Carnap’s political cartography in 1918: How to read “Deutschlands Niederlage”

Two months ago today (seems like a bygone era!) I was in Vienna at a workshop about Carnap’s early diaries, hosted by Christian Damböck, who is in the final stages of editing them for publication. I also gave a little talk there, about one of the major turning points in Carnap’s life during this early period, his political awakening during his year in Berlin before and during the German Revolution in October 1918. Just before the revolution, Carnap wrote a kind of manifesto summarizing his political outlook at the time, a piece that remained unpublished (for reasons unknown), called “Deutschlands Niederlage: Sinnloses Schicksal oder Schuld?”

A few years ago, Thomas Mormann wrote a very tendentious diagnosis of this essay and put it up on PhilPapers. He probably intended it just as a kind of provocation; well, I fell for it, and — true to form — overreacted. In any case, I think it was worth it, as the company Carnap kept in the German youth movement before and during the war is certainly a bit suspect, and one inevitably has to wonder whether he really did escape any influence from that quarter altogether. Predictably, I argue, against Mormann, that Carnap did actually emerge entirely unscathed. (And here are the slides for the talk.)

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Carnap’s political dimension

One of the main themes of my book about Carnap is that a decisive component of the original motivation first to write the Aufbau and then to push forward to the radical pluralism of the Syntax (and beyond) was Carnap’s diagnosis of the political situation immediately after the First World War in Germany.  Amidst revolution and upheaval, Carnap saw very clearly that the German intelligentsia had contributed to the outbreak and continuation of the war by failing to get politically involved in the 19th century as French and British intellectuals had done, and thus failing to restrain the German elite’s war-oriented Betonköpfe (yes, that’s an anachronism — to make a point).  So he advocated greater political involvement (and got involved himself), but also thought that to prevent future wars, the chaotic development of societies over the past century or two of rapid industrialization had to be steered by reason to a greater extent.  But there existed no satisfactory account of reason, no system in which all the knowledge accumulated by the sciences over the past century could be seen to fit together.  In contrast to the traditional Enlightenment system of knowledge (e.g. the Encyclopédie), where the various parts and components of knowledge were anchored in the various human cognitive, practical, and other mental faculties — so that the system was ultimately grounded in human psychology — Carnap (having studied with Frege) thought, like Leibniz, that the system of knowledge should be deductive.  And so on from there.

To show that there was really something to this, I attempted in my concluding chapter, very briefly, to suggest how one might apply the later Carnap’s perspective to actual political discourse.  This was suggested to me by Michael Friedman, who was on my dissertation committee, and who said that it might help people to get what I was talking about if I applied it to a controversy they were familiar with, such as the Rawls-Habermas debate.  Well, I did exactly that, but no one really noticed, and when they did, they ridiculed the idea that such a rarefied nerd as Carnap, who sticks to the “icy slopes of logic,” could possibly have had a political motivation for the intricacies of his formalistic obsessions — or that his perspective could possibly contribute anything to political deliberation.  Until now.  James Pearson has taken pity on this explicitly political dimension of my book and devoted a paper to it, in which he tries to apply my Carnapian suggestions to a couple of concrete cases. Continue reading

Carnap as plagiarist

A new book has just appeared that sets the record straight, and shows that not just Carnap’s ideas, but pretty much the whole of analytic philosophy, are largely derivative of Husserl’s phenomenology.  It is edited, of course, by none other than the redoubtable Guillermo E. Rosado Haddock, who has been on the case for quite a while.  It contains, among other papers, the one Haddock himself gave at the Aufbau conference Christian Damböck organized at the MCMP in Munich in 2013.  I’ve mentioned Haddock’s performance there in a previous post.  The published version of his paper does not refer to my paper (which he called “the big lie” in the Munich discussion) or even deign to list it in his bibliography (it’s been out for almost a year, and available online for over 18 months).  Haddock does however — a new addition since the conference — include references to, and even quotations from, the Carnap diary entries I used in my paper (the first time they were referred to in print).  At the Munich conference, he had cast doubt on the authenticity of these passages, implying that I had fabricated them or badly distorted their content.

Haddock has never quite come out and claimed that Carnap stole Husserl’s ideas, though he’s often insinuated it, and hinted darkly at various conspiracies to hide the dirty secret of Husserl’s influence on Carnap.  In this new volume, though, Haddock also includes a long paper by Verena Mayer that takes this step explicitly, right from the title — “Der Logische Aufbau als Plagiat.”   Continue reading

Non-cognitivism: A very modest proposal

This year’s conference season is over (for me at least), and I will now once again, I hope, be able to devote a few shreds of surplus attention to keeping my posts here a bit more regular.  The latest conference I went to was in Vienna (where I always like to go anyway); the last day of it was on the Berggasse right next to where Freud’s office used to be (and a Freud museum now is).  I’m sure that someone somewhere must have remarked on the irony that the Berggasse is the continuation of the Schwarzspanierstraße, where Beethoven died — in the building Otto Weininger sought out to commit suicide in 75 years later.  (Freud, by the way, unlike Wittgenstein, was apparently unimpressed by Geschlecht und Charakter.)

One thing that came up a number of times at this very interesting conference, organized by Christian Damböck (together with Meike Werner and Günther Sandner), was Carnap’s “non-cognitivism.”  The word was used in a number of different ways, which I found very confusing.  I propose that when talking about Carnap, at least, we stick to what Carnap himself meant by it, which seems especially appropriate since, as far as I can tell, he actually introduced the term.   Continue reading

Carnap’s “Politische Rundbriefe” of 1918

When I was putting together my conception of Carnap’s early development, and the wellsprings of his later philosophy, in the first chapter of my book, I relied largely on his manifesto-like article on “Deutschlands Niederlage” (Germany’s Defeat), which was written in October 1918 but remained unpublished.  I knew from the original draft of his autobiography about his effort of earlier that year (February through August) to stimulate discussion among his Youth Movement friends with a series of commented excerpts from the foreign press and from more extended essays (including Kant’s “Vom ewigen Frieden”!), which he continued to circulate and to correspond with individual friends about until he was prohibited by his commander, in September 1918, from further activity; as he remarked in the original version of the autobiography, he was lucky that his superior was so lenient, and that he wasn’t prosecuted for Hochverrat (high treason), since some of those he’d circulated his Rundbriefe to were actually still in action on the western front.

I had also seen the large folders of these Politische Rundbriefe in the Pittsburgh archive, and leafed through them, reluctantly deciding that I simply couldn’t afford the time to study them in detail.  I was wrong. Continue reading

Reflections on St. Sylvester’s Eve

Has professionalization been good for philosophy? When people ask this question (usually to answer firmly in the negative), they think of logical positivism as a kind of turning point, at which philosophy (programmatically, at least) became “technical.” They remember the Vienna Circle’s pronouncements about breaking the big, unmanageable problems down into subunits it makes better sense to address, and about the corresponding submersion of the individual thinker into the collective endeavor of (unified) science. But, such critics object, did Kant’s hope of putting philosophy “auf den sicheren Weg einer Wissenschaft” (which the logical empiricists were trying to realize) even make any sense? Isn’t this a category mistake?

I agree with this criticism but I don’t think logical empiricism is to blame for what has happened to philosophy. Continue reading

Carnap’s 1916 letter to LeSeur: “Good for us if we glow so intensely!”

In spirit, this document from the Pittsburgh ASP collection, transcribed here from Carnap’s sister’s Sütterlin longhand (the only copy that seems to exist), is something like Carnap’s first publication.  It was an open letter, from the front, responding to a publication in a rather narrow-minded, nationalist-leaning, loosely Youth-Movement-affiliated journal called Vom deutschen Michel (untranslatable, sorry; something like “about the simple, honest German”) by a Berlin minister called Eduard LeSeur.  What steps Carnap, his friends, and his family took to make the letter more widely known I haven’t yet explored; there are probably clues elsewhere in the file where this document is kept, along with LeSeur’s original piece, “Ein Brief an den Jünger der modernen Kultur” (“a letter to the disciple of modern culture”). Continue reading

Further thoughts on Ladyman and Ross

In my previous remarks about Ladyman and Ross I wondered whether the differences between them and Carnap were (largely or entirely) a matter of terminology.  What Ladyman and Ross call “metaphysics” Carnap entertained as a programmatic constraint on the language chosen, or developed, as an agreed common language of science, i.e. that it enable us to unify all the disperate knowledge from all the special sciences into a single coherent story. Does it matter whether we call this “metaphysics”? For Carnap, it didn’t really. He obviously was wary of the word “metaphysics” but was quite clear that a good deal of traditional metaphysics (he mentions Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant, Peirce, and Whitehead) could easily be interpreted as engineering work on our conceptual apparatus, rather than taken at face value in the material mode, i.e. as pertaining to some sort of ultimate “reality.” He would no doubt have taken Ladyman and Ross in the same spirit, Continue reading

Look who’s joined us!

Here are the proofs I was sent of Carnap’s “Value Concepts” fragment of 1958; have a look at Carnap’s institutional affiliation.  Quite a coup for Hannes Leitgeb to be able to attract such people, even from beyond the Styx!

Proofs-p1Also of course it’s rather nice to be listed as Carnap’s co-author but unfortunately I’m going to have to correct that.  This will be its only appearance.

Apologies for the absence of posts over the past few weeks, and thanks to those who keep coming back to see what’s up.  I will get back on track now, and may even have a few comments on the CLMPS in Helsinki next week, where I’m giving one of those mini-papers, but mostly interested in what others have to say.

Carnap’s architectonic

In the last chapter of my book I tried, far too cryptically, to outline a conception of rationality that had the potential, at least, of doing justice to two desiderata: (a) it would build on what one might call the “Enlightenment rationality” epitomized by inductive logic and (broadly speaking Bayesian) decision theory; (b) it would, however, introduce a broad freedom of choice (“Carnapian tolerance”) regarding the conceptual system in which (a) is undertaken.  These two goals seem at odds, and indeed, this is a conflict which in various forms has haunted the Enlightenment (and scientific rationality in general) from the beginning: die Dialektik der Aufklärung.  And where these goals come into conflict, (a) has generally won out over (b).  This is why science has seemed coercive and authoritarian to so many people; it has seemed like a false religion, and continues to inspire the kind of vituperative rejection Goethe’s polemic against Newton first exemplified two centuries ago. Continue reading

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