South African Journal of Philosophy

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Outflanking the vicious circle

Timothy Mc Mynne


Sir Michael Dummett unfairly criticises Frank Ramsey for advocating full-fledged realism as a way to escape the problem of vicious circularity. Instead Ramsey uses a more moderate approach that only requires a thin commitment to theoretical terms. In ‘Theories’, Ramsey details a method to substitute observational terms for the theoretical terms appearing in a theory, but its early advocates, Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel, recognised that the resulting ‘ramsey-sentence’ does not intend to fully remove the theoretical content of the original theory. Through a model-theoretic approach, Jaakko Hintikka clarifies how the ramsey-sentence is embedded in the original theory, and, thereby, retains a commitment to the theoretical content that governs the substituted observable terms. By understanding how ramsey-sentences relate to the original theory, we will see that Ramsey need not assert a full-fledged realism to address vicious circularity. Instead of committing to the existence of all theoretical concepts involved in the original theory, ramseysentences assert the existence of an unspecified object that satisfies the substituted observable terms, and this commitment is sufficient to escape vicious circularity. Through this process of definition, Ramsey sidesteps Dummett’s charge of full-fledged realism, and suggests a more moderate position that is consistent with Dummett’s emphasis on domain specification.

South African Journal of Philosophy 2014, 33(3): 365–374

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