Carnap’s Specter

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A review of Huw Price’s Metaphysics After Carnap (2007)


One of Carnap’s ultimate but unfinished project is to extirpate metaphysics. Carnap is a firm believer that metaphysical claims are merely vacuous propositions in which the truth-value cannot be validated. Throughout his entire life, Carnap published dozens of articles just for proving the claim. Now, he has passed away, and, as scoffing with a middle finger at Carnap’s headstone, metaphysics in the 21’s century has successfully become the central discourse in philosophy. 

If he managed to be resuscitated and talk, Carnap ghost would see this loss as a consequence of his quarrel with Quine in the 1950s. According to Putnam, metaphysics that was battered at that era was gallantly rescued by Quine. Indeed, in analytic philosophy, Carnap’s fortress built to combat the non-sense lie within the metaphysics shadow. The existence of contemporary analytic philosophy highly depends on the compassion of metaphysics. Quine, in his article ‘On What There Is,’ negates all arguments brought by Carnap in ‘Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology’ and succeeds in saving metaphysics from the grips of Vienna’s Circle. However, is the narrative above actual? Or all chivalrous attribution to Quine is merely a myth?    

Carnap v. Quine

Huw Price (2007) sees metaphysics has gone, and Quine failed to save it. This fact is blurred by the misinterpretation of the Quine’s successors towards Quine’s argument. In his article, Price demonstrates that Quine’s criticism does not refute Carnap’s argument substantially.

In ‘Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology,’ Carnap argues for a linguistic framework, which works as a set of rules of uses for terms and predicates. For him, there are two linguistic frameworks, namely internal and external. An internal linguistic framework is a form of utterance that is profoundly wired on logical laws, apart from having distinct truth-value. On the other hand, an external linguistic framework is a linguistic form that states/questions the framework itself. Metaphysical claims are often introduced as an external framework, which, according to Carnap, is misplaced. Questioning the existence of an object, for example, is an internal question because it can be explained scientifically or correspondently. For Carnap, the valid external question is more about pragmatic questions toward the linguistic framework.

Price sees Carnap’s argument orients itself to the use-mention distinction. In the distinction, external questions are about questions regarding a term and not objects in language. Furthermore, Price also sees Carnap as a language pluralist. Carnap believes that truth in a claim depends on a particular linguistic framework. Therefore, a true claim in a particular linguistic framework can be wrong in other frameworks. It implies the deflationary aspect of Carnap. Truth-values lie in the internal linguistic framework, and not external.

Quine boldly repudiates the notion of Carnap’s linguistic framework because it supposes analytic-synthetic distinction. Quine sees all philosophical claims always question the use of analytic language, while Carnap argues that philosophical claims are in the internal linguistic framework because they should have a truth-value. In this vein, Quine put forth a confusing statement:

if there is no proper distinction between analytic and synthetic, then no basis at all remains for the contrast which Carnap urges between ontological statements [i.e., the metaphysical statements that Carnap wants to disallow] and empirical statements of existence. Ontological questions then end up on a par with the questions of natural science. (1966, 134)

For Quine, if the case is the internal framework, the ontological question is on par with scientific questions. However, on another occasion, Quine agrees with the notion of linguistic frameworks in a scientific hypothesis, in which the truth-values are seen tied on a particular model. This statement seems to show that Quine has no reservations with a claim that ontological questions are equal to scientific questions so long as they reside in the framework that has pragmatic values.

Quine also challenges the assumption of pluralism in the Carnap linguistic framework because it contains categorical mistakes. Different linguistic frameworks, according to Quine, are incommensurate. It makes the use of existential quantification trivial in the different framework or category.

Price supposes Quine’s critique above does not change Carnap’s assumption substantially. Carnap realizes the potential of categorical errors in different categories. However, this categorical mistake is limited to the level of syntax, which is not functionally impactful.

In the different debate, Gilbert Ryle (1949) defends the position of Carnap’s pluralism. Ryle argues that categorical mistakes can only take place in syntax and not in semantics. For Ryle, this problem can be overcome by differentiating the utterance of belief and existence. The utterance of belief explains the concept and have an explanatory function, while utterance of what exists explains actual things that have a truth-value. 

Quine disparaged Ryle’s argument because the distinction tends to eliminate the pragmatic aspect of truth-value. The true utterance must have a well-funded function. Discussing the belief of something merely explains the relation between objects in the discourse. The difference between Quine and Ryle ends without a lucid conclusion.

Misinterpretation towards Quine’s Ontology

Quine’s criticism of Carnap appears to strengthen the position of metaphysics in philosophy. Price argues that there is a misinterpretation towards Quine that traditional metaphysics is vindicated. In fact, the inverse is the case.

In the discourse concerning the realism of mathematical entities, the indispensability argument is used as the primary weapon in explaining the ontological aspect of the existence of mathematical entities. However, Price sees Quine exercises the indispensability argument not to explain the existence of mathematical entities but quantify mathematical entities. The existence of mathematical entities depends on the standard of scientific practice, which have more pragmatic values than the alternatives. Quine does not distinguish the ontological commitment with scientific claims because metaphysics can be apprehended pragmatically. Thus, it is reasonable to affirm that metaphysical debate lies in the scientific linguistic framework and, therefore, has well-founded pragmatic values. It demonstrates that Quine’s argument is still consistent with Carnap’s pragmatism.

The indispensability argument is also used by David Lewis in his modal realism. Lewis argues that the use of modal realism in the philosophical analysis is similar to the use of set in mathematics.

[There are] many ways in which systematic philosophy goes more easily if we may presuppose modal realism in our analyses. I take this to be a good reason to think that modal realism is true, just as the utility of set theory in mathematics is a good reason to believe that there are sets. (1986, vii)

Price believes that the indispensability argument cannot be undertaken as a metaphysical position. As explained previously, the indispensability argument is consistent with Carnap’s pragmatism that prohibits the use of the argument as an explanation of ontological existence.

Lewis responds to this threat by inventing another metaphysical position, namely fictionalism. In general, fictionalism has multiple similarities with quasi-realism. Simon Blackburn proposes quasi-realism to diminish obscurity in a statement. Quasi-realism sees a predicate in a statement as a property of the subject. The property (apart from the subject in a statement) is real. By positing the property, according to Blackburn, the position of a statement in the actual world can be identified. Lewis distinguishes fictionalism and quasi-realism by proposing second-order qualifications that put a statement in the fictional world via his modal realism and not in the actual world.

Lewis’s fictionalism is prone to make Carnap’s pluralism more metaphysical than what Carnap’s intended. The reason is that it can forge fictional entities so long as in the linguistic framework of the fictional world. Nevertheless, for Price, the use of two-order qualification has disadvantages, which differentiate this position with Carnap. Firstly, forging an additional sentence that is explanatory in explaining the meaning of the main sentence can do away with the deflationary aspect of Carnap. Also, the explanatory sentence is prone to negate the truth-value in the main sentence. Secondly, although the potential in negating the truth-value in the main sentence can be prevented from, for Price, the only valid way in diverting this issue is that fictionalism should use the moral vocabulary. In the use-mention distinction, using vocabulary implies that the truth-value is placed in each sentence in which the main sentence can only be true if the explanatory sentence used is also true. On the other hand, the Carnapian position does not need to put the truth-value in an additional sentence because it only mentions the moral vocabulary.

With the above in mind, Lewis’s argument in modal realism or fictionalism gives no challenges for the combination between functional pluralism and metaphysical deflationism of Carnap. Price still believes that Quine fails in providing substantial metaphysical offers. Metaphysics is still as dead as when Carnap left it. The challenge that was put in ‘Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology’ has remained unanswered.

A specter is haunting Metaphysics – the specter of Carnapism