Internal-external distinction

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The internal–external distinction is a distinction used in philosophy to divide an ontology into two parts: an internal part consisting of a linguistic framework and observations related to that framework, and an external part concerning practical questions about the utility of that framework. This division was introduced by Rudolf Carnap in his work Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology.[1] It was subsequently criticized at length by Willard v. O. Quine in a number of works,[2][3] and was considered for some time to have been discredited. However, recently a number of authors have come to the support of some or another version of Carnap's approach.[4][5][6]

Linguistic framework

Carnap introduced the idea of a 'linguistic framework' or a 'form of language' that uses a precise specification of the definitions of and the relations between entities. The discussion of a proposition within a framework can take on a logical or an empirical (that is, factual) aspect. The logical aspect concerns whether the proposition respects the definitions and rules set up in the framework. The empirical aspect concerns the application of the framework in some or another practical situation.

“If someone wishes to speak in his language about a new kind of entities, he has to introduce a system of new ways of speaking, subject to new rules; we shall call this procedure the construction of a linguistic framework for the new entities in question.”

—Rudolf Carnap, Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology

“After the new forms are introduced into the language, it is possible to formulate with their help internal questions and possible answers to them. A question of this kind may be either empirical or logical; accordingly a true answer is either factually true or analytic.”

—Rudolf Carnap, Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology

The utility of a linguistic framework constitutes issues that Carnap calls 'external' or 'pragmatic'.

“To be sure, we have to face at this point an important question; but it is a practical, not a theoretical question; it is the question of whether or not to accept the new linguistic forms. The acceptance cannot be judged as being either true or false because it is not an assertion. It can only be judged as being more or less expedient, fruitful, conducive to the aim for which the language is intended. Judgments of this kind supply the motivation for the decision of accepting or rejecting the kind of entities.”

—Rudolf Carnap, Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology

“the decisive question is not the alleged ontological question of the existence of abstract entities but rather the question whether the rise of abstract linguistic forms or, in technical terms, the use of variables beyond those for things (or phenomenal data), is expedient and fruitful for the purposes for which semantical analyses are made, viz. the analysis, interpretation, clarification, or construction of languages of communication, especially languages of science.”

—Rudolf Carnap, Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology

The distinction between 'internal' and 'external' arguments is not as obvious as it might appear. For example, discussion of the imaginary unit √−1 might be an internal question framed in the language of complex numbers about the correct usage of √−1, or it might be a question about the utility of complex numbers: whether there is any practical advantage in using √−1.[4] Clearly the question of utility is not completely separable from the way a linguistic framework is organized. A more formal statement of the internal-external difference is provided by Myhill:

“A internal relative to [a linguistic framework] T if the asker accepts T at the time of his asking, and is prepared to use T in order to obtain an answer; external otherwise, in particular if the question is part of a chain of reflections and discussions aimed at choosing between T and some rival theory.”[7]

—J Myhill, Review of W. V. Quine: “On Carnap's Views on Ontology”

Quine's critique

Quine disputed Carnap's position from several points of view. His most famous criticism of Carnap was Two dogmas of empiricism, but this work is not directed at the internal-external distinction but at the analytic-synthetic distinction brought up by Carnap in his work on logic: Meaning and Necessity.[8][9] Quine's criticism of the internal-external distinction is found in his works On Carnap's views on ontology and Word and Object.[2][3]

Quine's approach to the internal-external division was to cast internal questions as subclass questions and external questions as category questions. What Quine meant by 'subclass' questions were questions like "what are so-and-so's?" where the answers are restricted to lie within a specific linguistic framework. On the other hand, 'category' questions were questions like "what are so-and-so's?" asked outside any specific language where the answers are not so-restricted.[10] The term subclass arises as follows: Quine supposes that a particular linguistic framework selects from a broad category of meanings for a term, say furniture, a particular or subclass of meanings, say chairs.

Quine argued that there is always possible an overarching language that encompasses both types of question and the distinction between the two types is artificial.

It is evident that the question whether there are numbers will be a category question only with respect to languages which appropriate a separate style of variables for the exclusive purpose of referring to numbers. If our language refers to numbers through variables that also take classes other than numbers as values, then the question whether there are numbers becomes a subclass question...Even the question whether there are classes, or whether there are physical objects becomes a subclass question if our language uses a single style of variables to range over both sorts of entities. Whether the statement that there are physical objects and the statement that there are black swans should be put on the same side of the dichotomy, or on opposite sides, comes to depend upon the rather trivial consideration of whether we use one style of variables or two for physical objects and classes.

—W v O Quine, Carnap's views on ontology

So we can switch back and forth from internal to external questions just by a shift of vocabulary. As Thomasson puts it,[10] if our language refers to 'things' we can ask of all the things there are, are any of them numbers; while if our language includes only 'numbers', we can ask only narrower questions like whether any numbers are prime numbers. In other words Quine's position is that "Carnap's main objection to metaphysics rests on an unsupported premise, namely the assumption that there is some sort of principled plurality in language which blocks Quine's move to homogenize the existential quantifier."[11] "What is to stop us treating all ontological issues as internal questions within a single grand framework?"[11]

Later views

A view close to Quine’s subclass/category description is called ‘’conceptual relativity’’.[12] To describe conceptual relativity, Putnam points out that while the pages of a book are regarded as part of book when they are attached, they are things-in-themselves if they are detached. My nose is only part of an object, my person. On the other hand, is my nose the same as the collection of atoms or molecules forming it? This arbitrariness of language is called conceptual relativity, a matter of conventions.[13] The Carnapian internal/external distinction in this view, as with the subclass/category distinction, is just a matter of language.

A related idea is quantifier variance.[14] Loosely speaking the existential quantifier referred to here is just a function that says there exists at least one such-and-such. Then 'quantifier variance' is the notion that the same object can have different names, so the quantifier may refer to the same thing even though different names are employed by it. The point is made that if one wishes to refer only to 'pages', then books may not exist, and vice versa if one wishes to admit only to books. It is considered unsettling that what 'exists' is a matter of what language one chooses to use. Hirsch says this is Putnam's quandary, and it is resolved by turning things upside down and saying things that exist can have different names. In other words, Hirsch agrees with Quine that there is an over-arching language that we can adapt to different situations. The Carnapian internal/external distinction in this view, as with the subclass/category distinction, is just a matter of language, and has nothing to do with 'reality'.[15]

More recently, some philosophers have stressed that the real issue is not one of language as such, but the difference between questions asked using a linguistic framework and those asked somehow before the adoption of a linguistic framework, the difference between questions about the construction and rules of a framework, and questions about the decision whether to use a framework.[10] This distinction is called by Thomasson and Price the difference between ‘’using’’ a term and ‘’mentioning’’ a term.[10][11] As Price notes, Carnap holds that there is a mistake involved in "assimilating issues of the existence of numbers (say) and of the existence of physical objects...the distinctions in question are not grounded at the syntactical level."[11] Price suggests a connection with Ryle's view of different functions of language:

Ryle's functional orientation attention – his attention to the question as to what a linguistic category does – will instead lead us to focus on the difference between the functions of talk of beliefs and talk of tables; on the issue of what the two kinds of talk are for, rather than that of what they are about.[16]

—Huw Price , Metaphysics after Carnap: The ghost who walks, p. 331

Although not supporting an entire lack of distinction like the subclass/category view of Quine, as a pragmatic issue, the use/mention distinction still does not provide a sharp division between the issues of forming and conceptualizing a framework and deciding whether to adopt it: each informs the other. An example is the well-known tension between mathematicians and physicists, the one group very concerned over questions of logic and rigor, and the other inclined to sacrifice a bit of rigor to explain observations.[17]

But the poor mathematician translates it into equations, and as the symbols do not mean anything to him he has no guide but precise mathematical rigor and care in the argument. The physicist, who knows more or less how the answer is going to come out, can sort of guess part way, and so go along rather rapidly. The mathematical rigor of great precision is not very useful in physics. But one should not criticize the mathematicians on this score...They are doing their own job.[18]

—Richard Feynman , The character of physical law, pp. 56-57

Another objection to Carnap’s internal-external division is its multiplicity of possible linguistic frameworks, suggesting what is called ontological pluralism, or multiple realities.[10][19] It is a common assumption of everyday life (and some philosophers) that there is one 'reality' behind our everyday perceptions, although we may not see it clearly, and it is hard to give up this belief. However, this belief is rendered somewhat plastic by the fact that we cannot see this reality directly, a philosophical issue called the subject-object problem. For example, Stephen Hawking has proposed model-dependent realism, which is the notion that the existence of some background all-encompassing reality can never be known beyond a patchwork of different theories, and anything deeper is speculation. Every theory is associated with its own conceptions and observations that encompass only some small slice of reality.[20]

One approach to selecting a framework is based upon an examination of the conceptual relations between entities in a framework, which entities are more 'fundamental'. One framework may then 'include' another because the entities in one framework apparently can be derived from or 'supervene' upon those in the more fundamental one.[21] While Carnap claims such decisions are pragmatic in nature, external questions with no philosophical importance, Schaffer suggests we avoid this formulation. Instead, we should go back to Aristotle and look upon nature as hierarchical, and pursue philosophical diagnostics: that is, examination of criteria for what is fundamental and what relations exist between all entities and these fundamental ones.[22] But "how can we discover what grounds what?...questions regarding not only what grounds what, but also what the grounding consists in, and how one may discover or discern grounding facts, seem to be part of an emerging set of relational research problems in metaphysics."[23]


  1. Rudolf Carnap (1950). "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology". Revue Internationale de Philosophie 4: pp. 40-50.
  2. 2.0 2.1 W v O Quine (October, 1951). "On Carnap's views on ontology". Philosophical Studies II: pp. 65 ff. Reprinted in W v O Quine (1976). “Chapter 19: On Carnap's views on ontology”, The ways of paradox: and other essays, 2nd. Harvard University Press, pp. 203 ff. ISBN 0674948378. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 W v O Quine (1947). Word and Object. University of Chicago Press. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Stephen Yablo (1998). "Does ontology rest upon a mistake?". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 72: pp. 229-261.
  5. M Allspector-Kelly (2001). "On Quine on Carnap on Ontology". Philosophical Studies 102: pp. 93-122.
  6. Graham H. Bird (1995). "Carnap and Quine: Internal and external questions.". Erkenntnis 42 (1): pp. 41-64. Reprinted in: Graham H. Bird (2003). “Carnap's internal and external questions”, Thomas Bonk, ed: Language, Truth and Knowledge: Contributions to the Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap. Springer, p. 107. ISBN 1402012063. 
  7. John R Myhill (1955). "Review: W. V. Quine, ‘On Carnap's Views on Ontology’". The Journal of Symbolic Logic 20 (1): pp. 61-62. Quoted by Oswaldo Chateaubriand, Quine and Ontology.
  8. Willard Van Orman Quine (1980). “Chapter 2: Two dogmas of empiricism”, From a Logical Point of View: Nine Logico-philosophical Essays, 2nd. Harvard University Press, pp. 20 'ff. ISBN 0674323513.  See this on-line version.
  9. Rudolf Carnap (1946). Meaning and Necessity. Chicago University Press. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Amie L Thomasson (to be published). “Carnap and the prospects for easy ontology”, Ontology after Carnap. Oxford University Press. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Huw Price (2009). “Chapter 11: Metaphysics After Carnap: the Ghost Who Walks?”, David Chalmers, Ryan Wasserman and David Manley, eds: Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press, pp. 320-346. ISBN 0199546045. 
  12. Hilary Putnam (1987). The many faces of realism, 2nd. Open Court Publishing. ISBN 0812690427. 
  13. Hilary Putnam (1991). “Chapter7: Objectivity and conceptual relativity”, Representation and Reality. MIT Press, p. 111. ISBN 0262660741. 
  14. Eli Hirsch (2011). “Chapter 5: Quantifier variance and realism”, Quantifier Variance and Realism : Essays in Metaontology: Essays in Metaontology. Oxford University Press, pp. 68 -95. ISBN 0199780714. 
  15. Eli Hirsch (2011). “Chapter 12: Ontology and alternative languages”, Quantifier Variance and Realism : Essays in Metaontology: Essays in Metaontology. Oxford University Press, pp. 220-250. ISBN 0199780714. “I take it for granted that the world and the things in it exist for the most part in complete independence of our knowledge or language. Our linguistic choices do not determine what exists, but determine what we are to mean by the words "what exists" and related words.” 
  16. Price refers to Gilbert Ryle (1946). “Descartes' myth”, The concept of mind, 2nd. University of Chicago Press, p. 23. ISBN 0226732967. “It is perfectly proper to say, in one logical tone of voice, that there exist minds and to say, in another logical tone of voice, that there exist bodies. But these expressions do not indicate two different species of existence, for 'existence' is not a generic word like 'colored' or 'sexed'. They indicate two different senses of 'exist', somewhat as 'rising' has different senses in 'the tide is rising', 'hopes are rising', and 'the average age of death is rising'.” 
  17. For example see the discussion of the history of the mathematical justification of the delta function in Jesper Lützen (1982). The prehistory of the theory of distributions. Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0387906479. 
  18. Richard Feynman (2007). The Character of Physical Law, Penguin reprint. Penguin Books Limited. ISBN 0141956119.  Quoted by Miklós Rédei (2005). “John von Neumann on mathematics and axiomatic physics”, Giovanni Boniolo, Paolo Budinich, Majda Trobok: The Role of Mathematics in Physical Sciences: Interdisciplinary and Philosophical Aspects. Springer, p. 44. ISBN 1402031068. 
  19. Matti Eklund (April 17, 2008). “Chapter 4: Carnap and ontological pluralism”, David Chalmers, David Manley, Ryan Wasserman: Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press, pp. 130-156. ISBN 0199546045. 
  20. Hawking, Stephen W., and Leonard Mlodinow (2010). “Chapter 3: What Is Reality?”, The Grand Design, 1rst. Bantam Books (a division of Random House, Inc.), pp. 39-59. ISBN 9780553805376. . As e-book: isbn=9780553907070
  21. Some caution is warranted here. For example, Newton's laws of motion suffice for practical engineering work like building and bridge design, even though the more 'fundamental' theory of the Standard model of elementary particle physics is available. The more 'fundamental' model is, for such engineering, superfluous.
  22. Jonathan Schaffer (2009). “Chapter 12: On what grounds what”, David Chalmers, David Manley, Ryan Wasserman: Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199546045. 
  23. Amie Thomasson (2012). “Chapter 1: Research Problems and Methods in Metaphysics”, Robert Barnard & Neil Manson, eds: The Continuum companion to metaphysics. Continuum International Publishing Group, 14-45. ISBN 978-1-4411-3022-8.