Friday, February 01, 2008

Sellars and Carnap

In Brandom's Locke Lectures, he quotes an odd line from Sellars: "the language of modality is a transposed language of norms." Part of the point of the lectures is to give some clearer content to that claim. Brandom does it with his analysis of pragmatic metavocabularies and such. I had thought that this idea of a transposed language was original to Sellars. He is a fairly colorful writer, which sometimes obscuring his points.

In reading Carnap's Logical Syntax, I came across something similar. At the start of section 80, "The Dangers of the Material Mode of Speech," Carnap says that the material mode is "a special kind of transposed mode of speech." This is glossed as "one in which, in order to assert something about an object a, something corresponding is asserted about an object b which stands in a certain relation to object a." He goes on to say that metaphor is a transposed mode of speech. Looking back at the Sellars quote, this seems to be the sort of thing he meant. I don't know if an idea of transposition was common in the first half of the 20th century, but I've not come across it elsewhere.

This lead me to a question. To what extent were Sellars's ideas a reaction to or an offshoot of Carnap's? It is clear that Sellars read a lot of Carnap. His article on the role of rules of language (an article whose title I'm blanking on) [Edit: "Inference and Meaning", thanks Rick] directly deals with Carnap. Sellars made a contribution to Carnap's Schillp volume. According the SEP article on Sellars, Sellars was deeply influenced by Carnap, focusing mainly on their engagement with science and epistemology. It doesn't seem to mention views on language, although the article on rules [Edit: "Inference and Meaning"] definitely lays out stuff on material inference and inferentialism, as it is retroactively called.

Why would this matter? An apparently hot topic is the influence of Carnap on Quine. Carnap also had a big influence on Sellars, whose views on a great many things are different than Quine's. Looking at what they were reacting to in Carnap and what their ultimate reactions were could probably indicate further territory to explore. Especially since Sellars was fairly heavily influenced by Wittgenstein and Kant in ways that Quine was not. To strain a metaphor to the breaking point, it would be like triangulating the shadows of giants. While on their shoulders. In any case, it is starting to seem like a non-terrible idea to look into this. There is some material on the influence of Carnap on Quine, and possibly some on Carnap and Sellars. I don't know if there is much on Sellars and Quine since they didn't seem to engage each other much. Although, books on roughly inferentialist ideas, like Brandom's Making It Explicit and Peregrin's Meaning and Structure discuss them together, though not Carnap to my memory. It seems like it could be fruitful to bring all three into the picture together.

7 comments:

Greg said...

Quick comment --

Quine was one of Carnap's primary philosophical sounding-boards/ interlocutors. From what I've seen, Sellars never really had that role.

This matters, I'd guess, for your proposed project because whereas we have lots of letters etc. between Carnap and Quine, we lack this luxury in the case of Sellars.

Shawn said...

Greg,
Good point. The Sellars-Carnap side wouldn't be a two way street like the Quine-Carnap one. It would probably be more informative about the development of Sellars's views. There is a project going on at Pitt to edit and release Sellars's complete works, so there might be some letters in there. I'll look into that. In any case, there certainly wouldn't be as much as the Quine-Carnap correspondence. I think Carnap replied to Sellars's article in the Schlipp volume. I don't know if he responded to Sellars's writing anywhere else though. I'm doubtful Quine responded to Sellars anywhere. But, you are definitely right to point out that the roles that Carnap and Quine stood in a different relation to each other than that of Carnap and Sellars. (This project idea may be even less viable than I had originally thought.)

Rick Danko said...

Sellars uses Carnap and his "Logical Syntax" as a foil in "Inference and Meaning." The middle part of the paper revolves around a criticism of Carnap on definitions. Sellars quotes the Carnap bit you mentioned about the material mode being a transposed mode, and goes on to use this idea in his analysis of subjunctive conditionals and modality. Hence, "the language of modality is a transposed language of norms." It is a direct allusion to Carnap.

I couldn't tell from your post whether you knew all of this already, but I guess it can't hurt to mention it.

Shawn said...

Rick,
That is the article! This post was a bit off the cuff. As you can tell, I didn't do my research beyond reading Logical Syntax.

I read "Inference and Meaning" a year or so ago. When I had read it I hadn't read Logical Syntax. This means I was in a hazy fog of non-understanding when I read the Sellars piece. My eyes probably passed over the phrase, but I certainly didn't remember it. Your comment is well taken. It is certainly helpful since I don't think Brandom supplies that context when he drops the line in his Locke Lectures. It is also reassuring that I wasn't completely offbase with the motivating idea of the post. So, far from the mention hurting, it was quite helpful.

Tomáš Sobek said...

Shawn, what is a relation (if any) between carnapian conventionalism and brandomian pragmatism?

Shawn said...

Tomas,
There is no relation as far as I can tell. I'll probably write something here if I come across something that looks promising. It doesn't seem like Carnap is one of Brandom's influences, except insofar as he influenced Sellars.

Tomáš Sobek said...

Thanks. Is brandomian pragmatism conventional in the sense of arbitrariness of inferential praxis?