Home » Archivalia » Carnap biography » Esperanto » George (A.) » Values » Voluntarism » Serious problems of life

Serious problems of life

Esperanto and artificial languages for everyday communication have been unexpectedly (for me) high profile on this blog; in its short lifetime of about two months, I’ve already devoted three posts to that apparently recondite historical curiosity, one on Carnap and C.K. Ogden, one about Carnap’s application of the principle of tolerance to a practical question, and one on Carnap and Wittgenstein.  The latter consists mainly of a quotation in which Carnap tells the story of a backwoods Black Forest peasant, designed to undermine “the firm conviction that an international auxiliary language might be suitable for business affairs and perhaps for natural science, but could not possibly serve as an adequate means of communication in personal affairs, for discussions of serious problems of life, political conferences, for discussions in the social sciences and the humanities, let alone for fiction or drama.”  Well, a recent commenter on that post, Alexander George, asked the perfectly reasonable question whether Carnap himself actually ever discussed “serious problems of life” in Esperanto.

Which reminded me that I’d recently re-read the then-much-longer section on “Language Planning” in Carnap’s original draft of his autobiography (located at the Young Library, UCLA), and that this had made me realize that I’d missed an important episode in Carnap’s early intellectual development (or geistiger Werdegang, or whatever) that really would have belonged in Ch. 1 of my book.  It’s clear that the experience of the Esperanto community was a deeply formative one for the young Carnap, and it pre-dated even the impact of the Jugendbewegung on him, of which I (rightly, I still think) make much in that chapter.  In fact it may not be going too far to say that his reception not only of the Youth Movement but also of Frege (don’t scoff — go on reading!) was mediated by and filtered through the earlier experience of the Esperanto movement.

He begins the section on language planning, as in the published autobiography, with a discussion of logic.  In the original draft, he then says that he wants to expand a bit on the “second kind of language planning” pertaining to an international language, “since this field is probably unknown to most readers and also because my thoughts on this area are not represented in my publications, although I have always had a vivid interest in these problems and have given much thought to them.”  (To judge from the material in the Pitt archive, this is certainly true.)  He then goes on:

With the problem of an international language I became acquainted much earlier than with language planning in symbolic logic.  At the age of about 14 I found by chance a little pamphlet called “The World Language Esperanto.”  I was immediately fascinated by a language which was much more regular and therefore easier to learn than all natural languages, and which therefore could usefully serve as an auxiliary language, i.e. as a second language for people of all nations in their international relations.  I eagerly learned the language by myself, read much in it, and corresponded with people in other countries.

In 1908 [at age 16 or 17] I attended the International Esperanto Congress in Dresden.  This was a great experience for me.   It seemed like a miracle to see how easy it was for me to follow the talks and the discussions in the large public meetings and then to talk in private conversations with people from many other countries, while I was unable to hold conversations in those languages which I had studied for many years in school.

I was especially impressed by the address of the founder of Esperanto, Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, who in simple sincere words made a strong appeal to humanity to remove the obstacles of language diversity and thereby come to a better mutual understanding.  He talked in a modest, unpretentious way, but his deep feeling for the cause to which he devoted his whole life was impressive and moving.  Throughout my life the idea that our work should serve not only our own nation but the whole of humanity has remained one of my guiding ideas.

One of the high points of the conference was the performance of Goethe’s Iphigenie in an Esperanto translation.  It was a stirring and uplifting experience for me to see this drama, inspired by the idea of one humanity, expressed in the new medium which made it possible for thousands of spectators from many countries to listen to it, united in a new spirit.

After the First World War, I had some opportunities of observing the practical use of Esperanto.  The most extensive experience was in 1922 in connection with the Esperanto Congress in Helsingfors (Finland).  On the trip to Helsingfors I became acquainted with a Bulgarian student, Atanas D. Atanasov.  For four weeks we were almost constantly together and became close friends.  After the Congress in Helsingfors, we travelled together through Finland, first together with a group of other Esperantists, then by ourselves.  We stayed for three days in the Russian monastery on Walamo Island in Lake Lagoda between Finland and Russia.  Then we travelled and hiked through Finland and the new Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

We travelled like tramps, slept in the houses of hospitable Esperantists, or in railway trains, or in a cemetery, and became acquainted with many people in these countries.  We talked as friends about all kinds of problems in public and in personal life in which we were both interested, for example about pacificism, which I accepted in a more rational way and my friend more in a religious Tolstoyan spirit; about socialism, where again we agreed in the basic ideas but differed somewhat in our motivation; about the new republics through which we travelled and the problem of nationalism vs. humanity as a whole; about ethical problems, the sexual problem, and a problem which concerned my friend very much, namely the points of view which should guide a man in the choice of a spouse.  All our talks were, of course, in Esperanto.  This language was for us not a system of rules but simply a living language.  After experiences of this kind, I cannot take very seriously the arguments of those who assert than an [. . .].  (UCLA Ms. Coll. 1029, Box 2, CM3, M-A5, pp. N13-N16; slightly edited to smoothe over inconsistent changes and edits.)

The sentence breaks off at the end of a page; the following page of the typescript begins with the quotation I’ve reproduced in the post on Carnap’s answer to Wittgenstein.  It’s hard not to read Carnap’s later preoccupations with the unity of science and the single language of science through the lens of these early experiences — and they definitely take on a somewhat different character in that light!  More immediately, it seems one has to see the the 1918 article-manifesto on “Deutschlands Niederlage” (discussed in my book, with extensive quotations, on pp. 59-64) against the background of Carnap’s immersion in the internationalism of the Esperanto movement — rather than primarily (as Thomas Mormann, for instance, is inclined to do) against the background of the romanticism of some parts of the Jugendbewegung (though it’s clear that Carnap adhered to the liberal, anti-nationalist Wyneken wing of the movement, not to the more mainstream Blüher wing (as I argue in my book, pp. 52-5; since then, I’ve come across more evidence to that effect in Carnap’s wartime letters to his mother).

One of the main themes of my book, finally, was what Dick Jeffrey called Carnap’s voluntarism, his conviction that our conceptual systems are under our control, and that we can invent, shape, and improve them according to our own values and priorities, rather than having to submit intellectually to what we’ve inherited from our ancestors.  This conviction must, I think, have its roots at least partly in the early experience of not only being able to communicate, but to become part of a genuine community, in a newly made-up language.


2 thoughts on “Serious problems of life

  1. Carnap’s experiences of travelling with his Bulgarian friend parallel my own experiences. Esperanto with its voluntary speech community continues to fulfil the role he describes, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve slept on the floor of a Croatian farmhouse, awaking to a discussion about the collapse of the former Yugloslavia. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down and in Armenia when it was a Soviet republic, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend Esperanto, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

    1. Carnap would have been charmed, of course, to know that Esperanto still survives, though he does go on, in that unpublished part of the autobiography I quoted from, to argue that subsequent efforts building on Esperanto and learning from its mistakes (such as Ido and Interlingua) are superior. In any case, he would now admit, I’m sure, that our unsatisfactory Globish has won out over the planned and artificial alternatives as the world’s de facto lingua franca, and while he wouldn’t be happy with that, it’s unclear what can be done about it. As I’ve complained before, Globish isn’t even really a language, in the sense that its criteria of membership for expressions aren’t even as clear as in ordinary natural languages (where they are admittedly less than clear-cut, but much clearer than for the loose collection of regional dialects — and products of lousy language courses — that make up Globish).

Comment (I will respond, however old the post!):