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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Frameworks again: Eklund responds to Broughton

Matti Eklund has now replied to Gabriel Broughton’s critique of his conception of Carnapian frameworks. Broughton is more than capable of fending for himself, but in the course of addressing Broughton’s critique, Eklund also takes a little swipe at my post about it, so I’ll respond briefly to that. He accuses me (as he accuses Broughton) of having unfairly attributed to him what Broughton calls the “Natural language thesis: Carnapian frameworks are natural languages.” Now of course I’m very glad he wants to back away from that, and I’m glad he now thinks the “natural language thesis” absurd, but I think he’ll have trouble convincing anyone he didn’t hold it previously. In his own self-quotation on pp. 8-9 of his reply, he explicitly conceives of a Carnapian framework as a specific natural language (English). Still, it’s never too late for repentance; no soul is beyond redemption (the Carnap Blog adheres to a broadly Christian attitude in such matters).

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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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Mea culpa

Sean Morris’s new collection of papers on Carnap and Quine has now come out with CUP, and looks very interesting. I hope to comment on several different papers in it, if there is time, over the next couple of months. Right now I will comment on the first paper, by Sander Verhaegh, which meticulously documents the initial encounter between Carnap and Quine in Vienna and (mainly) Prague in 1932 and 1933. Verhaegh establishes without any doubt that I had got the timing of this initial encounter a bit wrong; I had thought, for some reason, that Quine’s recollection of eagerly reading the Syntax as it emerged from Ina’s typewriter referred to 1932, and thus to the first draft of the Syntax. This mistake was significant because Carnap arrived at his principle of tolerance after completing the first draft, sometime in late 1932 — the first appearance of this principle in print, it is generally agreed, was in the paper “Über Protokollsätze” published in Erkenntnis in late 1932 (Benson gives the date of 30 December 1932), a response to Neurath’s paper on the same subject. Verhaegh establishes that what Quine witnessed emerging from Ina’s typewriter wasn’t the first draft at all, it was the second draft (close but not identical to the final book).

This matters because I had occasionally invoked this inaccurate understanding of the chronology (in this blog and elsewhere) to explain how Quine could have missed the principle of tolerance. In his Harvard lectures on Carnap (published in Rick Creath’s Dear Carnap, Dear Van, 1990), the principle of tolerance is absent. Nor does it come up in any of Carnap’s notes on discussions with Quine, or in their correspondence during this period.

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Quine’s reading of ESO, according to Ebbs

Gary Ebbs published an extended version of his previous paper “Carnap on Ontology” in the JHAP a couple of years ago, but I’m still not convinced. The core of both papers is the claim that “Carnap’s method of identifying and eschewing ontological questions . . . stands or falls with his analytic-synthetic distinction. . .” (“Carnap on Ontology,” p. 54). The new paper now also seeks to defend Quine’s reading of “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology” (ESO), and I have to admit that Ebbs does a decent job of making Quine’s paper “On Carnap’s Views on Ontology” (OCV) seem surprisingly reasonable, if you’re willing to grant Quine’s priors. But I get lost when Ebbs positions this against what he calls the “new standard reading” of OCV, which conflates a number of quite disparate views from all over the map into a homogeneous phalanx of opposition to Quine. It’s possible that some of the named authors agree about some things, but Ebbs doesn’t characterize this “new standard view” precisely enough to get across what he’s really talking about, or what his criteria for inclusion were (he leaves a lot of anti-Quine things out of his list). I will stick with Graham Bird’s 1995 paper in Erkenntnis, for now, which Ebbs acknowledges as the earliest of those he positions himself against, and quotes most frequently. I will argue that Ebbs fails to address its main argument. If I’m right, then presumably whatever one may think about the “new standard view” more generally, Bird‘s critique, at least, of Quine’s arguments in OCV survives Ebbs’s cavils unscathed.

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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.

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