinary language remains as it is. To adopt the metaphor Carnap uses in his reply to Strawson, we rarely need a microtome for everyday purposes; the ordinary pocket knife will do just fine — it goes on doing its job and is not eliminated. As we saw in the elucidatory second paragraph of the quotation from Howard Stein above, the explicatum is in a different language from the explicandum; questions regarding the analogy or similarity in function (or, say, “partial synonymy”) between the explicatum in its more precise language and the explicandum in ordinary language are external questions (or else empirical questions belonging to descriptive pragmatics).

Quine, as Lavers points out, persisted in regarding ontological questions as language-transcendent, and thought there was a “core meaning” to the question “what is there?” that persisted from ordinary (and traditional philosophical) language into his attempted explications of this question. For Carnap, it was of central importance that this made no sense; from sometime in 1924, ontological claims were self-consciously regarded as nothing but façons de parler; ontological questions were purely internal to a language framework. The “philosophical” final chapters of both the Aufbau and the Syntax are largely devoted to this priority; Carnap can’t be accused of not putting his cards on the table. But as Gary Kemp and Andrew Lugg point out, the question of what really ultimately exists was on Quine’s mind throughout his early career; they quote him saying: “In my youth I thought of the question of existence, or what there is, as perhaps the most basic question of philosophy and science. In the fullness of time the scales fell from my eyes.” They generously see his “youth” as stretching through Word and Object; certainly it includes the years when Quine claims to have been Carnap’s “disciple” — which raises the question how he could have missed this obvious, and pretty central, doctrinal clash between supposed master and supposed disciple.

Even more curious is the critique to which Lavers himself subjects the Syntax for its failure to engage with ontological worries. On this front, he says, the book is an “unsatisfactory patchwork,” and “not very convincing” (p. 4). But as he himself acknowledges, the existence assumptions of Carnap’s that might raise such worries, in this or that sensitive soul, are entirely logical and mathematical. And he further acknowledges that Carnap’s response to such worries is to say something like “Sure, the axiom of choice makes certain existential assumptions, but we are unconcerned with these since we need only care about the material interpretation of descriptive sentences.” (p. 6) Nonetheless Lavers objects to this response on the grounds that “adopting this instrumentalist view concerning existence assumptions of the logico-mathematical portion of the language is to dismiss rather than address (or dissolve) ontological concerns.” Precisely! — and that is Carnap’s whole point; he wants to dismiss ontological concerns in principle, root and branch. This is practically the main point of the entire book — the main philosophical point, anyway (apart from the principle of tolerance, which depends on the exclusion of ontology and was added late in the composition process, unfortunately getting little exposure in the final chapter). To criticize Carnap for failing to engage with the ontological worries raised by the axiom of choice is a bit like criticizing Hume for failing to engage with the doctrine of transsubstantiation (which of course becomes entirely moot if we accept his more general arguments against supernatural agency).

Still, doesn’t Carnap’s conception of explication, just like Quine’s, advocate replacement that need not be fully synonymous? — so isn’t Quine right to align his own view to Carnap’s, and isn’t Lavers right to elide them and say they amount to the same thing? What possible difference, he might ask (like Patrick Maher, p. 23, footnote), could there be between “replacement” and “elimination”? For Quine, there is none. For Carnap, though, there is a very important difference that goes to the heart of his philosophy. Elimination, in the context of reductive analysis in the Russellian tradition, is inherently an ontological project. Composite concepts are reduced to simple concepts, and the ultimately simplest concepts, at the end of this analysis, are those to which the language in question is “ontologically committed.” Elimination by Occam’s Razor is part of an ontological program for (at least the “early”) Quine, just as it had been for Russell. Carnap, too, entertained such programmatic proposals. But for him they were linguistic proposals, not ontological ones. Acceptance of a linguistic proposal, for this purpose or that, was a practical decision analogous to the decision to use a chain saw rather than an axe for trimming a certain tree branch. And in Carnap’s non-cognitive conception of normative statements, there is no possible inference from such a practical decision to an empirical or theoretical statement regarding the existence of some entities (as he pointed out in ESO). Linguistic proposals were to be judged by their suitability as tools for some purpose or another. They did not — in addition to their suitability for that purpose — also need to meet further philosophical qualifications. (It’s just this further requirement Quine imposes on candidate explications, that they meet philosophical qualifications beyond anything “pragmatic,” that so exercised Michael Friedman in his — appropriately named! — Howard Stein Lecture at the University of Chicago back in 2006.)

3 thoughts on “Ontology and explication: Lavers narrowly misses the point

  1. As this has been a good discussion, perhaps I can risk going a step too far and respond to your response to my response. It seems our points of disagreement are now what you mention in your 1 and 4 above.

    As to the point in 1. As Gödel showed, Carnap needs to interpret Language II using the the full powerset of the domain of individuals (and the full powerset of that etc.) in order to define analyticity for II. This sits uneasily with one of Carnap’s central theses: in logic we are never supposed to have to deal with the meaning of expressions. The indefinite rules of Language I, and even his intended definition of analyticity for Language II, could legitimately be called syntactic. An omega rule, for instance, can be seen as saying that if all of a certain set of sentences have some property, then so does this other one. The same, more or less, could be said of a substitutional account of quantification. No interpretation is needed . But to define analyticity for Language II, we need to appeal to what amounts to a standard interpretation of the range of each type in the language. When Carnap expresses the worry here, he does it in terms of talk of Platonism, which I think is already quite dismissive. I agree that Carnap, from very early on, does not take questions of ontology very seriously. We also agree that his attempts to address ontological presuppositions of his language don’t amount to much. But behind these problems of ontology which he is dismissive toward, there is a real problem. Carnap needed to appeal to a particular interpretation of Language II (where the variables range over the full powerset of the type below) in order to define a `syntactic’ property. Carnap’s choosing to express this worry in terms of Platonism, and then showing, for instance, that all of the sentences in the logical portion of the language are quasi-syntactic, led him to think he addressed this problem more satisfactorily than he did.

    In terms of point 4 you say “As Quine’s version of explication (as elimination) was inherently ontological; here he walks very much in Russell’s footsteps.” I originally read Quine on explication in this way. I thought his talk of `elimination’ was to be interpreted ontologically. We eliminate the ordered pairs in favour of sets of certain kinds. But then this is too narrow to fit with all of what Quine says about explication. We explicate a term, for Quine, yes because it seems to deal with mysterious entities, but also if it is vague or deficient in some other way. Quine saw explication as useful for ontological elimination, but this is not always accomplished in an explication. For instance, Quine gives Turing’s analysis of effective computation as an example of successful explication. Here we have not eliminated the class of effectively computable functions, but given an important clarification. Explication is elimination but we are eliminating an expression or class of expressions in favour of a newly defined one(s). So while explication, for Quine, unlike Carnap, often involves ontological reduction, it is too strong to say it is inherently so (even if this does fit with many of Quine’s examples).

    As to your point/question in number 5, I don’t have too much to add. But I don’t think Quine missed that Carnap took questions of ontology to be questions about the choice of language. In his 1939 “A Logistical Approach to the Ontological Problem” he formulates the question of ontology so as not to be tied to any particular language. And he tries to do so in a manner Carnap would regard as meaningful. Carnap, of course, agrees that it is meaningful, but rejects the link to the classical notion of ontology. This is all just after the period where Quine was Carnap’s disciple. I suspect, however, that Quine was never keen on Carnap’s views on ontology even in the period where he describes himself as a disciple.

  2. Thank you for your interesting discussion of my paper. In a paper as long as this one, one is, of course, going to say several things that not everyone will agree with (and likely some that are just wrong). I will not try to defend against all points, but I think there are some points on which there are more misunderstandings than real differences between us (this is likely as a result of my not being sufficiently clear). In the end, perhaps I miss the point more narrowly than you suggest.

    On the relation to Stein’s view: Any discussion of “explication” is completely absent from ESO. Stein and I are reading talk of explication into ESO. From the examples Carnap gives, though, it is clear he is thinking of explications. His discussion of the framework of number, for example, shows he has in mind a Fregean systematic account of number. This is Carnap’s paradigm example of an explication. So let us say we have given a systematic treatment of number and then given a Tarskian analysis of truth and reference as it applies to such a system. We can then show that the numerical terms refer, and that arithmetical statements are true. The metaphysician wants to ask if numerical terms really refer and if the statements really are true. That is, the metaphysician wants to know whether the explication is correct. But we can’t ask this question. This is a question with no cognitive content. What we can ask about is the practical adequacy of the explication. So I see the relation of what I say and what Stein says as a matter of emphasis. I am discussing the external question that the metaphysician wants to ask, and saying that it is without cognitive content. Stein is discussing the external question we can ask and saying that it is a question about practical adequacy. I quote Stein as he is the first commentator, that I am aware of, to interpret external questions as questions about explications. I don’t intend to disagree with Stein at all.

    There is, perhaps, only one point in your post I actually disagree with. You say “in ‘Two Dogmas’ Quine actually rejects Carnapian explication, since he regards it as just as dependent on pre-existing synonymies as ordinary definition (From a Logical Point of View, p. 25).” I don’t think what we find here is a rejection of Carnapian explication. Quine (earlier) wanted to define analyticity in terms of synonymy. He wanted a behavioristic account of synonymy which would isolate it from any modal notions. Modal notions he saw as seriously unintelligible (and even leading to a repudiation of any ontology of physical objects). He came to see synonymy as depending on a necessity operator (`Fx’ is synonymous with `Gx’ [](Ax)(Fx Gx) ). He previously wanted to save synonymy and analyticity and reject modality (see Quine’s 1947 The problem of interpreting modal logic). Now at the time of `Two Dogmas…’, he thinks analyticity would only be salvageable if it could be defined without appealing to synonymy or modality. When he discusses Carnapian explication in this paper it is not to reject the account. He gives it some praise by saying it is what philosophers do and scientists in their more philosophical moments. But he does think that it can’t be appealed to here because it depends on a partial synonymy. This claim is related to the difference between Carnap and Quine on explication. As I stress in the paper, for Quine explication involves identifying the central use of a term and coming up with a replacement which preserves this use. Of course, this preservation of the central use of a term is absent from Carnap’s account of explication. I take, by the way, your point about the difference between elimination and replacement. Perhaps Quine really wants to banish the old terms, whereas Carnap is more tolerant of them for certain purposes (as he was tolerant of the material mode of speech in Syntax). I agree that I may have spoken too quickly here. But your post seems to make it sound like I want to say they have the same account of explication, where I want to say that there are important differences.

    Lastly about Carnap on ontology in Syntax: I do think it is somewhat nice the way Carnap transforms ontological questions into ones which don’t even hint at ontology. “five refers to a number” ==> “ ‘five’ is a numerical expression.” But, at the same time, I think that Carnap himself notices certain ontological worries are introduced by his handling of valuations for II. He tries in several ways to deal with these worries (thus my talk of ‘patchwork’) and ultimately I take his position here to be circular. We need not worry about the definition of analyticity for II because we can be instrumentalists about the logical portion of the language. Since we need only give an interpretation of the descriptive vocabulary. But there is no need to interpret the logical portion of the language, because here everything is either analytic or contradictory.

    1. Thanks for your response! A few thoughts:

      1) My impression of Carnap’s responses to possible ontological worries in the Syntax is that he doesn’t take them seriously. Since the main point of the book (as he elaborates in his part V) was to take ontology off the table in about the most radical way imaginable, he doesn’t see the need for an ontological story; it would just get in the way of his main point. He acknowledges that people may ask such questions, but can no more bring himself to take them seriously than Hume could have taken the doctrine of transsubstantion seriously. The throwaway responses he gives to such specific worries as he acknowledges in the Syntax may well not add up to anything, but that’s because the obvious default response would always have been “haven’t you been paying attention to the main point of this book??” and who would want to keep repeating that?

      2) On the point you “actually disagree with” I think you’re probably right, and in your earlier (2012) paper, you make clear that Quine rejected explication in that specific context for the particular purpose he was considering in that context. I shouldn’t have said that Quine in ca. 1950 “rejected” (in general) what he called explication.

      3) Also I shouldn’t have made it sound as if you were claiming that Quine’s and Carnap’s conceptions of explication were the same. What I objected to was your remark that equating explication with elimination “amounts to the same thing” as Carnapian explication. But you’ve now said explicitly that you see a distinction between Carnapian replacement and Quinean elimination.

      4) Anyway, what Quine called explication wasn’t Carnapian explication, as you acknowledge. Gustafsson has a different take on this, but I think both you and he conceive of the difference between the two conceptions of explication a bit too narrowly. Quine’s version of explication (as elimination) was inherently ontological; here he walks very much in Russell’s footsteps. Whereas Carnap self-consciously rejected ontology from at least 1924; see for instance his letter to Russell when he sent him the Aufbau in 1928 (quoted in my book, p. 145)

      5) Nonetheless, Quine in later years (after Carnap’s death) claims he was “very much Carnap’s disciple” for six years (presumably 1932 to 38). It’s hard to see how he could have missed Carnap’s rejection of ontology, given how high-profile it is in both the Aufbau and the Syntax. But it’s evident from his lectures on the Syntax at Harvard that he somehow wasn’t taking it all that seriously, despite his later remark (quoted by Kemp & Lugg) to the effect that he then regarded the question of what there is as something like the central question of philosophy. So what’s his deal? How does this all fit together?

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