If the reader is shocked or offended by the two last-mentioned procedures, I hasten to assure him that they, occur, of course, only in the more barbarous regions, like America, where the sacrilege of tampering with the holy tradition of language is sometimes connived at.--Carnap "P.F. Strawson on Linguistic Naturalism" (937)
The distinction I used above between the way things happen in the world, and our own natures, is here, though vague, important. For it is a part of our nature that, things other than ourselves being as they are, it is natural for us to have the conceptual apparatus that we do have. But human nature is diverse enough to allow of another, though related, use of philosophical imagination. This consists in imagining ways in which, without things other than ourselves being different from what they are, we might view them through the medium of a different conceptual apparatus; Some metaphysics is best, or most charitably, seen as consisting in part in exercises of this sort...Of course, even when it can be so interpreted, it is not presented as a conceptual or structural revision by means of which we might see things differently; it is presented as a picture of thing as they really are, instead of as they delusively seem. This presentation with its contrast between esoteric-reality and daily delusion, involves, and is the consequence of, the unconscious distortion of ordinary concepts, i.e. of the ordinary use of linguistic expressions. So metaphysics though it can sometimes be charitably interpreted in the way I suggest, in fact always involves paradox and perplexities of the kind I first mentioned; and sometimes embodies no rudimentary vision, but merely rudimentary mistakes. Strawson (1963) "Carnap's Views on Constructed Systems Versus Natural Languages in Analytic Philosophy," (516; [emphases in original--ES])
Branden Fitelson wrote me a lovely, critical letter in response to viewing my lecture, "Anti-Mathematicism and Formal Philosophy" at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy available online. In it he reminded me of an exchange by Strawson and Carnap that he uses in teaching. The papers represent philosophical fireworks of the highest order--they are, as Strawson's title indicates, a debate over the very soul of analytical philosophy. The papers repay repeated re-readings, and both sides make many insightful observations on the philosophical merits of formal philosophy (a topic I regularly post about, see here and here). In particular, one is reminded -- and this is especially noteworthy in a philosophical age in which the guide to graduate education provided by the PGR does not even consider expertise in philosophy of education as worthy of note -- that one of the central philosophical issues is the nature of philosophical education.*
As a speculative aside, prompted by some remarks by Jason Stanley, the displacement of philosophical education as worthy of any attention was, in part, due to the success of Strawson's and Carnap's students and their intellectual allies in discrediting the non-scientific wing of Pragmatism associated, say, with Dewey. Subsequently, even Plato scholarship was reconstituted as unrelated to philosophical education. (The Meno and Theaetetus are then taught as obviously belonging primarily to the history of epistemology, etc.)
To return to my main point, in his response to Strawson, Carnap construes the debate as one between (linguistic) "naturalists" (that is Strawson, although this is not Strawson's term) and "constructionists" (Carnap). This construction allows Carnap to recycle some of his anti-Quine-ean moves against an opponent that has fewer resources to respond. He then offers effective responses to most of Strawson's charges, showing that they rely on unreliable distinctions/assumptions, misrepresentations of Carnap's program, and, crucially, that even where Strawson's positive program has merit, the two programs can be mutually supportive. Now, due to Strawson's title and the way the dialectic is construed it seems that what is at stake is ultimately the respective roles of natural language (and empirical observations on use), and the role of formal languages (and the merits of explication).+ Because Carnap has the last word in the Schilpp volume, he also gets away ignoring a feature of Strawson's argument (the passage quoted above) that Strawson admittedly qualifies as not being "central," (515), but does characterize as "inportant" and "a wide field open to philosophical imagination." (516)
I have quoted Strawson's defense of the role of "imagining ways in which, without things other than ourselves being different from what they are, we might view them through the medium of a different conceptual apparatus." Now the first thing to note is that this is presented as an extremely modest enterprise. There is no sense that an alternative conception of reality might be a guide to action or generate a vision of reality worth attaining (see philosophical prophecy). Given that Strawson makes disparaging remarks ("grandiose plan of logical atomism") of Carnapian "planners," the conservative implications are deliberate here. Strawson's version of descriptive analysis and descriptive metaphysics, self-consciously leaves things alone (recall yesterday's post). No doubt there will be howls of derision from Oxford -- if they pretended to care about my digressions -- but this is (further) evidence of the ignoble effects of the cold war on philosophy's self-image.
I do not say this in order to belittle Strawson. His vision articulates one of the fundamental building blocks of a moral vision for philosophy: his approach allows the possibility that alternative conceptualizations of the status quo can be exhibited. And this strikes me as one of the key tasks for philosophy: to generate concepts (words, terms, etc.) that make something that was previously (thought) improbable, if not inconceivable, ‘available' for discussion. It's just that in Strawson's hands the potential is un-explored.**
Because it is metaphysics that is tasked with thinking alternatives to the way reality is conceived and because Carnap and Strawson share a kind of residue empiricism [yes, Strawson is a Kantian of some sort, but a Kantian that does not abandon its empiricist elements, (see also here)], much of metaphysics is inevitably self-delusional relying on "unconscious distortion of ordinary concepts." While Carnap had admitted (in response to Beth) that "The earlier anti-metaphysical formulations in our movement, especially during the Vienna period, were often too general;" he also thinks "it seems to me still very important to make a clear distinction between genuine questions and pseudo-questions, both in traditional and in contemporary philosophical discussions." (933)
One final remark. One might think that Carnap's constructed frameworks are an excellent means by which we might imagine previously un-thought or unpopular alternatives. In fact, formal frameworks are especially useful to communicate with a specialist audience on esoteric matters (like proposing sacrilige). Something can be exact and clear only to those with the ability to decipher the symbols. This is the significance of the fact that Carnap explains that we can dispense with ordinary language in learning the specialist language:
so we can learn a language of the kind used in symbolic logic (but with pronounceable words instead of merely graphic symbols, and with a sufficient vocabulary of non-logical constants) without the help of our mother tongue. Later, after such a language has been learned by the practical, direct method, we might learn explicit rules for it, formulated in this language itself, just as a child in school learns grammatical rules of his mother tongue, formulated in the same language. (938)
Carnap calls this "procedure" a valuable "theoretical possibility." The theorist, who cares about appropriate language (see below) and responsible speech (and we know from his debate with Heidegger that Carnap cared deeply about this), need not spell out the implications. So, while Carnap's project of conceptual engineering (as articulated in "Empiricism, Semantics Ontology," which is the focus of Strawson's critical remarks) could be a prolegomena to social engineering, Carnap insists that "The aim of naturalists and constructionists is basically the same: clarifications and solutions of philosophical problems and perplexities. The two schools would also agree in the point, emphasized by Wittgenstein, that some of these problems and most of these perplexities result from an inappropriate use of language (936; [emphasis added--ES]).
What is left un-explicated in this conciliatory remark, is not just the true nature of a philosophical problem, but also the "particular purposes" (937) a philosopher might have--we know these purposes are optative and potentially disruptive of tradition, so Carnap will be discrete.
*Here's evidence from Strawson:
It seems not unreasonable, then, to find in this passage, as in others, evidence of a lack of sympathy with, and even of understanding of, that need for the elucidation of concepts which can coexist with perfect mastery of their practical employment. Now this is precisely the need for their philosophical elucidation. But if the idea of this kind of clarification is rejected, or not even entertained, then it does become intelligible that the title of 'clarification' should be reserved for some other activity. (509)
+ As it happens yesterday I explained with the help of Dennett's intentional stance, why I think Strawson's self-conception (in which analysis is a descriptive practice) is untenable.
**Given that Strawson clearly thinks that this possibility has to be taught to future generations and because he stresses the significance of "extra-systematic conceptual explanation," -- and he calls attention (en passant) to the political context -- one may suspect him of agreeing with Seneca (Letter 14) that the wise man legislates for the future in private.