An Empiricist Criterion of Meaning

The meaning of scientific propositions is not always expressible in terms of observable phenomena. Such propositions involve generalizations, and also terms that are theoretical constructs. I study here how to assess the meaning of scientific propositions, that is, the specific import of theoretical terms. Empiricists have expressed a concern that scientific propositions, and theoretical terms, should always be, to some degree, related to observable consequences. We can see that the former empiricist criterion of meaning only implies for theoretical terms not to be definable in terms of observable, but that their use put a constraint on the observable consequences of a theory. To that effect, Ramsey's method of formal elimination of theoretical terms can be an interesting tool. It has faced important logical objections, which have mostly been addressed with respect to the problem of the ontological commitment of the second-order quantification they imply. I show here that these criticisms can be overcome, and that there can be a successful Ramsey elimination of theoretical terms with first order sentences, making Ramsey's method a relevant tool to assess the empirical meaning of scientific propositions.
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DOI 10.4314/sajpem.v30i2.67768
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Ian Hacking (1986). Representing and Intervening. Philosophical Review 95 (4):606-611.

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