Skip to main content

A forgotten strand of reception history: understanding pure semantics

An Erratum to this article was published on 24 March 2015


I explore a strand of reception history that follows Rudolf Carnap’s shift from a purely syntactical analysis of constructed languages to his conception of pure semantics. My exploration focuses on Gustav Bergmann’s and Everett Hall’s interpretation of pure semantics (as centered around Carnap’s notion of ’rules of designation’), their understanding of what constitutes a ’formal’ investigation of language, and their arguments concerning the relationship between expressions and their extra-linguistic referents. I argue that Bergmann and Hall strongly misread Carnap’s semantic project and, subsequently, their misunderstanding is passed down through colleagues and students (found most notably in Wilfrid Sellars’ early philosophy).

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. For those unfamilair with Carnap’s terminology, the sign-design/sign-events distinction tracks the same idea as the type/token distinction.

  2. Although implicit in Hall’s account, the concern over naive realism is explicit in Otto Neurath’s hostility towards pure semantics. For an excellent account of the exchange between Neurath and Carnap on this point, see Reisch (2005, Chap. 10) and Mancosu (2008).

  3. Nagel makes the same observation in his 1944 review: “He certainly does not examine the difficulties which such a view involves with the consideration they deserve” (Nagel 1944, p. 46).

  4. Hall explicitly connects Bergmann’s reading of Carnap with the lingua-centric predicament in at least two main places. First, Hall’s critique of Bergmann’s conception of verification (in Hall 1947), as well as Bergmann’s response to Hall (in Bergmann 1947) is based on their mutual readings of Carnap’s philosophy. Second, Hall (1952) explicitly construes Bergmann’s comments on pure semantics as concerned with the lingua-centric predicament, going so far as to classify Bergmann’s arguments against linguistic intentionality as one possible solution to the lingua-centric predicament.

  5. Richard Creath has made a similar point about changes from the “syntax” to “semantics” phase of Carnap’s philosophy. See Creath (1990).

  6. It should be noted that Carnap’s discussion of the “logic of meaning” differs from our contemporary expectations of such a logic. For one, Carnap’s discussion does not include a discussion of inference rules that would now be expected in such a logic. I would like to thank one of the anonymous referees for pointing out this discrepancy.

  7. See Carnap (1945).

  8. Footnote three provides additional evidence for Bergmann’s and Hall’s mutual influence on each other, but their shared reading of Carnap’s Syntax is a key element of this narrative. Such a shared reading helps explain, in part, why Bergmann and Hall misread Carnap in the same way. Little evidence exists of correspondence between Bergmann and Hall on this exact point (although the issues present in the above sections are discussed in correspondence between Bergmann, Hall, and Sellars). Nonetheless, as made explicit in Sellars’ autobiographical reflections below, both philosophers did read and discuss Carnap’s Syntax together prior to the publications discussed above.

  9. Although, Hall’s reading of Carnap is tentative (i.e., Hall does admit in numerous places that he could be wrong in his interpretation of IS). I’d like to thank one of the anonymous referees for pointing out this facet of Hall’s interpretation.

  10. Although I am not prepared to explore this avenue presently, it’s clear that both Bergmann and Hall get this “mystical” notion of designation from a joint reading and discussion of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Hall admits as much in the “Concluding Remarks” of his 1952 book.

  11. See Hall (1947).

  12. Sellars holds a more complex and divergent account of psychologism than one finds in Carnap. Although there is some evidence in Sellars’ unpublished correspondence to assume he borrows his expansive definition from Bergmann, the issue is too broad to be dealt with here. For a further exploration of this point, see my article “From Formalism to Psychology: Meta-philosophical Shifts in Wilfrid Sellars’ Early Works” (forthcoming).

  13. As in Bergmann’s and Hall’s writings, Sellars uses the terms ‘pure’ and ‘formal’ interchangeably. More so, Sellars is prone to using “formal” is various, sometimes inconsistent ways (e.g., as meaning “analytic”, “logical”, “syntactical”, “general”, “meta-linguistic”, etc...). I offer an in-depth exploration of this problem in my paper “From Formalism to Psychology: Meta-philosophical Shifts in Wilfrid Sellars’ Early Works” (forthcoming).

  14. Sellars attempt to do so hinges on his introduction of the “co-ex” predicate (a formal device analogous to the psychological expression “x is-present-to-consciousness-along-with y”) to represent how the psychological relation between intentions and linguistic expression could be represented formally. See Sellarsa (1947a/2005, pp. 9–12).

  15. Sellars 1947a/2005 contains a particularly puzzling claim that “pure pragmatics will make possible, indeed necessitate, a return to the Aufbau stage of Logical Empiricism” (Sellars 1947a/2005, p. 8). Bergmann’s response to Hall provides somewhat of a clarification for this claim (although, even within his historical context, it’s difficult to see what, exactly, Sellars meant by this). For Bergmann, verification (as well as meaning) should be traced back to first-personal “verbs of consciousness” such as “seeing” or “perceiving” (Bergmann 1947, p. 273). Sellars seems to be gesturing towards a similar idea that a pragmatic account of designation and verification would need to account for the specifically agential nature of a language users’ experience of discursive space.

  16. At the end of Bergmann (1944) he claims that a formalized or axiomatized notion of pragmatics would be necessary to fully account for meaning, but that such a task would be that of the scientists and not the philosopher. Bergmann’s (1947) dispute with Hall represents a genuine change of mind about the role of pragmatics in philosophical analysis.

  17. There are numerous, overlapping contextual issues as to why pure pragmatics emerges as a tangible project in the 1940s and why Sellars suddenly dismisses the project by 1949. For issues surrounding this point, see my “From Formalism to Psychology: Meta-philosophical Shifts in Wilfrid Sellars’ Early Works” (forthcoming) or Carus (2004).


  • Bergmann, G. (1944). Pure semantics, sentences, and propositions. Mind, 53, 238–257.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bergmann, G. (1945). A positivistic metaphysics of consciousness. Mind, 54, 193–226.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bergmann, G. (1947). Philosophical and psychological pragmatics. Philosophy of Science, 14, 271–273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bergmann, G. (1954). The metaphysics of logical positivism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carnap, R. (1937). The logical syntax of language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul LTD.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carnap, R. (1942). Introduction to semantics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carnap, R. (1943). Formalization of logic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carnap, R. (1945). Hall and Bergmann on semantics. Mind, 54, 148–155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carus, A. W. (2004). Sellars, carnap, and the logical space of reasons. In S. Awodey & C. Klein (Eds.), Carnap brought home: The view from Jena (pp. 317–355). Chicago: Open Court Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carus, A. W. (2008). Carnap’s intellectual development. In M. Friedman & R. Creath (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Carnap (pp. 19–42). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carus, A. W. (2010). Carnap and twentieth-century thought: Explication and enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Creath, R. (1990). The unimportance of semantics. In Proceedings of the biennial meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association (pp. 405–416).

  • Easton, L. (1966). Hegel’s first American followers: The Ohio hegelians. Athens: Ohio University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Feigl, H. (1950). Logical reconstruction, realism, and pure semiotic. Philosophy of Science, 17, 186–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, E. (1947). On the nature of the predicate ‘verified’. Philosophy of Science, 14, 123–131.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, E. (1944). The extra-linguistic reference of language (II.). Mind, 53, 25–47.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, E. (1952). What is value? An essay in philosophical analysis. New York: Humanities Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hinshaw, V, Jr. (1944). The pragmatist theory of truth. Philosophy of Science, 11, 82–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hochberg, H. (2001). The positivist and the ontologist: Bergmann, Carnap, and logical realism. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jewett, A. (2011). Canonizing Dewey: Naturalism, logical empiricism, and the idea of American philosophy. Modern Intellectual History, 8, 91–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kuklick, B. (1977). The rise of American philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mancosu, P. (2008). Tarski, Neurath, and Kokoszysnka on the semantic conception of truth. In Douglas Patterson (Ed.), New essays on Tarski and philosophy (pp. 192–224). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Nagel, E. (1944). Untitled review. The Journal of Symbolic Logic, 9, 46.

    Google Scholar 

  • Reisch, G. (2005). To the icy slopes of logic: How the cold war transformed the philosophy of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sellars, W. (1947a/2005). Pure pragmatics and epistemology. In J. Sicha (Ed.), Pure pragmatics and possible worlds: The early essays of Wilfrid Sellars (pp. 4–25). Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing Company.

  • Sellars, W. (1947b/2005). Epistemology and the new way of words. In J. Sicha (Ed.), Pure pragmatics and possible worlds: The early essays of Wilfrid Sellars (pp. 28–40). Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing Company.

  • Sellars, W. (1947c). Letter to Gustav Bergmann. Iowa City: University of Iowa Archives.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sellars, W. (1975). Autobiographical reflections. In H. Castañeda (Ed.), Action, knowledge, and reality: Critical studies in honor of Wilfrid Sellars (pp. 277–293). Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. (Retrieved from

  • Storer, T. (1948). The philosophical relevance of a ‘behavioristic semiotic’. Philosophy of Science, 16, 316–330.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Storer, T. (1950). On communication. Philosophical Studies, 1, 33–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter Olen.

Additional information

An erratum to this article is available at

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Olen, P. A forgotten strand of reception history: understanding pure semantics. Synthese 194, 121–141 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Logical empiricism
  • Rudolf Carnap
  • Wilfrid Sellars
  • Pure semantics
  • History of analytic philosophy