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12/29/11 Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontolog

Revue Internationale de Philosophie 4 (1950): 20-40. Reprinted in the
Supplement to Meaning and Necessit: A Stud in Semantics and Modal
Logic, enlarged edition (University oI Chicago Press, 1956).
Empiricists are in general rather suspicious with respect to any kind oI
abstract entities like properties, classes, relations, numbers, propositions, etc.
They usually Ieel much more in sympathy with nominalists than with realists (in
the medieval sense). As Iar as possible they try to avoid any reIerence to
abstract entities and to restrict themselves to what is sometimes called a
nominalistic language, i.e., one not containing such reIerences. However, within
certain scientiIic contexts it seems hardly possible to avoid them. In the case oI
mathematics some empiricists try to Iind a way out by treating the whole oI
mathematics as a mere calculus, a Iormal system Ior which no interpretation is
given, or can be given. Accordingly, the mathematician is said to speak not
about numbers, Iunctions and inIinite classes but merely about meaningless
symbols and Iormulas manipulated according to given Iormal rules. In physics it
is more diIIicult to shun the suspected entities because the language oI physics
serves Ior the communication oI reports and predictions and hence cannot be
taken as a mere calculus. A physicist who is suspicious oI abstract entities may
perhaps try to declare a certain part oI the language oI physics as uninterpreted
and uninterpretable, that part which reIers to real numbers as space-time
coordinates or as values oI physical magnitudes, to Iunctions, limits, etc. More
probably he will just speak about all these things like anybody else but with an
uneasy conscience, like a man who in his everyday liIe does with qualms many
things which are not in accord with the high moral principles he proIesses on
Sundays. Recently the problem oI abstract entities has arisen again in connection
with semantics, the theory oI meaning and truth. Some semanticists say that
certain expressions designate certain entities, and among these designated
entities they include not only concrete material things but also abstract entities
e.g., properties as designated by predicates and propositions as designated by
Others object strongly to this procedure as violating the basic
principles oI empiricism and leading back to a metaphysical ontology oI the
Platonic kind.
It is the purpose oI this article to clariIy this controversial issue. The nature
and implications oI the acceptance oI a language reIerring to abstract entities will
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Iirst be discussed in general; it will be shown that using such a language does not
imply embracing a Platonic ontology but is perIectly compatible with empiricism
and strictly scientiIic thinking. Then the special question oI the role oI abstract
entities in semantics will be discussed. It is hoped that the clariIication oI the
issue will be useIul to those who would like to accept abstract entities in their
work in mathematics, physics, semantics, or any other Iield; it may help them to
overcome nominalistic scruples.
Are there properties classes, numbers, propositions? In order to
understand more clearly the nature oI these and related problems, it is above all
necessary to recognize a Iundamental distinction between two kinds oI questions
concerning the existence or reality oI entities. II someone wishes to speak in his
language about a new kind oI entities, he has to introduce a system oI new ways
oI speaking, subject to new rules; we shall call this procedure the construction
oI a linguistic frameork Ior the new entities in question. And now we must
distinguish two kinds oI questions oI existence: Iirst, questions oI the existence oI
certain entities oI the new kind ithin the frameork; we call them internal
questions; and second, questions concerning the existence or reality of the
sstem of entities as a hole, called eternal questions. Internal questions
and possible answers to them are Iormulated with the help oI the new Iorms oI
expressions. The answers may be Iound either by purely logical methods or by
empirical methods, depending upon whether the Iramework is a logical or a
Iactual one. An external question is oI a problematic character which is in need
oI closer examination.
The orld of things. Let us consider as an example the simplest kind oI
entities dealt with in the everyday language: the spatio-temporally ordered
system oI observable things and events. Once we have accepted the thing
language with its Iramework Ior things, we can raise and answer internal
questions, e.g., "Is there a white piece oI paper on my desk?" "Did King Arthur
actually live?", "Are unicorns and centaurs real or merely imaginary?" and the
like. These questions are to be answered by empirical investigations. Results oI
observations are evaluated according to certain rules as conIirming or
disconIirming evidence Ior possible answers. (This evaluation is usually carried
out, oI course, as a matter oI habit rather than a deliberate, rational procedure.
But it is possible, in a rational reconstruction, to lay down explicit rules Ior the
evaluation. This is one oI the main tasks oI a pure, as distinguished Irom a
psychological, epistemology.) The concept oI reality occurring in these internal
questions is an empirical scientiIic non-metaphysical concept. To recognize
something as a real thing or event means to succeed in incorporating it into the
system oI things at a particular space-time position so that it Iits together with
the other things as real, according to the rules oI the Iramework.
From these questions we must distinguish the external question oI the
reality oI the thing world itselI. In contrast to the Iormer questions, this question
is raised neither by the man in the street nor by scientists, but only by
philosophers. Realists give an aIIirmative answer, subjective idealists a negative
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one, and the controversy goes on Ior centuries without ever being solved. And it
cannot be solved because it is Iramed in a wrong way. To be real in the
scientiIic sense means to be an element oI the system; hence this concept cannot
be meaningIully applied to the system itselI. Those who raise the question oI the
reality oI the thing world itselI have perhaps in mind not a theoretical question as
their Iormulation seems to suggest, but rather a practical question, a matter oI a
practical decision concerning the structure oI our language. We have to make
the choice whether or not to accept and use the Iorms oI expression in the
Iramework in question.
In the case oI this particular example, there is usually no deliberate choice
because we all have accepted the thing language early in our lives as a matter oI
course. Nevertheless, we may regard it as a matter oI decision in this sense: we
are Iree to choose to continue using the thing language or not; in the latter case
we could restrict ourselves to a language oI sense data and other "phenomenal"
entities, or construct an alternative to the customary thing language with another
structure, or, Iinally, we could reIrain Irom speaking. II someone decides to
accept the thing language, there is no objection against saying that he has
accepted the world oI things. But this must not be interpreted as iI it meant his
acceptance oI a belief in the reality oI the thing world; there is no such belieI or
assertion or assumption, because it is not a theoretical question. To accept the
thing world means nothing more than to accept a certain Iorm oI language, in
other words, to accept rules Ior Iorming statements and Ior testing accepting or
rejecting them. The acceptance oI the thing language leads on the basis oI
observations made, also to the acceptance, belieI, and assertion oI certain
statements. But the thesis oI the reality oI the thing world cannot be among these
statements, because it cannot be Iormulated in the thing language or, it seems, in
any other theoretical language.
The decision oI accepting the thing language, although itselI not oI a
cognitive nature, will nevertheless usually be inIluenced by theoretical
knowledge, just like any other deliberate decision concerning the acceptance oI
linguistic or other rules. The purposes Ior which the language is intended to be
used, Ior instance, the purpose oI communicating Iactual knowledge, will
determine which Iactors are relevant Ior the decision. The eIIiciency, IruitIulness,
and simplicity oI the use oI the thing language may be among the decisive
Iactors. And the questions concerning these qualities are indeed oI a theoretical
nature. But these questions cannot be identiIied with the question oI realism.
They are not yes-no questions but questions oI degree. The thing language in the
customary Iorm works indeed with a high degree oI eIIiciency Ior most
purposes oI everyday liIe. This is a matter oI Iact, based upon the content oI our
experiences. However, it would be wrong to describe this situation by saying:
"The Iact oI the eIIiciency oI the thing language is conIirming evidence Ior the
reality oI the thing world; we should rather say instead: "This Iact makes it
advisable to accept the thing language."
The sstem of members. As an example oI a system which is oI a logical
rather than a Iactual nature let us take the system oI natural numbers. The
Iramework Ior this system is constructed by introducing into the language new
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expressions with suitable rules: (1) numerals like "Iive" and sentence Iorms like
"there are Iive books on the table"; (2) the general term "number" Ior the new
entities, and sentence Iorms like "Iive is a number"; (3) expressions Ior
properties oI numbers (e.g. "odd," "prime"), relations (e.g., "greater than") and
Iunctions (e.g. "plus"), and sentence Iorms like "two plus three is Iive"; (4)
numerical variables ("m," "n," etc.) and quantiIiers Ior universal sentences ("Ior
every n . . . ) and existential sentences ("there is an n such that . . .") with the
customary deductive rules.
Here again there are internal questions, e.g., "Is there a prime number
greater than a hundred?" Here however the answers are Iound not by empirical
investigation based on observations but by logical analysis based on the rules Ior
the new expressions. ThereIore the answers are here analytic, i.e., logically true.
What is now the nature oI the philosophical question concerning the
existence or reality oI numbers? To begin with, there is the internal question
which together with the aIIirmative answer, can be Iormulated in the new terms,
say by "There are numbers" or, more explicitly, "There is an n such that n is a
number." This statement Iollows Irom the analytic statement "Iive is a number"
and is thereIore itselI analytic. Moreover, it is rather trivial (in contradistinction
to a statement like "There is a prime number greater than a million which is
likewise analytic but Iar Irom trivial), because it does not say more than that the
new system is not empty; but this is immediately seen Irom the rule which states
that words like "Iive" are substitutable Ior the new variables. ThereIore nobody
who meant the question "Are there numbers?" in the internal sense would either
assert or even seriously consider a negative answer. This makes it plausible to
assume that those philosophers who treat the question oI the existence oI
numbers as a serious philosophical problem and oIIer lengthy arguments on
either side, do not have in mind the internal question. And indeed, iI we were to
ask them: "Do you mean the question as to whether the Iramework oI numbers,
if we were to accept it, would be Iound to be empty or not?" they would
probably reply: "Not at all; we mean a question prior to the acceptance oI the
new Iramework." They might try to explain what they mean by saying that it is a
question oI the ontological status oI numbers; the question whether or not
numbers have a certain metaphysical characteristic called reality (but a kind oI
ideal reality, diIIerent Irom the material reality oI the thing world) or subsistence
or status oI "independent entities." UnIortunately, these philosophers have so Iar
not given a Iormulation oI their question in terms oI the common scientiIic
language. ThereIore our judgment must be that they have not succeeded in
giving to the external question and to the possible answers any cognitive content.
Unless and until they supply a clear cognitive interpretation, we are justiIied in
our suspicion that their question is a pseudo-question, that is, one disguised in
the Iorm oI a theoretical question while in Iact it is a non-theoretical; in the
present case it is the practical problem whether or not to incorporate into the
language the new linguistic Iorms which constitute the Iramework oI numbers.
The sstem of propositions. New variables, "p," "q," etc., are introduced
with a role to the eIIect that any (declarative) sentence may be substituted Ior a
variable oI this kind; this includes, in addition to the sentences oI the original
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thing language, also all general sentences with variables oI any kind which may
have been introduced into the language. Further, the general term "proposition"
is introduced. "p is a proposition" may be deIined by "p or not p" (or by any
other sentence Iorm yielding only analytic sentences) . ThereIore every sentence
oI the Iorm ". . . is a proposition" (where any sentence may stand in the place oI
the dots) is analytic. This holds, Ior example, Ior the sentence:
(a) Chicago is large is a proposition.
(We disregard here the Iact that the rules oI English grammar require not a
sentence but a that-clause as the subject oI another sentence; accordingly
instead oI (a) we should have to say "That Chicago is large is a proposition.")
Predicates may be admitted whose argument expressions are sentences; these
predicates may be either extensional (e.g. the customary truth-Iunctional
connectives) or not (e.g. modal predicates like "possible," "necessary," etc.).
With the help oI the new variables, general sentences may be Iormed, e.g.,
(b) "For every , either or not-."
(c) "There is a such that is not necessary and not- is not
(d) "There is a such that is a proposition."
(c) and (d) are internal assertions oI existence. The statement "There are
propositions" may be meant in the sense oI (d); in this case it is analytic (since it
Iollows Irom (a)) and even trivial. II, however, the statement is meant in an
external sense, then it is non-cognitive.
It is important to notice that the system oI rules Ior the linguistic
expressions oI the propositional Iramework (oI which only a Iew rules have here
been brieIly indicated) is suIIicient Ior the introduction oI the Iramework. Any
Iurther explanations as to the nature oI the propositions (i.e., the elements oI the
system indicated, the values oI the variables "," "," etc.) are theoretically
unnecessary because, iI correct, they Iollow Irom the rules. For example, are
propositions mental events (as in Russell's theory)? A look at the rules shows us
that they are not, because otherwise existential statements would be oI the Iorm:
"II the mental state oI the person in question IulIills such and such conditions,
then there is a such that . . . ." The Iact that no reIerences to mental conditions
occur in existential statements (like (c), (d), etc.) shows that propositions are not
mental entities. Further, a statement oI the existence oI linguistic entities (e.g.,
expressions, classes oI expressions, etc.) must contain a reIerence to a
language. The Iact that no such reIerence occurs in the existential statements
here, shows that propositions are not linguistic entities. The Iact that in these
statements no reIerence to a subject (an observer or knower) occurs (nothing
like: "There is a which is necessary Ior Mr. X."), shows that the propositions
(and their properties, like necessity, etc.) are not subjective. Although
characterizations oI these or similar kinds are, strictly speaking, unnecessary,
they may nevertheless be practically useIul. II they are given, they should be
understood, not as ingredient parts oI the system, but merely as marginal notes
with the purpose oI supplying to the reader helpIul hints or convenient pictorial
associations which may make his learning oI the use oI the expressions easier
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than the bare system of the rules would do. Such a characterization is analogous
to an extra-systematic explanation which a physicist sometimes gives to the
beginner. He might, for example, tell him to imagine the atoms of a gas as small
balls rushing around with great speed, or the electromagnetic field and its
oscillations as quasi-elastic tensions and vibrations in an ether. In fact, however,
all that can accurately be said about atoms or the field is implicitly contained in
the physical laws of the theories in question.
The sstem of thing properties The thing language contains words like
"red," "hard," "stone," "house," etc., which we used for describing what things
are like. Now we may introduce new variables, say "f," "g," etc., for which
those words are substitutable and furthermore the general term "property." New
rules are laid down which admit sentences like "Red is a property," "Red is a
color," "These two pieces of paper have at least one color in common" (i.e.,
"There is an f such that f is a color, and . . ."). The last sentence is an internal
assertion. It is an empirical, factual nature. However, the external statement, the
philosophical statement of the reality of properties -- a special case of the thesis
of the reality of universals -- is devoid of cognitive content.
The sstem of integers and rational numbers. Into a language containing
the framework of natural numbers we may introduce first the (positive and
negative) integers as relations among natural numbers and then the rational
numbers as relations among integers. This involves introducing new types of
variables, expressions substitutable for them, and the general terms "integer" and
"rational number."
The sstem of real numbers. On the basis of the rational numbers, the
real numbers may be introduced as classes of a special kind (segments) of
rational numbers (according to the method developed by Dedekind and Frege).
Here again a new type of variables is introduced, expressions substitutable for
them (e.g., "2" [square root of 2]), and the general term "real number."
The spatio-temporal coordinate sstem for phsics. The new entities
are the space-time points. Each is an ordered quadruple of four real numbers,
called its coordinates, consisting of three spatial and one temporal coordinates.
The physical state of a spatio-temporal point or region is described either with
the help of qualitative predicates (e.g., "hot") or by ascribing numbers as values
of a physical magnitude (e.g., mass, temperature, and the like). The step from
the system of things (which does not contain space-time points but only
extended objects with spatial and temporal relations between them) to the
physical coordinate system is again a matter of decision. Our choice of certain
features, although itself not theoretical, is suggested by theoretical knowledge,
either logical or factual. For example, the choice of real numbers rather than
rational numbers or integers as coordinates is not much influenced by the facts
of experience but mainly due to considerations of mathematical simplicity. The
restriction to rational coordinates would not be in conflict with any experimental
knowledge we have, because the result of any measurement is a rational
number. However, it would prevent the use of ordinary geometry (which says,
e.g., that the diagonal of a square with the side I has the irrational value 2) and
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h ead gea cicai. O he he had, he decii e hee
ahe ha f aia cdiae i g ggeed, b i
fced , b he e f c beai. If ceai ee
aeged beed i iiaiic eace, e.g., a ba ig f a eaed
b, ee cfied bed a eaabe db, i igh ee adiabe
e f aia cdiae. Iea ei ae hee, i geea, eiica
ei be aeed b eiica ieigai. O he he had, he
eea ei f he eai f hica ace ad hica ie ae ed-
ei. A ei ie: "Ae hee (ea) ace-ie i?" i abig.
I a be ea a a iea ei; he he affiaie ae i, f
ce, aaic ad iia. O i a be ea i he eea ee: "Sha e
idce ch ad ch f i agage?"; i hi cae i i a
heeica b a acica ei, a ae f decii ahe ha aei,
ad hece he ed fai d be ieadig. O fia, i a be
ea i he fig ee: "Ae eeiece ch ha he e f he
igiic f i ei i be eedie ad fif?" Thi i a heeica
ei f a faca, eiica ae. B i cce a ae f degee;
heefe a fai i he f "ea ?" d be iadeae.
Le aie he eeia chaaceiic f iai iig
he idci f a e id f eiie, chaaceiic hich ae c
he ai eae ied abe.
The acceace f a e id f eiie i eeeed i he agage b
he idci f a fae f e f f eei be ed
accdig a e e f e. Thee a be e ae f aica eiie
f he id i ei; b e ch ae a aead cc i he agage
befe he idci f he e fae. (Th, f eae, he hig
agage cai ceai d f he e f "be" ad "he" befe he
fae f eie i idced; ad i a cai d ie "e" i
eece f he f "I hae e fige" befe he fae f be i
idced.) The ae fac h ha he ccece f ca f he e i
ei -- egaded a ae f eiie f he e id afe he e
fae i idced -- i a e ig f he acceace f he e id
f eiie. Theefe he idci f ch ca i be egaded a
a eeia e i he idci f he fae. The eeia e
ae ahe he fig. Fi, he idci f a geea e, a edicae f
highe ee, f he e id f eiie, eiig a f a aica
ei ha i beg hi id (e.g., "Red i a propert," "Fie i a number").
Secd, he idci f aiabe f he e e. The e eiie ae
ae f hee aiabe; he ca (ad he ced cd eei,
if a) ae biabe f he aiabe.
Wih he he f he aiabe, geea
eece cceig he e eiie ca be faed.
Afe he e f ae idced i he agage, i i ibe
fae ih hei he iea ei ad ibe ae he. A
ei f hi id a be eihe eiica gica; accdig a e
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answer is either Iactually true or analytic.
From the internal questions we must clearly distinguish external questions,
i.e., philosophical questions concerning the existence or reality oI the total
system oI the new entities. Many philosophers regard a question oI this kind as
an ontological question which must be raised and answered beIore the
introduction oI the new language Iorms. The latter introduction, they believe, is
legitimate only iI it can be justiIied by an ontological insight supplying an
aIIirmative answer to the question oI reality. In contrast to this view, we take the
position that the introduction oI the new ways oI speaking does not need any
theoretical justiIication because it does not imply any assertion oI reality. We
may still speak (and have done so) oI the "acceptance oI the new entities" since
this Iorm oI speech is customary; but one must keep in mind that this phrase
does not mean Ior us anything more than acceptance oI the new Iramework,
i.e., oI the new linguistic Iorms. Above all, it must not be interpreted as reIerring
to an assumption, belieI, or assertion oI "the reality oI the entities." There is no
such assertion. An alleged statement oI the reality oI the system oI entities is a
pseudo-statement without cognitive content. To be sure, we have to Iace at this
point an important question; but it is a practical, not a theoretical question; it is
the question oI whether or not to accept the new linguistic Iorms. The
acceptance cannot be judged as being either true or Ialse because it is not an
assertion. It can only be judged as being more or less expedient, IruitIul,
conducive to the aim Ior which the language is intended. Judgments oI this kind
supply the motivation Ior the decision oI accepting or rejecting the kind oI
Thus it is clear that the acceptance oI a linguistic Iramework must not be
regarded as implying a metaphysical doctrine concerning the reality oI the
entities in question. It seems to me due to a neglect oI this important distinction
that some contemporary nominalists label the admission oI variables oI abstract
types as "Platonism."
This is, to say the least, an extremely misleading
terminology. It leads to the absurd consequence, that the position oI everybody
who accepts the language oI physics with its real number variables (as a
language oI communication, not merely as a calculus) would be called
Platonistic, even iI he is a strict empiricist who rejects Platonic metaphysics.
A brieI historical remark may here be inserted. The non-cognitive
character oI the questions which we have called here external questions was
recognized and emphasized already by the Vienna Circle under the leadership oI
Moritz Schlick, the group Irom which the movement oI logical empiricism
originated. InIluenced by ideas oI Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Circle rejected both
the thesis oI the reality oI the external world and the thesis oI its irreality as
the same was the case Ior both the thesis oI the reality oI
universals (abstract entities, in our present terminology) and the nominalistic
thesis that they are not real and that their alleged names are not names oI
anything but merely fla oci. (It is obvious that the apparent negation oI a
pseudo-statement must also be a pseudo-statement.) It is thereIore not correct
to classiIy the members oI the Vienna Circle as nominalists, as is sometimes
done. However, iI we look at the basic anti-metaphysical and pro-scientiIic
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attitude oI most nominalists (and the same holds Ior many materialists and
realists in the modern sense), disregarding their occasional pseudo-theoretical
Iormulations, then it is, oI course, true to say that the Vienna Circle was much
closer to those philosophers than to their opponents.
The problem oI the legitimacy and the status oI abstract entities has
recently again led to controversial discussions in connection with semantics. In a
semantical meaning analysis certain expressions in a language are oIten said to
designate (or name or denote or signiIy or reIer to) certain extra-linguistic
As long as physical things or events (e.g., Chicago or Caesar's death)
are taken as designata (entities designated), no serious doubts arise. But strong
objections have been raised, especially by some empiricists, against empiricists,
against abstract entities as designata, e.g., against semantical statements oI the
Iollowing kind:
(1) "The word 'red' designates a property oI things";
(2) "The word 'color' designates a property oI properties oI
(3) "The word 'Iive' designates a number";
(4) "The word 'odd' designates a property oI numbers";
(5) "The sentence 'Chicago is large' designates a proposition."
Those who criticize these statements do not, oI course, reject the use oI
the expressions in question, like "red" or "Iive"; nor would they deny that these
expressions are meaningIul. But to be meaningIul is not the same as having a
meaning in the sense oI an entity designated. They reject the belieI, which they
regard as implicitly presupposed by those semantical statements, that to each
expression oI the types in question (adjectives like "red," numerals like "Iive,"
etc.) there is a particular real entity to which the expression stands in the relation
oI designation). This belieI is rejected as incompatible with the basic principles
oI empiricism or oI scientiIic thinking. Derogatory labels like "Platonic realism"
"hypostatization," or "'Fido'-Fido principle" are attached to it. The latter is the
name given by Gilbert Ryle
to the criticized belieI, which, in his view, arises by
a naive inIerence oI analogy: just as there is an entity well known to me, viz. my
dog Fido, which is designated by the name "Fido," thus there must be Ior every
meaningIul expression a particular entity to which it stands in the relation oI
designation or naming, i.e., the relation exempliIied by "Fido"-Fido. The belieI
criticized is thus a case oI hypostatization, i.e., oI treating as names expressions
which are not names. While "Fido" is a name, expressions like "red," "Iive," etc.,
are said not to be names, not to designate anything.
Our previous discussion concerning the acceptance oI Irameworks enables
us now to clariIy the situation with respect to abstract entities as designata. Let
us take as an example the statement:
(a) "'Five' designates a number."
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The Iormulation oI this statement presupposes that our language L contains
the Iorms oI expressions which we have called the Iramework oI numbers, in
particular, numerical variables and the general term "number." II L contains these
Iorms, the Iollowing is an analytic statement in L:
(b) "Five is a number."
Further, to make the statement (a) possible, L must contain an expression
like "designates" or "is a name oI" Ior the semantical relation oI designation. II
suitable rules Ior this term are laid down, the Iollowing is likewise analytic:
(c) "'Five' designates Iive."
(Generally speaking, any expression oI the Iorm "'. . .' designates . . ." is an
analytic statement provided the term ". . ." is a constant in an accepted
Iramework. II the latter condition is not IulIilled, the expression is not a
statement.) Since (a) Iollows Irom (c) and (b), (a) is likewise analytic.
Thus it is clear that if someone accepts the Iramework oI numbers, then he
must acknowledge (c) and (b) and hence (a) as true statements. Generally
speaking, iI someone accepts a Iramework Ior a certain kind oI entities, then he
is bound to admit the entities as possible designata. Thus the question oI the
admissibility oI entities oI a certain type or oI abstract entities in general as
designata is reduced to the question oI the acceptability oI the linguistic
Iramework Ior those entities. Both the nominalistic critics, who reIuse the status
oI designators or names to expressions like "red," "Iive," etc., because they deny
the existence oI abstract entities, and the skeptics, who express doubts
concerning the existence and demand evidence Ior it, treat the question oI
existence as a theoretical question. They do, oI course, not mean the internal
question; the aIIirmative answer to hi question is analytic and trivial and too
obvious Ior doubt or denial, as we have seen. Their doubts reIer rather to the
system oI entities itselI; hence they mean the external question. They believe that
only aIter making sure that there really is a system oI entities oI the kind in
question are we justiIied in accepting the Iramework by incorporating the
linguistic Iorms into our language. However, we have seen that the external
question is not a theoretical question but rather the practical question whether or
not to accept those linguistic Iorms. This acceptance is not in need oI a
theoretical justiIication (except with respect to expediency and IruitIulness),
because it does not imply a belieI or assertion. Ryle says that the "Fido"-Fido
principle is "a grotesque theory." Grotesque or not, Ryle is wrong in calling it a
theory. It is rather the practical decision to accept certain Irameworks. Maybe
Ryle is historically right with respect to those whom he mentions as previous
representatives oI the principle, viz. John Stuart Mill, Frege, and Russell. II these
philosophers regarded the acceptance oI a system oI entities as a theory, an
assertion, they were victims oI the same old, metaphysical conIusion. But it is
certainly wrong to regard my semantical method as involving a belieI in the
reality oI abstract entities, since I reject a thesis oI this kind as a metaphysical
The critics oI the use oI abstract entities in semantics overlook the
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Iundamental diIIerence between the acceptance oI a system oI entities and an
internal assertion, e.g., an assertion that there are elephants or electrons or
prime numbers greater than a million. Whoever makes an internal assertion is
certainly obliged to justiIy it by providing evidence, empirical evidence in the
case oI electrons, logical prooI in the case oI the prime numbers. The demand
Ior a theoretical justiIication, correct in the case oI internal assertions, is
sometimes wrongly applied to the acceptance oI a system oI entities. Thus, Ior
example, Ernest Nagel in his review
asks Ior "evidence relevant Ior aIIirming
with warrant that there are such entities as inIinitesimals or propositions." He
characterizes the evidence required in these cases -- in distinction to the
empirical evidence in the case oI electrons -- as "in the broad sense logical and
dialectical." Beyond this no hint is given as to what might be regarded as
relevant evidence. Some nominalists regard the acceptance oI abstract entities
as a kind oI superstition or myth, populating the world with Iictitious or at least
dubious entities, analogous to the belieI in centaurs or demons. This shows again
the conIusion mentioned, because a superstition or myth is a Ialse (or dubious)
internal statement.
Let us take as example the natural numbers as cardinal numbers, i.e., in
contexts like "Here are three books." The linguistic Iorms oI the Iramework oI
numbers, including variables and the general term "number," are generally used
in our common language oI communication; and it is easy to Iormulate explicit
rules Ior their use. Thus the logical characteristics oI this Iramework are
suIIiciently clear while many internal questions, i.e., arithmetical questions, are,
oI course, still open). In spite oI this, the controversy concerning the external
question oI the ontological reality oI the system oI numbers continues. Suppose
that one philosopher says: "I believe that there are numbers as real entities. This
gives me the right to use the linguistic Iorms oI the numerical Iramework and to
make semantical statements about numbers as designata oI numerals." His
nominalistic opponent replies: "You are wrong; there are no numbers. The
numerals may still be used as meaningIul expressions. But they are not names,
there are no entities designated by them. ThereIore the word "number" and
numerical variables must not be used (unless a way were Iound to introduce
them as merely abbreviating devices, a way oI translating them into the
nominalistic thing language)." I cannot think oI any possible evidence that would
be regarded as relevant by both philosophers, and thereIore, iI actually Iound,
would decide the controversy or at least make one oI the opposite theses more
probable than the other. (To construe the numbers as classes or properties oI
the second level, according to the Frege-Russell method, does, oI course, not
solve the controversy, because the Iirst philosopher would aIIirm and the second
deny the existence oI the system oI classes or properties oI the second level.)
ThereIore I Ieel compelled to regard the external question as a pseudo-question,
until both parties to the controversy oIIer a common interpretation oI the
question as a cognitive question; this would involve an indication oI possible
evidence regarded as relevant by both sides.
There is a particular kind oI misinterpretation oI the acceptance oI abstract
entities in various Iields oI science and in semantics, that needs to be cleared up.
Certain early British empiricists (e.g., Berkeley and Hume) denied the existence
12/29/11 Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontolog
oI abstract entities on the ground that immediate experience presents us only
with particulars, not with universals, e.g., with this red patch, but not with
Redness or Color-in-General; with this scalene triangle, but not with Scalene
Triangularity or Triangularity-in-General. Only entities belonging to a type oI
which examples were to be Iound within immediate experience could be
accepted as ultimate constituents oI reality. Thus, according to this way oI
thinking, the existence oI abstract entities could be asserted only iI one could
show either that some abstract entities Iall within the given, or that abstract
entities can be deIined in terms oI the types oI entity which are given. Since
these empiricists Iound no abstract entities within the realm oI sense-data, they
either denied their existence, or else made a Iutile attempt to deIine universals in
terms oI particulars. Some contemporary philosophers, especially English
philosophers Iollowing Bertrand Russell, think in basically similar terms. They
emphasize a distinction between the data (that which is immediately given in
consciousness, e.g., sense-data, immediately past experiences, etc.) and the
constructs based on the data. Existence or reality is ascribed only to the data;
the constructs are not real entities; the corresponding linguistic expressions are
merely ways oI speech not actually designating anything (reminiscent oI the
nominalists' fla oci). We shall not criticize here this general conception.
(As Iar as it is a principle oI accepting certain entities and not accepting others,
leaving aside any ontological, phenomenalistic and nominalistic pseudo-
statements, there cannot be any theoretical objection to it.) But iI this conception
leads to the view that other philosophers or scientists who accept abstract
entities thereby assert or imply their occurrence as immediate data, then such a
view must be rejected as a misinterpretation. ReIerences to space-time points,
the electromagnetic Iield, or electrons in physics, to real or complex numbers
and their Iunctions in mathematics, to the excitatory potential or unconscious
complexes in psychology, to an inIlationary trend in economics, and the like, do
not imply the assertion that entities oI these kinds occur as immediate data. And
the same holds Ior reIerences to abstract entities as designata in semantics.
Some oI the criticisms by English philosophers against such reIerences give the
impression that, probably due to the misinterpretation just indicated, they accuse
the semanticist not so much oI bad metaphysics (as some nominalists would do)
but oI bad psychology. The Iact that they regard a semantical method involving
abstract entities not merely as doubtIul and perhaps wrong, but as maniIestly
absurd, preposterous and grotesque, and that they show a deep horror and
indignation against this method, is perhaps to be explained by a misinterpretation
oI the kind described. In Iact, oI course, the semanticist does not in the least
assert or imply that the abstract entities to which he reIers can be experienced
as immediately given either by sensation or by a kind oI rational intuition. An
assertion oI this kind would indeed be very dubious psychology. The
psychological question as to which kinds oI entities do and which do not occur
as immediate data is entirely irrelevant Ior semantics, just as it is Ior physics,
mathematics, economic;, etc., with respect to the examples mentioned above.
For those who want to develop or use semantical methods, the decisive
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question is not the alleged ontological question oI the existence oI abstract
entities but rather the question whether the rise oI abstract linguistic Ioms or, in
technical terms, the use oI variables beyond those Ior things (or phenomenal
data), is expedient and IruitIul Ior the purposes Ior which semantical analyses
are made, viz. the analysis, interpretation, clariIication, or construction oI
languages oI communication, especially languages oI science. This question is
here neither decided nor even discussed. It is not a question simply oI yes or no,
but a matter oI degree. Among those philosophers who have carried out
semantical analyses and thought about suitable tools Ior this work, beginning
with Plato and Aristotle and, in a more technical way on the basis oI modern
logic, with C. S. Peirce and Frege, a great majority accepted abstract entities.
This does, oI course, not prove the case. AIter all, semantics in the technical
sense is still in the initial phases oI its development, and we must be prepared Ior
possible Iundamental changes in methods. Let us thereIore admit that the
nominalistic critics may possibly be right. But iI so, they will have to oIIer better
arguments than they have so Iar. Appeal to ontological insight will not carry
much weight. The critics will have to show that it is possible to construct a
semantical method which avoids all reIerences to abstract entities and achieves
by simpler means essentially the same results as the other methods.
The acceptance or rejection oI abstract linguistic Iorms, just as the
acceptance or rejection oI any other linguistic Iorms in any branch oI science,
will Iinally be decided by their eIIiciency as instruments, the ratio oI the results
achieved to the amount and complexity oI the eIIorts required. To decree
dogmatic prohibitions oI certain linguistic Iorms instead oI testing them by their
success or Iailure in practical use, is worse than Iutile; it is positively harmIul
because it may obstruct scientiIic progress. The history oI science shows
examples oI such prohibitions based on prejudices deriving Irom religious,
mythological, metaphysical, or other irrational sources, which slowed up the
developments Ior shorter or longer periods oI time. Let us learn Irom the lessons
oI history. Let us grant to those who work in any special Iield oI investigation the
Ireedom to use any Iorm oI expression which seems useIul to them; the work in
the Iield will sooner or later lead to the elimination oI those Iorms which have no
useIul Iunction. Let us be cautious in making assertions and critical in
eamining them, but tolerant in permitting linguistic forms.
I have made here some minor changes in the Iormulations to the eIIect
that the term "Iramework" is now used only Ior the system oI linguistic
expressions, and not Ior the system oI the entities in question.
The terms "sentence" and "statement" are here used synonymously Ior
declarative (indicative propositional) sentences.
In my book Meaning and Necessit (Chicago, 1947) I have developed
a semantical method which takes propositions as entities designated by
sentences (more speciIically, as intensions oI sentences). In order to Iacilitate the
12/29/11 Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontolog
understanding oI the systematic development, I added some inIormal, extra-
systematic explanations concerning the nature oI propositions. I said that the
term "proposition" "is used neither Ior a linguistic expression nor Ior a subjective,
mental occurrence, but rather Ior something objective that may or may not be
exempliIied in nature. . . . . We apply the term 'proposition' to any entities oI a
certain logical type, namely, those that may be expressed by (declarative)
sentences in a language" (p. 27). AIter some more detailed discussions
concerning the relation between propositions and Iacts, and the nature oI Ialse
propositions, I added: "It has been the purpose oI the preceding remarks to
Iacilitate the understanding oI our conception oI propositions. II, however, a
reader should Iind these explanations more puzzling than clariIying, or even
unacceptable, he may disregard them" (p. 31) (that is, disregard these extra-
systematic explanations, not the whole theory oI the propositions as intensions
oI sentences, as one reviewer understood). In spite oI this warning, it seems that
some oI those readers who were puzzled by the explanations, did not disregard
them but thought that by raising objections against them they could reIute the
theory. This is analogous to the procedure oI some laymen who by (correctly)
criticizing the ether picture or other visualizations oI physical theories, thought
they had reIuted those theories. Perhaps the discussions in the present paper will
help in clariIying the role oI the system oI linguistic rules Ior the introduction oI a
Iramework Ior entities on the one hand, and that oI extra-systematic
explanations concerning the nature oI the entities on the other.
W.V. Quine was the Iirst to recognize the importance oI the introduction
oI variables as indicating the acceptance oI entities. "The ontology to which
one's use oI language commits him comprises simply the objects that he treats as
Ialling . . . within the range oI values oI his variables." "Notes on Existence and
Necessity," Journal of Philosoph, Vol. 40 (1943), pp. 113-127; compare
also his "Designation and Existence," Journal of Philosoph, Vol. 36 (1939),
pp. 702-709, and "On Universals," The Journal of Smbolic Logic, Vol. 12
(1947), pp. 74-84.
For a closely related point oI view on these questions see the detailed
discussions in Herbert Feigl, "Existential Hypotheses," Philosoph of Science,
17 (1950), pp. 35-62.
Paul Bernays, "Sur le platonisme dans les mathematiques"
(L'Enseignement math., 34 (1935), 52-69). W.V. Quine, see previous
Iootnote and a recent paper "On What There Is," Review of Metaphsics, Vol
2 (1948), pp. 21-38. Quine does not acknowledge the distinction which I
emphasize above, because according to his general conception there are no
sharp boundary lines between logical and Iactual truth, between questions oI
meaning and questions oI Iact, between the acceptance oI a language structure
and the acceptance oI an assertion Iormulated in the language. This conception,
which seems to deviate considerably Irom customary ways oI thinking, is
explained in his article "Semantics and Abstract Objects," Proceedings of the
American Academ of Arts and Sciences, 80 (1951), 90-96. When Quine in
the article "On What There Is," classiIies my logistic conception oI mathematics
(derived Irom Frege and Russell) as "platonic realism" (p. 33), this is meant
12/29/11 Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontolog
(accdig a ea cicai f hi) a acibig e
ageee ih Pa' eahica dcie f iea, b ee a
efeig he fac ha I acce a agage f aheaic caiig aiabe
f highe ee. Wih eec he baic aide ae i chig a agage
f (a "g" i Qie' eig, hich ee e ieadig),
hee aea be ageee beee : "he bi ce i
eace ad a eeiea ii" ("O Wha Thee I," . 38).
See Caa, Scheinprobleme in der Philosophie; das
Fremdpschische und der Realismusstreit, Bei, 1928. Mi Schic,
Positivismus und Realismus, eied i Gesammelte Aufsate, Wie, 1938.
See Introduction to Semantics (Cabidge, Maache, 1942);
Meaning and Necessit (Chicag, 1947). The diici I hae da i he
ae b beee he ehd f he ae-eai ad he ehd f
iei ad eei i eeia f ee dici. The e
"deigai" i ed i he ee aice i a ea a; i a be ded
a efeig he ae-eai he iei eai he eei-
eai a iia eai ed i he eaica ehd.
Gibe Re, "Meaig ad Necei," Philosoph, 24 (1949), 69-76.
Ee Nage, "Reie f Meaig ad Necei," Journal of
Philosoph, 45 (1948), 467-72.
Wifid Sea ("Acaiace ad Decii Agai", i Journal of
Philosoph, 46 (1949), 496-504; ee . 502 f,) aae cea he f
he iae "f aig he deigai eai f eaic he be a
ecci f beig present to an eperience."
Tacibed i hee b Ade Chc, Se. 19, 1997.