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The Psychophysical Problem in Logical Empiricism: Carnap’s Physicalism about Sensations

Tuesday, February 14, 2023, 3:40 pm – 5:20 pm

This colloquium talk is planned as an in-person event. Registration is only required for non-CEU members. Please check the COVID safety rules here to enter the building.



In contemporary analytic philosophy, there is a “textbook story” about the origins of physicalism. Accordingly, physicalism about the mind emerged in the late 1950s, in the form of reductionist materialism based on the proposals of Place and Smart about sensations, and a little later in the 1960s and 1970s of Lewis and Armstrong, who extended the materialist theory to cover all psychological types (e.g., belief and other propositional attitudes); primarily as a response to logical behaviorism, mainly to Ryle's (1949) and Wittgenstein's (1953) ideas. Furthermore, it is also held that the logical empiricists’ contribution to physicalism was minimal, consisted almost exclusively in the ideas of Feigl, who in his book “The ‘Mental’ and the ‘Physical'” (1958/1967), also presented – a different kind of (i.e., non-reductionist) – sensation-brainstate identity theory. The views of other logical empiricist physicalists, e.g., Carnap, Hempel, or Neurath, are regarded, if mentioned at all, as a kind of unsophisticated logical behaviorism based on verificationism.

In my presentation, I will argue that this “textbook story” is defective. I will focus on Carnap and show that the received view badly misconstrues his physicalism about the ‘mental’.

In some details: it is commonly assumed that Carnap, after his physicalist turn in 1930, had been a logical behaviorist, or a dispositionalist, and a consciousness/experience “anti-realist” or “eliminativist” (see e.g. Ayer 1956, 239-243; 1973, 127; Feyerabend 1963; Putnam 1963, 326; Searle 2004, 54-55). I will argue, first, that Carnap was never anti-realist about experiential states, not even in his early “radical physicalist” phase; he was, at most, a “consciousness/experience ignorantist” (closer to Smart’s and Armstrong’s position than to Feigl’s in this respect). Second, though his early accounts of sensation reports, proposed in the 1930s, can be characterized as „behavioristic” in a certain sense, he was neither a logical behaviorist nor a dispositionalist. Further, already from the late 1940s, he contended that psychological terms, including sensation terms, are theoretical terms (of a psychological theory) that may refer to neural states; a view he elaborated in more detail from the mid-1950s (Carnap 1956, 1958, 1959, 1966). This latter account, though it was proposed in Carnap’s linguistic, ametaphysical formulation, was similar in content to the reductionist identity theory of Smart, Armstrong, and Lewis (albeit supported partly by different arguments).

By reconstructing Carnap’s views, I hope to show that the logical empiricists’ contribution to the mind-brain identity theory, predating and partly anticipating “Australian materialism”, was much more substantive and significant than it is usually known and acknowledged.


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