Carnap against analytic metaphysics

Wouter Cohen and Benjamin Marschall, two graduate students at Cambridge (one of my long-ago almae matres), have a terrific new paper in the latest issue of The Monist (the issue whose theme is “Against Metaphysical Grounding”), arguing that Carnap was not only — as everyone knows — against German idealism and the various metaphysical schools current in Germany between the wars (including the wilder and woolier outgrowths of phenomenology such as Heidegger), but would have been just as opposed to the current metaphysics emanating from analytic philosophers.

This might seem totally obvious, and not worth writing a paper about, but actually, if you look at analytic philosophy right now, not only is it once again in the grip of metaphysics, but many of those so gripped think their metaphysics is entirely reconcileable with some not-too-nitpicky version of logical empiricism, or of Carnap anyway. Theirs is a chastened metaphysics, they believe, and escapes the strictures pronounced back then. Many of those I’ve criticized on this blog, over the years, are of this persuasion, as are many I haven’t criticized. (Which means that being of this persuasion isn’t a sufficient condition to get yourself criticized on this blog.) Unfortunately, the situation isn’t very straightforward, though; there is no bright line separating the side of the angels from the dark side, and the toleration of analytic metaphysics ranges from zero to 100, with most people somewhere in the middle. So to explain why I think this new Cohen and Marschall paper is so terrific, I need to situate it in a larger picture of the place of metaphysics (and of Carnap) in current analytic philosophy.

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Against social ontology

At first I thought the vogue for “social ontology” was just a pale reflection of the (ultimately Quine-inspired) revival of ontology over the past few decades in analytical philosophy more generally. But then just in the past ten or fifteen years, social ontology rather dramatically took on a life of its own. John Searle proclaimed, for instance, that “where the social sciences are concerned, social ontology is prior to methodology and theory.” (Imagine someone saying such things about physics — since Descartes, anyway!) This burst of enthusiasm reached its apogee in about 2015, I think it fair to say, with the launch of the Journal of Social Ontology and with Brian Epstein’s The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, perhaps the most brazen attempt in recent memory to reclaim the Platonic mantle of philosopher king. Historians, economists, sociologists, and assorted others working in the trenches were told that (unbeknownst to them) their disciplines were in crisis, and could only be rescued if they jettisoned their “foundations” and accepted Epstein’s application of “the sophisticated toolkit of metaphysics” to understand what they were even talking about. (p. 9). That theories or questions of actual social science were left out of the picture (and the book) didn’t bother philosophers, who mostly reviewed The Ant Trap glowingly.

Now it’s certainly true that, as Ladyman and Ross very sternly and thoroughly pointed out, philosophers have also been doing this sort of thing with the ontology of the physical and biological sciences more generally. But they’re more careful there. They evidently think that the poor benighted social sciences need especially conscientious bossing around by wise philosophers. Philosophers of physics or biology take it for granted that they need to know something about the subject they are providing with the ontology the scientists themselves thoughtlessly omitted, and mostly accept that their ontological supplements can’t conflict with what the scientists think they’ve tentatively established. It would be considered childishly anthropomorphic to think that the philosopher in her armchair could think up a better set of basic concepts from scratch for, say, chemistry than the chemist in her lab. 

Epstein’s equally anthropomorphic efforts, though applauded by philosophers, did not go over so well with social scientists. His book was thoroughly eviscerated by Robert Sugden in the Journal of Economic Literature, who pointed out its complete irrelevance to anything in economics, and ended his review with a famous quotation from Neurath on the dispensability of “foundations.”

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Further thoughts on Ladyman and Ross

In my previous remarks about Ladyman and Ross I wondered whether the differences between them and Carnap were (largely or entirely) a matter of terminology.  What Ladyman and Ross call “metaphysics” Carnap entertained as a programmatic constraint on the language chosen, or developed, as an agreed common language of science, i.e. that it enable us to unify all the disperate knowledge from all the special sciences into a single coherent story. Does it matter whether we call this “metaphysics”? For Carnap, it didn’t really. He obviously was wary of the word “metaphysics” but was quite clear that a good deal of traditional metaphysics (he mentions Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant, Peirce, and Whitehead) could easily be interpreted as engineering work on our conceptual apparatus, rather than taken at face value in the material mode, i.e. as pertaining to some sort of ultimate “reality.” He would no doubt have taken Ladyman and Ross in the same spirit, Continue reading

“Ontological pluralism”

Various forms of “pluralism” are making the rounds these days.  There is, for instance, the “logical pluralism” of Beall and Restall (among others), the subject of a recent book by Stewart Shapiro, which will be discussed here at some point.  But then there is also something much vaguer and murkier called “ontological pluralism,” which, amazingly, is attributed to Carnap.  Matti Eklund, for instance, considers this question in his paper in the Metametaphysics volume.  What does he mean by it? He considers various formulations, starting with the “quantifier-variance” understanding of Hirsch, in which ontological pluralism requires the quantifiers to take on different interpretations in different languages. But Eklund thinks this is insufficiently precise, as it can seem to amount to “the thesis that a string of symbols can come out true in some languages but false in others, while meaning what it actually means.” The trouble with this, he thinks, is that it “would appear to commit the ontological pluralist to a form of relativism or idealism absent from pluralist writings.” (p. 138) Continue reading

What is a “framework,” and why does Chalmers have an opinion about this?

A few weeks ago I argued first that Chalmers’s conception of internal and external questions bore little relation to the Carnapian one it’s supposed to explicate, then that the Chalmers version is actually incompatible with the Carnap one. Chalmers says Carnap’s internal-external distinction needs to be replaced (p. 80 of his paper in the Metametaphysics volume) because the idea of a framework is too philosophically tendentious to be allowed to burden that distinction, which must therefore also be replaced by a supposedly more neutral one. In my earlier posts, I focused on Chalmers’s replacement of the internal-external distinction, and bracketed the (in a sense more fundamental) question of his replacement for Carnap’s notion of a framework. That it needs some replacement I take to be obvious; you can’t very well have any notion of “internal” if there isn’t something for concepts or questions to be internal to, a representational medium of some sort in which questions or concepts can be stated. Carnap called that medium a (linguistic) “framework.”  Why does Chalmers consider this tendentious?  Not clear.

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Verbal disputes

A few days ago I argued that Chalmers’s proposed replacement of Carnap’s internal-external distinction (in ESO) bears little resemblance to its Carnapian original.  Today I will go on to claim that this proposed replacement (like other related proposals from the new metaontologists) not only doesn’t resemble that original, but is actually incompatible with it. Continue reading

Is “unity of science” a form of metaphysics?

The one thing people can be counted on to know about Carnap is that he was against metaphysics.  But what is metaphysics?  According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, it is “the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality” and is “broader in scope than science, e.g. physics and even cosmology. . ., since one of its traditional concerns is the existence of non-physical entities. . . It is also more fundamental, since it investigates questions science does not address but the answers to which it presupposes” (2nd ed., p. 563).  Ladyman and Ross (LR) in their book Every Thing Must Go contrast their “naturalized” metaphysics to this Cambridge-Dictionary (CD) type, which they refer to as the “metaphysics of domestication,” since it tries to make counter-intuitive scientific knowledge accessible to the crude categories of our inherited vernacular, the ways of thinking that have evolved from the accumulated experience of the species since the Continue reading

Special Issue on Carnap, Part 1: Olen

The papers at Georg Schiemer’s “Carnap on Logic” meeting in Munich a couple of summers ago are eventually going to appear as a special issue of Synthese. Actually, they are already in the process of appearing, as they dribble in to the Synthese “online early” list one by one.

The first one I’ve encountered is Peter Olen’s close study of the Iowa school’s (i.e. Bergmann’s, Hall’s, Sellars’s) reception — or rather mis-reception — of Carnap’s semantic works in the early 1940s. Perhaps I was not listening carefully enough when he gave the talk in Munich, but I have to say the published version strikes me as much more lucid and compelling. He documents in elaborate detail just what Bergmann and Hall (and then Sellars, as a result) got wrong, and why Carnap, despite some effort, was unable to set them straight. I hope people notice, because the misunderstanding in question has propagated itself pretty aggressively. If Fraser MacBride is to be believed, it was Bergmann’s student Herbert Hochberg who is to be held responsible for the “ontological turn” in analytic philosophy (not Quine, as Huw Price and others have made adequately clear) — and, it seems, largely on the basis of this very misunderstanding!  Hochberg apparently had some influence on Armstrong, and thus perhaps at least indirectly also on Chalmers. So the misunderstanding Olen focusses on so minutely is worthy of the attention — it has a lot to answer for, and may even be partly responsible for our current efflorescence of metaontology and analytic metaphysics more generally.

I have to confess I have a personal axe to grind, as I wrote something on Sellars’s reception of Carnap a while ago, and no one paid much attention at the time. I argued there that Sellars’s early notion of a “pure pragmatics” (including the “material rules of inference” beloved of Brandom) derived from a misunderstanding of Carnap. Now Olen not only vindicates (part of) that claim, but shows in convincing detail where that misunderstanding came from and how Sellars arrived at it. Without that context, I have to admit, the misunderstanding seemed pretty outlandish and my appraisal of Sellars was therefore perhaps unduly harsh (which is no doubt why the Sellars-Gemeinde paid no attention).