The cluster of problems surrounding the notion of convention and its counterpart, the notion of truth, have always been at the very heart of philosophical inquiry. This book examines a relatively recent round in this ongoing discussion, beginning with Poincaré and ending with Quine and the later Wittgenstein. It is only during this period that the notion of convention comes to be associated with an ‘ism,’ a distinct philosophical position. I will focus on the philosophy of science and mathematics, setting aside other realms of philosophy, such as ethics and political theory, in which questions about the role of convention also figure prominently. Although a wide spectrum of positions fall under the rubric “conventionalism,” all explore the scope and limits of epistemic discretion. On the prevailing conception, conventionalism has been taken to extend the scope of discretion to the very stipulation of truth. The thrust of the present study is a critique of this reading.
The various chapters of this book are largely self-contained, but when brought to bear on one another, they provide not only a new understanding of conventionalism, but a reframing of central themes of twentieth-century philosophy.
My debts to teachers, colleagues, students, and others who have written on the aforementioned questions are, of course, numerous. I would like to mention, in particular, Yehuda Elkana, Hilary Putnam, and the late Frank Manuel, who introduced me to the history and philosophy of science; my late physics teacher Ruth Stern, who imparted to her students a feel for the beauty of physics; and my late friends Amos Funkenstein and Mara Beller, who passed away at the peak of their creative careers.