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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Disagreement about philosophical disagreement

Jared Warren fancies himself “the lone contemporary defender of conventionalism in logic and mathematics” (p. 343 of his book Shadows of Syntax, 2020). His notion of “conventionalism” is somewhat offbeat (see below), but even so, he exaggerates wildly.  

Warren goes out of his way to distance himself from Carnap, though admitting in asides that Carnap comes closer to his own “conventionalist” position than any other philosopher of the past. (I’m not so sure.) Carnap seems mostly (I haven’t read the whole book yet) to be portrayed as the garrulous old uncle who insists on boring us at dinner parties, and who may have got certain things right (perhaps by accident), but was too easily led astray by Neurath and other colorful personalities to be emulated as an inspiring forerunner. 

This affords Warren ample opportunities to rap Carnap over the knuckles and tell us what Carnap should have thought or written, to bring him into conformity with Warren’s own more consistent and better-informed version of “conventionalism.”  Warren does not, however, despite this frequent use of such normative language (addressed to Carnap), regard the question whether his own conventionalism is “correct” as a normative question. No, there is a fact of the matter about that; Warren is right, in his view, and everyone else is wrong. And yes, he means factually right! He has arrived at the “uniquely true and correct theory.”  

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The Endarkenment: Carnap to the rescue?

Finally someone has made an issue of this urgent and fundamental problem, and even diagnosed it as a (partly) philosophical problem. — Or rather I should say, finally I stumbled on the book where someone does this! To my embarassment, it’s not even something new, but was published six years ago, by Oxford, so it’s not as if it’s been hiding in the shadows or anything: The Great Endarkenment by Elijah Millgram. He comes at the problem from a different angle than I did in my book, but it’s unmistakably the very same problem, and he paints it in even darker colors than I did, if that’s possible. But like me, he thinks there are resources within the philosophical tradition (if not within the philosophy profession as currently constituted and incentivized) to resist the great endarkenment he writes about.

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Frege as clickbait

Why would a respected historian of ancient philosophy, formerly a professor at Yale and now at All Souls, resort to claiming that Frege had “plagiarized” the Stoics? When you look at the paper more closely, you realize a number of things: (1) We’re not talking about Frege the inventor of modern predicate logic (the author of the Begriffsschrift and Grundgesetze), nor even about Frege the philosopher of logic, logicism, and arithmetic (the author of The Foundations of Arithmetic); we’re talking only about Frege the supposed “philosopher of language,” the later Frege who wrote “On Sense and Reference” and related papers. (2) Even in the case of this Frege, a case is made only that he was influenced by the Stoics, not that he “plagiarized” them (as the author herself recognizes perfectly well, e.g. on pp. 202-4). (3) Most of her case rests on evidence of Frege’s borrowing from the Stoics that had previously been documented in some detail in a 2009 HPL paper by Gabriel, Hülser, and Schlotter, which she dismissively makes fun of in the beginning of her paper and claims to have refuted. (4) Her supposed refutation of that paper concerns none of the details of the Stoics’ influence on Frege, but consists merely in showing — ostensibly — that Frege’s use of Stoic motifs derives not from Frege’s friendship with the scholar of ancient Stoicism Rudolf Hirzel (Frege’s tenant of an apartment in his house in Jena), but from Frege’s own reading of Prantl’s history of logic. Her case here remains (as she admits) circumstantial and far from clear-cut.

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Carnap as plagiarist

A new book has just appeared that sets the record straight, and shows that not just Carnap’s ideas, but pretty much the whole of analytic philosophy, are largely derivative of Husserl’s phenomenology.  It is edited, of course, by none other than the redoubtable Guillermo E. Rosado Haddock, who has been on the case for quite a while.  It contains, among other papers, the one Haddock himself gave at the Aufbau conference Christian Damböck organized at the MCMP in Munich in 2013.  I’ve mentioned Haddock’s performance there in a previous post.  The published version of his paper does not refer to my paper (which he called “the big lie” in the Munich discussion) or even deign to list it in his bibliography (it’s been out for almost a year, and available online for over 18 months).  Haddock does however — a new addition since the conference — include references to, and even quotations from, the Carnap diary entries I used in my paper (the first time they were referred to in print).  At the Munich conference, he had cast doubt on the authenticity of these passages, implying that I had fabricated them or badly distorted their content.

Haddock has never quite come out and claimed that Carnap stole Husserl’s ideas, though he’s often insinuated it, and hinted darkly at various conspiracies to hide the dirty secret of Husserl’s influence on Carnap.  In this new volume, though, Haddock also includes a long paper by Verena Mayer that takes this step explicitly, right from the title — “Der Logische Aufbau als Plagiat.”   Continue reading

Reflections on St. Sylvester’s Eve

Has professionalization been good for philosophy? When people ask this question (usually to answer firmly in the negative), they think of logical positivism as a kind of turning point, at which philosophy (programmatically, at least) became “technical.” They remember the Vienna Circle’s pronouncements about breaking the big, unmanageable problems down into subunits it makes better sense to address, and about the corresponding submersion of the individual thinker into the collective endeavor of (unified) science. But, such critics object, did Kant’s hope of putting philosophy “auf den sicheren Weg einer Wissenschaft” (which the logical empiricists were trying to realize) even make any sense? Isn’t this a category mistake?

I agree with this criticism but I don’t think logical empiricism is to blame for what has happened to philosophy. Continue reading