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Philosophy Colloquium: Carnap’s Critique of Ontology

Posted on 9/10/2012 3:01:58 PM

The Philosophy Department is pleased to announce that Jonathan Surovell, University of Pittsburgh, will be giving a talk entitled “Carnap’s Critique of Ontology” on Friday, September 14, 2012, at 3:30 p.m. in the Eberly Colege Boardroom.


Carnap’s conception of linguistic frameworks, and his associated distinction between internal and external questions, is supposed to give rise to a view on which philosophers’ ontological questions—“Are there properties?”, e.g.—are pseudo-questions that are somehow confused or discontinuous with science. But what is the confusion that Carnap sees in ontology? According to the received view, Carnap rejects “external” existence questions because they are posed outside of any language for science, and for this reason lack cognitive meaning. I argue that, contrary to the received view, the rejection of external questions is not sufficient for Carnap’s critique of ontology. I then offer an alternative interpretation. I argue that Carnap’s critique of ontology involves a rejection of arguments that move from statements of existence to prohibitions against language forms (such as second-order variables). Carnap, I claim, rejects arguments of this form regardless whether the existential claim occurring as premise is internal or external. I then propose what I call Carnap’s “pragmatism” as an account of what is wrong with the problematic arguments. Carnap’s pragmatism holds that, in science, languages are to be used as instruments to facilitate inferential moves to and from observation reports. The incorrectness of the language’s existential theorems need not reduce its effectiveness as an instrument for manipulating observation reports in this way. This is why, given Carnap’s pragmatism, we cannot argue from an existential statement to the prohibition of a language.