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).

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  1. 1.

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

  2. 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. 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. 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. 5.

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

  6. 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. 7.

    See Carnap (1945).

  8. 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. 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. 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. 11.

    See Hall (1947).

  12. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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).


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Correspondence to Peter Olen.

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An erratum to this article is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0725-1.

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Olen, P. A forgotten strand of reception history: understanding pure semantics. Synthese 194, 121–141 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0678-4

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