Bergmann, Gustav (1906–1987)

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Gustav Bergmann came to the United States in 1938 from Vienna, Austria, where he had earned a JD and a PhD in mathematics. He had also been a junior member of the Vienna Circle.

In 1939 he became a faculty member at the University of Iowa, retiring in 1976. He held a joint appointment in the Departments of Philosophy and Psychology. He regularly taught a course on the history and philosophy of psychology. Bergmann became well known as an apologist for behaviorism. Significantly, he distinguished between methodological and metaphysical behaviorism, embracing the former and rejecting the latter. Bergmann never wavered in his ontological commitment to the mental.

Bergmann also published in mathematics, the philosophy of physics, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of law. His Philosophy of Science (1957) is an elegant and still useful work. He was, however, first and foremost a philosopher, an ontologist to be exact. The central question is what exists. His method for answering that question, the ideal-language method, was to design a formalism into which one could transcribe all empirical statements of the natural language and which formalism could be used to account for the difference between the necessary and the contingent statements of the natural language. The ontology of the world would be revealed by the difference in the kinds of basic, undefined sign of the formalism.

The necessary-contingent distinction was relatively easy to handle. What is necessary and contingent is a given. One needs merely to transcribe the necessary statements into sentences of the formalism, the truth values of which sentences are a matter of form, and the contingent ones to sentences the truth values of which are not a matter of form. The idea is a classical one; the only difference being that the classical philosophers spoke of thoughts as truth bearers whereas the ideal-language philosophers spoke of sentences of the formal language as truth bearers. Relatedly, for the classical philosophers the truth makers were either features of the thought or of something beyond, the thought, whereas for the formalist the truth bearers were either features of sentences or something beyond the sentence.

Determining what kinds of signs are basic was difficult to handle. Bergmann began as a positivist: The only existents were the entities stood for by the subjects and predicates of atomic sentences, entities with which one had to be acquainted. He was, then, a phenomenalist. In time, he acknowledged that the operators were not eliminable; they had to stand for entities that had ontological status. A distinction was thus made between existents and subsistents. Logical entities subsist; empirical, sensuous ones exist. The latter presented their own problems. Each entity was of a kind, particular or universal. Thus, a simple entity was a complex of sorts, a form and a content. Unlike the early Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, Bergmann insisted on according the forms ontological status. Forms subsist. That put pressure on the use of the Principle of Acquaintance, sufficient pressure to force Bergmann to replace it with a Principle of Presentation, a principle that cast a wide net indeed.

In his last phase Bergmann became sensitive to the criticism that he was a mere formalist and that all his ontological claims were transcendental ones, his talk of acquaintance and presentation being mere talk. His last work, New Foundations of Ontology (1992), published posthumously, is rich in talk about "phenomenological bedrock." Bergmann's fate was a curious one. His commitment to particulars, universals, forms, and whatever else was dictated by the needs of the formalism and by his conception of the difference between eliminable and ineliminable terms rather than by the need to solve such problems as that of individuation and universals. The issue of whether the basic entities are "experienced" was an afterthought, a most nettlesome one.

Bergmann's devotion to the method was never shaken; and in the context of the method he made two brilliant moves. First, in the mid-1950s he found a way to render in the formalism an analysis of mental acts. As act was a particular with two properties, one for the kind of act it was (a remembering, a doubting, or whatever) the other for the content of the act (that the moon is blue, that the ball is red, or whatever). (One would benefit from comparing Bergmann's analysis with René Descartes's third-meditation discussion of the use of the term idea.) Regarding the content-carrying property, Bergmann ran into a problem. He wanted it to be simple but had to have it complex, the reason being that the property had to serve as a truth bearer and for that need to be satisfied the property had to have within it a mark that would indicate the truth maker for it. The alternative would be to introduce an objectionable state of affairs that would show that the content property was related to a possibility that itself would contain a mark of its truth maker. The move, brilliant though it was, failed; but its failure provides one with something deeply instructive about the "make true" talk.

Second, ontology is about the kinds of entity that exist. Most formalisms need to give significance to the order of the signs in a relational sentence. There is an important difference between, say, Othello loving Desdemona and Desdemona loving Othello. The order of the terms flanking the relation sign contributes to the meaning of the sentences. Bergmann's last work was in part an attempt, as he liked to express it, to delinearize the language. He introduced dyads, a dyad being a pair of entities combined by a nexus that is other than exemplification, the tie that tied, say, two particulars and a relation into a fact. Accordingly, "aRb" was replaced by "aR#x007B;ab}," and "bRa" by "bR#x007B;ab#x007D;." Order makes no difference. The two relational facts are different in virtue of different entities. The disposing of order comes with a heavy price: nonsimple entities that are not facts require a tie, cannot exist independently of facts, and are treated by the syntax as if they were simple terms. Again, a brilliant move fails; and for a reason rather like the reason for the first failure. A nonfact complex is needed where one wants desperately to have a simple one.

Notwithstanding the failures, Bergmann's philosophical work is deep and probing and unfailingly illuminating. It has much to teach about not only the use of formalisms in doing ontology but also about the classical tradition.

See also Behaviorism; Descartes, René; Logical Positivism; Ontology, History of; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


works by bergmann

The Metaphysics of Logical Positivism. New York: Longmans, Green, 1954.

The Philosophy of Science. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.

Meaning and Existence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959.

Logic and Reality. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

Realism: A Critique of Brentano and Meinong. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

New Foundations on Ontology, edited by William Heald. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Collected Works, edited by Erwin Tegtmeier. Ontos Verlag, 20032004.

works about bergmann

Gram, M. S., and E. D. Klemke, eds. The Ontological Turn: Studies in the Philosophy of Gustav Bergmann. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1974.

Hochberg, Herbert. The Positivist and the Ontologist: Bergmann, Carnap, and Logical Realism. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2001.

Edwin Allaire (2005)

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Bergmann, Gustav (1906–1987)

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