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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q018-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

How is it known that every number has a successor, that straight lines can intersect each other no more than once, that causes precede their events, and that the electron either went through the slit or it did not? In cases like these it is not easy to find observable evidence, and it is implausible to postulate special modes of intuitive access to the phenomena in question. Yet such theses are relied on in scientific discourse and can hardly be dismissed as meaningless metaphysical excess. In response to this problem the positivists and empiricists (notably Poincaré, Hilbert, Carnap, Reichenbach and Ayer) developed a strategy known as conventionalism. The idea was that certain statements, including fundamental principles of logic, arithmetic and geometry, are asserted as a matter of conventional stipulation, being no more than definitions of some of their constituent terms; consequently they must be true, our commitment to them cannot but be justified, and the facts in virtue of which they are true are simply the facts of our having made those particular decisions about the use of words. This doctrine was a compelling and powerful weapon in the positivist–empiricist arsenal, evolving throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. But it fell into disfavour under a barrage of serious challenges due mainly to Quine. How are ‘conventions’ to be identified as such? How could they possibly provide words with meanings, or have the epistemological import that is claimed for them? How could arbitrary, contingent decisions about the use of words result in the existence of necessary facts? In the absence of satisfactory replies to these objections few philosophers these days believe that conventionalism can settle the semantic, epistemological and metaphysical questions that it was intended to answer. However, certain aspects of the view remain defensible and interesting.

Citing this article:
Horwich, Paul. Conventionalism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q018-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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