Carnap, Feyerabend and the pragmatic theory of observation

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Kuby, Daniel
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Paul Feyerabend once made a remark to the effect that his pragmatic theory of observation can be traced back to proposals put forward by leading Logical Empiricists during the height of the protocol sentence debate. In this paper I want to vindicate the systematic side of Feyerabend’s remark and show that a pragmatic theory of observation can in fact be found in Rudolf Carnap’s writings of 1932. I first proceed to dispel a misunderstanding concerning the term “pragmatic” raised by Thomas Oberdan. Following Morris’ and Carnap’s documented usage, I show that the intended meaning of “pragmatic” refers to a specific semiotic relation between users of a language and their environment describable by empirical means (specifically, the causal relation between the verbal behavior of language users and their environment). I reconstruct such a pragmatic theory in terms of a detector model that interprets observation sentences as bodily dispositions indicating physical events in the surroundings of the detector. I then proceed to show how Feyerabend’s later theory of observation picks up central features of Carnap’s account and also shares some of the motivations. I conclude by noting how an empirical theory of observation sentences offers a bootstrapping solution to the “basis problem”.