Conventionalism and the Impoverishment of the Space of Reasons: Carnap, Quine and Sellars

This article examines how Quine and Sellars develop informatively contrasting responses to a fundamental tension in Carnap’s semantics ca. 1950. Quine’s philosophy could well be styled ‘Essays in Radical Empiricism’; his assay of radical empiricism is invaluable for what it reveals about the inherent limits of empiricism. Careful examination shows that Quine’s criticism of Carnap’s semantics in ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ fails, that at its core Quine’s semantics is for two key reasons incoherent and that his hallmark Thesis of Extensionalism is untenable. The tension in Carnap’s semantics together with Quine’s exposure of the severe limits of radical empiricism illuminate central features of Sellars’s philosophy: the fully general form of the myth of givenness, together with Sellars’s alternative Kantian characterisation of understanding; the full significance of Carnap’s distinction between conceptual analysis and conceptual explication, and its important methodological implications; the specifically pragmatic character of Sellars’s realism; and Sellars’s methodological reasons for holding that philosophy must be systematic and that systematic philosophy must be deeply historically and textually informed. This paper thus re-examines this recent episode of philosophical history for its philosophical benefits and systematic insights.