Yablo, Quine and Carnap on ontology

From: 1Z <peterdjones.domain.name.hidden>
Date: Wed, 2 Sep 2009 10:35:02 -0700 (PDT)

Yablo and Gallois's paper "Is ontology based on a mistake" is quite
relevant to
the question of Platonism, specificall whether true matehmatical
of existence have to be taken literally.


What is it?

A paper criticising the Quinean view of ontology. Yablo does so by
introduces a metaphorical/literal distinction as to when it is
reasonable to posit the existence of entities. Thus in order to
determine our ontological commitments we need to be able to extract
all cases in which such entities are posited in a metaphorical way
rather than a literal one. If there is no way to do this, then it is
not possible to develop a Quinean ontology.

Where does it fit in for me?

For the thesis: if correct, it implies that Quine's fundamental
approach to ontology is flawed and this may have negative implications
for the Quine-Putnam indispensability argument.

For the metaphysics paper: possibly details a way in which existence
cannot be held to occur (which would be interesting to look at in
terms of the relations proposed). At the very least it gives an
example of particular existence claims which can then be analysed in a
relational way.

Yablo, S., Does ontology rest on a mistake?, Proceedings of the
Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. LXXII (1998), 229-261.

The Argument

Carnap on existence
Carnap argued that the realist existence question/assertion was
meaningless. He did this by means of his concept of linguistic
framework. A linguistic framework lays down rules for the use and
meaning of some object term X in a linguistic sense. Thus there are
two ways in which one can question/assert the existence of X: internal
or external to the linguistic framework.

If one questions the existence of X internal to the framework, one is
almost certainly guaranteed a yes answer (thus the statement "there is
an X" can pretty much be viewed as tautological when assessed
internally to a framework involving X). Hence the realist must be
making an external existence assertion. However, in this case the term
X has no meaning, as the framework within which it gains such is not
present. Thus the realist existence question/assertion is either
tautological or impossible to answer/assess.

Quine on Carnap
Quine objected to Carnap's position in three ways: firstly, he held
that his internal/external distinction was reliant on an analytic/
synthetic distinction (because the concept of a linguistic framework
involves the rules inherent in that framework being viewed as
indefeasible (i.e. analytic) within that particular linguistic
practice). As Quine believed that the analytic/synthetic distinction
could not be made, he held that Carnap's internal/external distinction
breaks down: internal assessments are thus not just a matter of
following inviolable linguistic rules, it is indeed possible for these
rules to change in response to experience and thus for internal
practice to change too.

Secondly, Quine argues that the external choice between linguistic
frameworks is much more influenced by observation than Carnap would
have us believe. For Quine, the decision to adopt a rule governing the
appropriate observational conditions under which one may assert the
existence of X is itself in part an assertion that X exists (if such
conditions obtain). He does not believe in making a distinction
between the linguistic truth and the factual truth of a statement.

Finally, Quine objects to the claim that the choice of linguistic
framework existence rule is based on merely practical considerations
to do with efficiency, simplicity, etc with no metaphysical
implications. He does so on the basis that these are exactly the sorts
of things that scientists use to favour one theory (and hence in
Quine's opinion, a view of the world, complete with ontology) over

Yablo on Quine
Yablo argues that each aspect of Quine's critique is flawed. Firstly,
one does not need to hold that rules making up a linguistic framework
are analytic in order to be able to understand the need for a
framework in order to understand the meaning of terms. Not really sure
how this fits in and is related to Quine's second objection stage: One
does not need to render external talk of the objects within a
particular framework meaningless in order to save the internal, rule-
bound meaning. One can just make clear how such external statements
cannot be applied internally.;finally, Yablo points out that Quine
himself accepts the fact that a statement can be asserted purely for
practical advantage without the asserter actually holding that what it
entails metaphysically is actually the case.

Saving the Framework
Yablo goes on to propose a linguistic framework modified in light of
Quine's criticisms in which a framework is adopted as a kind of "game"
where the players assess the truth and falsity of statements within
the framework without any belief in implications for truth and/or
falsity outside of the framework. Thus Yablo argues that there are two
ways in which a statement may be interpreted: literally (external to a
particular game or linguistic framework) or as a metaphor (internal).

The Framework Strikes Back
This distinction regarding the way in which a statement may be
interpreted causes problems for the Quinean ontological regime. Given
that Quine does accept that assertions may be made in a metaphorical
sense, and that when one does so no ontological implications may be
drawn from such assertions, Quine needs to provide a clear demarcation
criterion to distinguish between metaphorical and literal statements.
As this has been much discussed without progress, it seems unlikely
that one will be able to distinguish between metaphorical and literal
usage and thus it is impossible to construct a certain ontology under
Quine's approach.

Indeed, Yablo argues that for the most part when we make statements,
we are unsure as to whether they are strictly literally true or if
they are at least in part to be taken metaphorically. Thus the
Quiniean must argue that in time these metaphorical parts of our
statements will be eroded and eventually only the literal
interpretation will remain. However, this reduces the Quinean position
to the following: one should sympathise with the idea that Xs exist
iff the literal part of theories involve their postulation and one
should count the part of a theory that involves the postulation of Xs
literal iff there turn out to be Xs. Thus there is a circularity.

Argument Outline

    * Carnap proposes a conception of linguistic practice (involving
an internal/external distinction) under which ontological
investigations cannot meaningfully be undertaken.

    * Quine criticises this by linking it to the problems of the
analytic/synthetic distinction.

    * Yablo modifies Carnap's position so that the distinction is made
on metaphorical/literal grounds in instead.

    * This new position requires that the Quinean provide a principle
of demarcation between metaphor and literal truth in order for their
ontology to prevail.

    * No such principle has been provided and so the Quinean
ontological project fails.

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Received on Wed Sep 02 2009 - 10:35:02 PDT

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