A Dogmatic Framework: or, how a Debate Over the Semantics of Truth Rehabilitated Ontology

During the balmy days when it was socially acceptable to entertain logical positivism as a coherent philosophical position, it was commonly thought that questions of metaphysics were senseless, nonsense, or not even wrong. There are, of course, no shortage of problems with positivism and it’s safe to say that positivism is one of the very few philosophical theses that attained the distinction of being rejected because it was, in fact, actually wrong. However, granting all of that, it is no less the case that contemporary ontology has been shaped largely by a debate which took place on positivist grounds: the debate between Carnap and Quine on metaontology. The simple version of their respective positions might be boiled down to two ideas: for Carnap, metaphysical or ontological questions don’t really have an answer, while for Quine they do, and for Carnap, there are two kinds of truth, while for Quine ‘truth is truth’ and comes in only one variety. The outcome of this debate would have far-reaching consequences for metaphysics and ontology.

For Carnap, who is essentially a deflationist with regard to ontology,  questions of metaphysics are ultimately questions of meaning and questions of clarity. If, Carnap supposes, philosophers are clear enough about what answers they are trying to get, it will be seen that the questions they are asking aren’t substantial questions with substantial answers. This is the case because of Carnap’s distinction between internal and external questions. Examples of the former might be ‘How many planets are in the solar system’ or ‘do dolphins and fish share any anatomical properties’ while examples of the latter might be ‘are there numbers’ or ‘are there properties’. Astute readers will hopefully wonder what, exactly, these questions are internal or external to: the answer is that they are internal or external what Carnap would call a framework:

If someone wishes to speak in her language about a new kind of entities, she has to introduce a system of new ways of speaking, subject to new rules. We may call this the construction of a linguistic framework for the new entities in question. (Carnap)

The framework, then, is how we determine the meaning of terms, since the framework provides us with ‘rules for forming statements and testing, accepting or rejecting them’. Within the F-framework, it makes little to no sense to entertain questions about the existence of Fs, and if the questions are entertained they are not going to give up the kind of answers philosophers are most likely after. If, for example, we ask the question of whether or not there are numbers in an internal sense, the answer (for Carnap) will be a trivial ‘yes’ (and in Carnap’s case analytically ‘yes’ as well); the answer will effectively be that the number framework is not empty. This is no doubt true but philosophically uninteresting, and Carnap concludes that philosophers do not pose existence-of-F questions in the internal sense. The sense in which philosophers ask existence-of-F questions seems to be external: that is, they are questions external to the framework and call the framework itself into question. These kinds of philosophically interesting questions are for Carnap however framed in the wrong way, since they attempt to ask ‘what is real’ of the system or framework that makes it intelligible to ask whether or not something is in fact real. There are two key aspects to Carnap’s rejection of the legitimacy of external existence-of-F questions: (1) they are not scientific, and (2) following from that, there is no ontological justification needed. Carnap explains (1) in the following way:

To be real in the scientific sense means to be an element of the system; hence the concept cannot be meaningfully applied to the system itself. (Carnap)

And (2) in the following way:

The introduction of new ways of speaking does not need any theoretical justification because it does not imply the assertion of any reality. (Carnap)

(2) is fundamentally pragmatic: any kind of way of speaking or language can be adopted, meaning any kind of rules for accepting, testing and rejecting statements, say, a ‘thing-language’. If the language ‘works’, this isn’t evidence for the reality of things, but it may point to why this language ought to be chosen over others. From these two points Carnap draws the conclusion that philosophers who appear to pose theoretical existence-of-F questions are actually posing pseudo-questions. Internal questions can be answered, external questions cannot be answered:

The question of whether classes, or properties or numbers exist, Carnap argued, is a pseudo-question. It is not a theoretical question at all, but a ‘framework’ question concerning whether to adopt a language containing such expressions. It calls not for proofs of existence or ontological commitments, but for a decision, which turns not on any truth but only on convenience, fruitfulness and simplicity of the resultant theory. (P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy, p. 188)

Key to Carnap’s project here is the classic distinction between analytic and synthetic truths. We noted above that the answers to some internal questions were analytic (number questions). Some are also factually true or false (via empirical investigation). Carnap also held that the framework rules were themselves analytic, and it is on just this ground that Quine challenged him. If the concept of analyticity could be attacked and shown to be wanting, then Carnap’s internal/external distinction could be as well, and if this attack is successful, then there is reason to think that existence-of-F questions aren’t nonsense or misframed but actually do have determinate answers. Fundamentally, the debate between Carnap and Quine on this issue can be framed as a debate over how many kinds of truth there are. For Quine, truth is truth, and as he saw it, for Carnap, there are at least two kinds of truth (the univocity seen here about kinds of truth echoes Quine’s univocity about ‘being’).  The objections Quine raises are fairly well known but bear repeating, and take two broad forms: the ‘close circle’ objection and the ‘verification’ objection. The former:

Now Quine criticized Carnap in his famous 1951 sustained attack to the analytic/synthetic distinction, which he called a ‘dogma of empiricism’. The core of Quine’s view, roughly put, is that there are always two factors responsible for any sentence’s truth: the meaning of the terms that figure in it, and worldly facts. There is no way to tell these two factors apart. Quine argued that all attempts to precisely define the notion of analyticity turn out, on close examination, to form a circle with other notions, such as the notion of synonymy, which themselves call for explanation in terms of analyticity. (Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani, Ontology and Metaontology, p. 72)

And the latter:

The last move left to the defender of the analytic/synthetic distinction, according to Quine, is to appeal to the notion of verification: a statement is synthetic if and only if it can be verified or falsified by experience; it is analytic if and only if no experience can falsify it. Analytic statements, accordingly, are limiting cases on meaningful statements, which are confirmed no matter what. But this account presupposes a form of empiricist reductionism according to which all sentences are reducible to protocol sentences, and protocol sentences are verified or falsified individually by reference to immediate experience. (P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy, p. 201)

Quine’s wholistic concepts of confirmation and experience were key to overcoming this reductionism. While Quine certainly believed in confirmation by experience, he did not agree that statements faced the ‘tribunal of experience’ one at a time or in an individual way rather as a ‘corporate body’. As the ‘close circle’ objection, Quine took confirmation to involve both the meanings of terms and worldly facts: however, as the ‘close circle’ objection anticipated, he did not believe that it followed that there is a hard and fast distinction and separation between the two components:

The truth of logical truths, which are not observation sentences confronting experience directly, but are deeply embedded in the web of our beliefs, depends upon the success or failure of the whole of science of which they are a part. Logic is a part of every theory, and is confirmed or disconfirmed  by the truth of science as a whole. It does indeed ‘confront experience’, but indirectly and in company. That is not to say that logic is empirical, but rather that there is no distinction between what is empirical and what is a priori. In this sense, Quine’s verificationism is much more far-reaching than that of the Vienna Circle…’ (P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy, p. 202)

Quine was generally taken to have won the debate with Carnap, and the consequence of that was a kind of rehabilitation of ontology. If the internal/external framework could be overcome, then its dismissal of ontological questions could as well, and philosophers could ask and expect answers to existence-questions. It ought to be noted, however, that the outcome of this debate turned on a deceivingly small question: how many kinds of truth are there? The defender of the analytic and synthetic distinction is happy to say that there are two kinds of truth (obviously). The attacker of this dogma believes there to be only one kind of truth. For those who take there to be two kinds of truth, ontological questions are misframed. For those who take there to be one kind of truth, ontological questions are perfectly respectable. Hacker suggests that there is a twfold root of this issue: one root lies in Carnap’s, as well as the Vienna Circle’s, acceptance of a conventionalist doctrine of a priority, and the corresponding root lies in their refusal to look this doctrine square in the eye and ‘face up to the question of what the role of these vacuous (uninformative) so-called analytic truths is’ (p. 201). Of course, Quine was attacking the analytic/synthetic distinction as it was received in the empiricist tradition, and the force of his attacks are seriously mitigated if we aren’t thinking within that tradition. While Quine is, as noted above, generally taken to have won this debate, there seem to be a few hairline cracks here:

The problem is that, if you accept Quine’s conclusion, you find yourself drawn to nominalism, pragmatism and a highly scientistic world-view. Yet, if you look closely at has arguments, you will find those very positions built into the premises, and so protected from their much-deserved interrogation. Even if there is no non-circular account of necessity for example, this justifies our rejection of the idea only if we accept Quine’s view that nothing is defined until it is defined in the terms that a radical nominalist would accept. (Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, p. 167)

Scruton appears to have put his finger on the pressure points created by these hairline cracks. Perhaps, of course, this can all be chalked up to yet another reason to reject empiricism: all well and good, then. These are problems for empiricists, so those of us who aren’t empiricists can sit back and enjoy the discomfort created by them. But there is, or ought to be, at any rate, something more here: the question of truth in relation to the question of ontology seems too significant to brush off so quickly. This question would take us too far afield at the moment, but by way of something approximating a conclusion, let us say that Quine saw that the question of truth is related to the question of existence in an intimate way, and to deal with one is to deal with the other.


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