The Conventional and the Analytic

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 78 (2):239-274 (2009)
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Empiricist philosophers like Carnap invoked analyticity in order to explain a priori knowledge and necessary truth. Analyticity was “truth purely in virtue of meaning”. The view had a deflationary motivation: in Carnap’s proposal, linguistic conventions alone determine the truth of analytic sentences, and thus there is no mystery in our knowing their truth a priori, or in their necessary truth; for they are, as it were, truths of our own making. Let us call this “Carnapian conventionalism”, conventionalismC and cognates for short. This conventionalistC explication of the a priori has been the target of sound criticisms. Arguments like Quine’s in “Truth by Convention” are in our view decisive: the truth of conventionalismC requires that the class of logical truths and logical validities be reductively accounted for as conventionally established; however, no such reduction is forthcoming, because logic is needed to generate the entire class from any given set of conventions properly so-called. Granted that conventionalismC is untenable, we want to take issue with a different, usually made criticism. Although the argument uncovers some difficulties for the way conventionalist claims are defended by some of its advocates, we will try to show that it fails. The criticism thus stands in the way of a proper appreciation of why the Carnapian account of the a priori is not correct. We will try to illustrate this by showing that the criticism we will dispute would dispose of conventionalist claims not only regarding philosophically problematic cases – logical and mathematical truths –, but also regarding cases for which they have some prima facie plausibility. One such case is that of truths that follow from mere abbreviations, “nominal” definitions; ‘someone is a bachelor if and only if he is an unmarried adult male’ can serve at this point for illustration. We will try to articulate a clear sense in which the contents of assertion such as this can be truths by convention. We do not need to prove that a conventionalist claim is true in those cases; it is enough for us to show that it is intelligible, for the arguments we will confront question even this.

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Manuel García-Carpintero
Universitat de Barcelona


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