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Radical Conventionalism

[The classic formulation]

"The principal thesis of ordinary conventionalism (as represented for example by Poincaré) is contained in the following statement:

Some problems cannot be solved by appeal to experience without the introduction of a convention; it is only when experiential data are combined with convention that the problems become solvable.

According to this thesis, the judgments constituting such a solution are not imposed on us by experiential data alone. The acceptance of those solutions is in part a matter of our discretion, since by arbitrarily changing the convention which co-determines the solution we arrive at other judgments.
The purpose of this paper is to generalize and radicalize the thesis of ordinary conventionalism. Specifically, we wish to establish the assertion:

Of all the judgments which we accept and which accordingly constitute our entire world-picture, none is unambiguously determined by experiential data; every one of them depends on the conceptual apparatus we choose to use in representing experiential data. We can choose however, one or another conceptual apparatus which will affect our whole world-picture.

Otherwise put: only so long as an individual uses a fixed conceptual apparatus, will experiential data compel him to accept these judgments. He might employ another conceptual apparatus, on the basis of which the same experiential data would no longer compel him to accept these judgments, for in the new conceptual apparatus, the original judgments do not occur at all."
("The World-Picture and the Conceptual Apparatus" (1934), in K. Ajdukiewicz, The Scientific World-Prspective and other Essays (1931-1963), ed. by J. Giedymin, Reidel, Dordrecht 1978, p. 67).

"[...] the principal thesis of our study [is]: No articulated judgment is absolutely forced on us by the data of experience. Experiential data do indeed force us to accept certain judgments if also we are based in a particular conceptual apparatus. However, if we change this conceptual apparatus, we are freed of the necessity of accepting these judgments despite the presence of the same experiential data"
(Id., p. 72).

"Radical conventionalism admits that experiential data 'force' us to make certain judgments, but only relative to a given conceptual apparatus. It denies, however, that experiential data force us, independently of the conceptual apparatus in which we are based, to any particular judgment whatever"
(Ib., p. 74).

"Our point of view is significantly more radical than that of the conventionalism just discussed. We see no essential difference between a report sentence and an interpretation-sentence. In our opinion, experiential data by themselves cannot force us to eccept either one. We can avoid accepting such sentences (either as themselves or as translations) if we are willing to choose a conceptual apparatus in which their meaning does not accur. Thus, and it seems with some justification, we designate our point of view as that of a radical conventionalism"
(Id., p. 79).


[The retreat from radical conventionalism]

"When taken to its extreme limits, this conception, known as conventionalism, leads to the consequence that almost the whole of natural science is illusory knowledge, a conceptual construction, which takes no account of the results of experience, which in fact bends them to its initial, unfounded prejudices. [...] The conventionalism which decrees that science has the power to solve fundamental problems that cannot be solved otherwise insinuates that it behaves in a way that is considerably different from the essence of science. The fundamental feature of science is that it doesnot state anything that cannot be confirmed or disproved. Not everything that science asserts is confirmed beyond all doubt. One can encounter in science hypotheses of which we have no proof as yet. However, although the hypotheses have not been proven, they deserve the name of scientific hypotheses inasmuch as there exists a possibility of their being disproved, that is, of providing rigorous proof of their falsity. There is no place
(Ajdukiewicz, Konwencjonalne pierwiastki w nauce [Conventional Elements in Science] (1947), transl. from Ajdukiewicz, Jezyk i poznanie, PWN, Warszawa 1985, vol. II, pp. 42-3).

"There are, then, no assertions in science that have the nature of conventions. The conventional, the arbitrary, is something else. The sense attributed in science to terms, which in common language is connected with imprecise concepts, is conventional; the way in which science makes these concepts precise is conventional. So the vision of reality provided by science contains nothing conventional beyond the point of view from which science examines reality. The set of concepts with the aid of which science constructs a scheme of the world is, in fact, conventional, so the set of questions with which science addresses reality is conventional. Depending, in fact, on the conceptual sphere in which I operate, I can use these concepts to formulate various questions. The object of convention is thus the side from which science examines reality. But when this side has been settled, then the picture of this part of reality that science provides is a methodically justified one and contains no arbitrary elements, no liberties."
(Ib., pp. 43-44).


[Retrospective considerations]

"In its most incisive formulation the thesis of radical conventionalism stated that not only some but all propositions which we assent to and which help to make up our world-picture are still not uniquely determined by experiential data but depend upon the choice of conceptual scheme by means of which we represent the experiential data. Now I cannot uphold this assertion any more, since I got rid of the conception of a closed language and world-picture, without which the assertion cannot be formulated. So I withdraw from the position of radical conventionalism which once seduced me through its originality and far reach of its conceptual ramifications. This withdrawal is not something novel. It happened in 1936 and was publicly announced during discussion at the III Polish Philosophical Congress in Cracow"
("W sprawie artykulu prof. A Schaffa o moich pogladach filozoficznych" [On Prof. A. Schaff's article concerning my philosophical conceptions], from the English partial translation with the title "My Philosophical Ideas", in V. Sinisi & J. Wolenski (eds.), The Heritage of Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz, Rodopi, Atlanta/Amsterdam 1995, p. 24)

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