On 'Ontology'

Analyzing the Carnap-Quine Debate as a Case of Metalinguistic Negotiation


  • Sam Whitman McGrath Brown University




This paper uses the concept of metalinguistic negotiation, drawn from contemporary philosophy of language, to develop a novel interpretation of Carnap and Quine’s debate about ontology. Like recent revisionary accounts of the debate, it argues that the widespread perception of first-order disagreement between the two is misleading, ascribing this misperception to Carnap and Quine’s divergent usage of “ontology” and its cognates. Once this difference is accounted for, their seemingly contradictory claims about the subject can be reconciled, as the two “talk past” each other on the semantic level. Crucially, however, this does not render their dispute merely verbal. Rather, it emerges as a remarkably consequential metalinguistic negotiation over whether the term “ontology” ought to be reinterpreted or replaced for the purposes of positive philosophical theorizing. This reading provides an account of the genuine disagreement that drove Carnap and Quine to engage in their debate and illuminates the broader metaphilosophical convictions that support each of their positions. As such, it addresses an important explanatory challenge facing members of the revisionary camp.


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