Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology. Rudolph Carnap. [In this essay Carnap is concerned with the question of the “reality” of the sorts of what he calls “abstract. Rudolf Carnap’s article “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology” deals with the implications of accepting language which refers to abstract entities. Empiricists. Carnap, “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology”. Major Premise: Accepting the existence abstract entities involves a pragmatic decision to use a certain linguistic.

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Empiricists are in general rather suspicious with respect to any kind of abstract entities like properties, classes, relations, numbers, propositions, etc.

They usually feel much more in sympathy with nominalists than with realists in the medieval sense. As far as possible they try to avoid any reference to abstract entities and to restrict themselves to what is sometimes called a nominalistic language, i. However, within certain scientific contexts it seems hardly possible to avoid them. In the case of mathematics some empiricists try to find a way out by treating the whole of mathematics as a mere calculus, a formal system for which no interpretation is given, or can be given.

Accordingly, the mathematician is said to speak not about numbers, functions and infinite classes but merely about meaningless symbols and formulas manipulated according to given formal rules.

In physics it is more difficult to shun the suspected entities because the language of physics serves for the communication of reports and predictions and hence cannot be taken as a mere calculus. A physicist who is suspicious of abstract entities may perhaps try to declare a certain part of the language of physics as uninterpreted and uninterpretable, that part which refers to real numbers as space-time coordinates or as values of physical magnitudes, to functions, limits, etc.

More probably he will just speak about all these things like anybody else but with an uneasy conscience, like a man who in his everyday life does with qualms many things which are not in accord with the high moral principles he professes on Sundays.

Recently the problem of abstract entities has arisen again in connection with semantics, the theory of meaning and truth. Some semanticists say that certain expressions designate certain entities, and among these designated entities they include not only concrete material things but also abstract entities e. It is the purpose of this article to clarify this controversial issue. The nature and implications of the acceptance of a language referring to abstract entities will first be discussed in general; it will be shown that using such a language does not imply embracing a Platonic ontology but is perfectly compatible with empiricism and strictly scientific thinking.

Then the special question of the role of abstract entities in semantics will be discussed. It is hoped that the clarification of the issue will be useful to those who would like to accept abstract entities in their work in mathematics, physics, semantics, or any other field; it may help them to overcome nominalistic scruples.

Are there properties classes, numbers, propositions? In order to understand more clearly the nature of these and related problems, it is above all necessary to recognize a fundamental distinction between two kinds of questions concerning the existence or reality of entities. If someone wishes to speak in his language about a new kind of entities, he has to introduce a system of new ways of speaking, subject to new rules; we shall call this procedure the construction of a linguistic framework for the new entities in question.

And now we must distinguish two kinds of questions of existence: Internal questions and possible answers to them are formulated with the help of the new forms of expressions. The answers may be found either by purely logical methods or by empirical methods, depending upon whether the framework is a logical or a factual one. An external question is of a problematic character which is in need of closer examination. The world of things. Let us consider as an example the simplest kind of entities dealt with in the everyday language: Once we have accepted the thing language with its framework for things, we can raise and answer internal questions, e.

These questions are to be answered by empirical investigations. Results of observations are evaluated according to certain rules as confirming or disconfirming evidence for possible answers. This evaluation is usually carried out, of course, as a matter of habit rather than a deliberate, rational procedure. But it is possible, in a rational reconstruction, to lay down explicit rules for the evaluation. This is one of the main tasks of a pure, as distinguished from a psychological, epistemology.


The concept of reality occurring in these internal questions is an empirical scientific non-metaphysical concept. To recognize something as a real thing or event means to succeed in incorporating it into the system of things at a particular space-time position so that it fits together with the other things as real, according to the rules of the framework.

From these questions we must distinguish the external question of the reality of the thing world itself. In contrast to the former questions, this question is raised neither by the man in the street nor by scientists, but only by philosophers.

Realists give an affirmative answer, subjective idealists a negative one, and the controversy goes on for centuries without ever being solved. And it cannot be solved because it is framed in a wrong way. To be real in the scientific sense means to be an element of the system; hence this concept cannot be meaningfully applied to the system itself. Those who raise the question of the reality of the thing world itself have perhaps in mind not a theoretical question empirjcism their formulation seems to suggest, but rather a practical question, a matter of a practical decision concerning the structure of our language.

We have to make the choice whether or not to accept and use the forms of expression in the framework in question. In the case sekantics this particular example, there is usually no deliberate an because we all have accepted the thing language early in our lives as a matter of course. Nevertheless, we may regard it as a matter of decision in this sense: If someone decides to accept the thing language, there is no objection against saying that he has accepted the world of things. But this must not be interpreted as if it meant his acceptance of a belief in the reality of the thing world; there is no such belief or assertion or assumption, because it is not a theoretical question.

To accept the thing world means nothing semanhics than to accept a certain form of language, in other words, to accept rules for forming statements lntology for testing accepting or rejecting them. The acceptance ontoloy the thing language leads on the basis of observations made, also to the acceptance, belief, and assertion of certain statements.

But the thesis of the reality of the thing world cannot be among these statements, because it cannot be formulated in the thing language or, it seems, in any other theoretical language. The decision of accepting the thing language, although itself em;iricism of a cognitive nature, will nevertheless usually be influenced by theoretical knowledge, just like any other deliberate decision concerning the acceptance of linguistic or other rules.

The purposes for which the language is intended to be used, for instance, the purpose of communicating factual knowledge, will determine which factors are relevant for the decision.

Rudolf Carnap, Empiricism, semantics, and ontology – PhilPapers

The efficiency, fruitfulness, ahd simplicity of the use of the thing language may be among the decisive factors. And the questions concerning empificism qualities are indeed of a theoretical nature. But these questions cannot be identified with the question of realism.

They are not yes-no questions xarnap questions of degree. The thing language in the customary form works indeed with a high degree of efficiency for most purposes of everyday life. This is a matter of fact, based upon the content of our experiences. However, it would be wrong to describe this situation by saying: The system of numbers. As an example of a system which is of a logical rather than a factual nature let us take the system of natural numbers. The framework for this system is constructed by introducing into the language new expressions with suitable rules: Here again there are internal questions, e.

Emplricism the answers are here analytic, i. What is now the nature of the philosophical question concerning the existence or reality of numbers? To begin with, there is the internal question which together with the affirmative answer, can be formulated in the new terms, say by “There are numbers” or, more explicitly, “There is an n such that n is a number.

Internal–external distinction

Moreover, it is rather trivial in contradistinction to a statement like “There is a prime number greater than a million which is likewise analytic but far from trivialbecause it does not say more than that the new system is not empty; but this is immediately seen from the rule which states that words like “five” are substitutable for the new pntology.


Therefore nobody who meant the question “Are there numbers? This makes it plausible to assume that those philosophers who treat the question of the existence of numbers as a serious philosophical problem and offer lengthy arguments on either side, do not have in mind the internal question. And indeed, if we were to ask them: Therefore our judgment must be that they have not succeeded in giving to the external question and to the possible answers any cognitive content.

Unless and until they supply a clear cognitive interpretation, we are justified in our suspicion that their ontolog is a pseudo-question, that is, one disguised in the form of a theoretical question while in fact it is a non-theoretical; in the present case it is the practical problem whether or not to incorporate into the language the new linguistic forms which constitute the framework of numbers.

The system of propositions. New variables, “p,” “q,” etc. Further, the general term “proposition” is introduced. Therefore every sentence of the form “. This holds, empjricism example, for the sentence:. We disregard here the fact that the rules of English grammar require not a sentence but a that-clause as the subject of another sentence; accordingly instead of a we should have to say “That Chicago is large is a proposition.

With the help of the new variables, general sentences may be formed, e. The statement “There are propositions” may be meant in the sense of d ; in this case it is analytic since it follows from a and even trivial. If, however, the cranap is meant in an external sense, then it is non-cognitive. It is important to notice that the system of rules for the linguistic expressions of the propositional framework of which only a few rules have here been briefly indicated is sufficient for the introduction of the framework.

Any further explanations as semangics the nature of the propositions i. For example, are propositions mental events as in Russell’s semantucs A look at the rules shows carnsp that they are not, because otherwise existential statements would be of the form: Further, a statement of the existence of linguistic entities e. The fact that no such reference occurs in the existential statements here, shows that propositions are not linguistic entities.

The fact that in these statements no reference to a subject an observer or knower occurs nothing like: Although characterizations of these or similar kinds are, strictly speaking, unnecessary, they may nevertheless be practically useful. If they are given, they should be understood, not as ingredient parts of the system, but merely semanitcs marginal notes with the purpose of supplying to the reader helpful hints or convenient pictorial associations which may make his learning of the use of the expressions easier than the bare system of the rules would do.

Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology. —

Such a characterization is analogous to an extra-systematic explanation which a physicist sometimes gives to the beginner.

He might, for example, tell him to imagine the atoms of a gas as small balls rushing around with great speed, or the electromagnetic field and its oscillations as quasi-elastic tensions and vibrations in an ether.

In fact, however, all that can accurately be said about atoms or the semnatics is implicitly contained in the physical laws of the theories in question. The system of thing properties The thing language contains words like “red,” “hard,” “stone,” “house,” etc. Now we may introduce new variables, say ” f ,” ” g ,” etc.

The last sentence is an internal assertion. It is an empirical, factual nature.

However, the external statement, the philosophical statement of the reality of properties — a special case of the thesis of the reality of universals — is devoid of cognitive content. The system of integers and rational numbers. Into a language containing the framework of natural numbers we may introduce first the positive and negative integers as relations among natural numbers and then the rational numbers as relations among integers.

This involves introducing new types of variables, expressions substitutable for them, and the general terms “integer” and “rational number. The system of real numbers. On the basis of the rational numbers, the real numbers may be introduced as classes of a special kind segments of rational numbers according to the method developed by Dedekind and Frege.