Kant in the news!

Most of you are probably vaguely aware that Kant turned 300 on Monday, and a few of you have perhaps even heard that the German Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a speech commemorating the occasion. Now I’m not a great Scholz fan, for the most part (who is? — he and his coalition have reached lows in the polls that even Biden and Trump can only dream of), but I have to admit that this speech is really first-rate. If you read about it in the news anywhere, you probably assumed it was the usual politician thing — bumbling around trying to sound as if he had some idea what he was talking about and coming out sounding like a complete fake. Admittedly, that’s what usually happens. And you can’t imagine an American (or perhaps even a British) politician trying anything like this. But I have to admit that this speech really works. It lends weight and credibility to stuff that Scholz has been saying constantly (and too repetitively, too phlegmatically) since February 2022; the invocation of Kant is appropriate and measured and not at all weithergeholt (as they say here). So it’s not only unusually educated for a politician, it’s also rhetorically effective and politically smart. I urge you to read the whole thing.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find an English translation yet, and haven’t had time to provide one myself. If anyone finds a decent one, could they let me know? I’ll link that as well. (Or if enough people ask, and I still can’t find one, I might even translate it.)

Carnap’s “distinctive metaphysical methodology”?!

A new book from Cambridge University Press, Interpreting Carnap, edited by Alan Richardson and Adám Tuboly, contains some interesting papers that I hope I will get around to discussing here. I will start with one whose title is calculated to arouse, well, interest, shall we say: “Carnap is not against metaphysics” by Vera Flocke. (Just as one’s attention would naturally be drawn to a headline “Pope advocates contraception” or “Mike Johnson to propose mandatory teaching of evolution in public schools.”)

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Bill Tait (1929-2024)

Of course it would have to happen that Bill Tait (William W. Tait, long-time philosophy professor at the University of Chicago) would die a few days after Howard Stein. Both of them would have found it hilarious. (Someone suggested to me that Howard might have said, “See, he can’t live without me!”) Bill was born a day later than Howard, and he never let anyone forget it. In their later years (for all I know, in their earlier years also), Bill was physically a lot fitter than Howard. While I was a graduate student, Howard always had to take his back support everywhere and generally came across as not in very good shape (though he also came across as an Old Testament prophet), while Bill was still mountain climbing and biking. As he would put it, “Howard’s a day older than me, and boy, that day really shows, doesn’t it?”

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Howard Stein (1929-2024)

Howard Stein died ten days ago — I only just found out. I’m finding it hard to assimilate this information; I keep catching myself thinking that I must ask Howard about it. The idea that I won’t ever be able to ask him about anything ever again seems utterly outlandish. When I was driving him home to Hyde Park after dinner at the Sai Cafe in Lincoln Park, last August, it all seemed so familiar and well-worn and comfortable that it seemed it would just go on as before, decade after decade. How could it suddenly just end?

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Reflections on St. Sylvester’s Eve (again)

From the obituary for Peter Strawson in the Guardian in 2006:

When his erstwhile tutor Paul Grice declared, “If you can’t put it in symbols, it’s not worth saying,” Strawson retorted: “If you can put it in symbols, it’s not worth saying.”

I actually agree with both of them, I think, though the versions of each I would go along with would insert an “often” or “usually” before “not worth saying.” Carnap, my philosophical grandfather (since Howard Stein, my Doktorvater, was a student of Carnap), would presumably have had more sympathy with Grice in this case than with Strawson (he said as much in his reply to Strawson in the Schilpp volume), but might also have agreed with his student Stein that there are things worth saying that, as Howard put it, can be “usefully vague” (by “vague” I assume he means something like “not amenable at the moment to any sort of formal or symbolic treatment”). He might also have added that the point wasn’t to put something into symbols but to make it more precise, that being “in symbols” is in itself no guarantee of precision, and that precision is (a) a matter of degree; (b) purpose-relative.

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Frege a plagiarist? Really?

The subject of one of my diatribes got very worked up about my post alluding to her (without naming her) a couple of years ago, and wrote a detailed reply that is — justifiably — rude in response. It only came to my attention just now, hence this belated acknowledgement. Looking at my own post from this distance, I admit that I should not have speculated about her motives for claiming that Frege had “plagiarized” the Stoics. That was a mistake, and looks way ruder than I meant it to be. I should have figured out a more graceful transition from the example of her paper to the main point of the post.

(She also calls my post defamatory, though, and that seems disproportionate. The worst thing I accuse her of is — possibly — seeking attention, and she herself seems to think, in her reply to my post, that one possible motivation for pursuing an academic career is to seek attention. My post doesn’t link to her paper or even mention her name; the point of the post wasn’t her paper so much as my perennial gripe that philosophy, like so many of the traditional humanistic disciplines, is succumbing to the economics of attention. I thought her paper was an obvious example of that, but even if I was wrong, I doubt whether my opinion could count as defamatory, even in the more informal sense she probably had in mind.)

There remains a substantive difference, however, which her reply to my post serves to highlight. She says there “I do not accuse Frege of plagiarism. . . I just show that he plagiarized the Stoics. The title [“Frege plagiarized the Stoics”] is descriptive . . .” That claim, as I will now briefly argue, falls apart.

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Carnap against analytic metaphysics

Wouter Cohen and Benjamin Marschall, two graduate students at Cambridge (one of my long-ago almae matres), have a terrific new paper in the latest issue of The Monist (the issue whose theme is “Against Metaphysical Grounding”), arguing that Carnap was not only — as everyone knows — against German idealism and the various metaphysical schools current in Germany between the wars (including the wilder and woolier outgrowths of phenomenology such as Heidegger), but would have been just as opposed to the current metaphysics emanating from analytic philosophers.

This might seem totally obvious, and not worth writing a paper about, but actually, if you look at analytic philosophy right now, not only is it once again in the grip of metaphysics, but many of those so gripped think their metaphysics is entirely reconcileable with some not-too-nitpicky version of logical empiricism, or of Carnap anyway. Theirs is a chastened metaphysics, they believe, and escapes the strictures pronounced back then. Many of those I’ve criticized on this blog, over the years, are of this persuasion, as are many I haven’t criticized. (Which means that being of this persuasion isn’t a sufficient condition to get yourself criticized on this blog.) Unfortunately, the situation isn’t very straightforward, though; there is no bright line separating the side of the angels from the dark side, and the toleration of analytic metaphysics ranges from zero to 100, with most people somewhere in the middle. So to explain why I think this new Cohen and Marschall paper is so terrific, I need to situate it in a larger picture of the place of metaphysics (and of Carnap) in current analytic philosophy.

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Frameworks again: Eklund responds to Broughton

Matti Eklund has now replied to Gabriel Broughton’s critique of his conception of Carnapian frameworks. Broughton is more than capable of fending for himself, but in the course of addressing Broughton’s critique, Eklund also takes a little swipe at my post about it, so I’ll respond briefly to that. He accuses me (as he accuses Broughton) of having unfairly attributed to him what Broughton calls the “Natural language thesis: Carnapian frameworks are natural languages.” Now of course I’m very glad he wants to back away from that, and I’m glad he now thinks the “natural language thesis” absurd, but I think he’ll have trouble convincing anyone he didn’t hold it previously. In his own self-quotation on pp. 8-9 of his reply, he explicitly conceives of a Carnapian framework as a specific natural language (English). Still, it’s never too late for repentance; no soul is beyond redemption (the Carnap Blog adheres to a broadly Christian attitude in such matters).

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Against social ontology

At first I thought the vogue for “social ontology” was just a pale reflection of the (ultimately Quine-inspired) revival of ontology over the past few decades in analytical philosophy more generally. But then just in the past ten or fifteen years, social ontology rather dramatically took on a life of its own. John Searle proclaimed, for instance, that “where the social sciences are concerned, social ontology is prior to methodology and theory.” (Imagine someone saying such things about physics — since Descartes, anyway!) This burst of enthusiasm reached its apogee in about 2015, I think it fair to say, with the launch of the Journal of Social Ontology and with Brian Epstein’s The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, perhaps the most brazen attempt in recent memory to reclaim the Platonic mantle of philosopher king. Historians, economists, sociologists, and assorted others working in the trenches were told that (unbeknownst to them) their disciplines were in crisis, and could only be rescued if they jettisoned their “foundations” and accepted Epstein’s application of “the sophisticated toolkit of metaphysics” to understand what they were even talking about. (p. 9). That theories or questions of actual social science were left out of the picture (and the book) didn’t bother philosophers, who mostly reviewed The Ant Trap glowingly.

Now it’s certainly true that, as Ladyman and Ross very sternly and thoroughly pointed out, philosophers have also been doing this sort of thing with the ontology of the physical and biological sciences more generally. But they’re more careful there. They evidently think that the poor benighted social sciences need especially conscientious bossing around by wise philosophers. Philosophers of physics or biology take it for granted that they need to know something about the subject they are providing with the ontology the scientists themselves thoughtlessly omitted, and mostly accept that their ontological supplements can’t conflict with what the scientists think they’ve tentatively established. It would be considered childishly anthropomorphic to think that the philosopher in her armchair could think up a better set of basic concepts from scratch for, say, chemistry than the chemist in her lab. 

Epstein’s equally anthropomorphic efforts, though applauded by philosophers, did not go over so well with social scientists. His book was thoroughly eviscerated by Robert Sugden in the Journal of Economic Literature, who pointed out its complete irrelevance to anything in economics, and ended his review with a famous quotation from Neurath on the dispensability of “foundations.”

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Mea culpa

Sean Morris’s new collection of papers on Carnap and Quine has now come out with CUP, and looks very interesting. I hope to comment on several different papers in it, if there is time, over the next couple of months. Right now I will comment on the first paper, by Sander Verhaegh, which meticulously documents the initial encounter between Carnap and Quine in Vienna and (mainly) Prague in 1932 and 1933. Verhaegh establishes without any doubt that I had got the timing of this initial encounter a bit wrong; I had thought, for some reason, that Quine’s recollection of eagerly reading the Syntax as it emerged from Ina’s typewriter referred to 1932, and thus to the first draft of the Syntax. This mistake was significant because Carnap arrived at his principle of tolerance after completing the first draft, sometime in late 1932 — the first appearance of this principle in print, it is generally agreed, was in the paper “Über Protokollsätze” published in Erkenntnis in late 1932 (Benson gives the date of 30 December 1932), a response to Neurath’s paper on the same subject. Verhaegh establishes that what Quine witnessed emerging from Ina’s typewriter wasn’t the first draft at all, it was the second draft (close but not identical to the final book).

This matters because I had occasionally invoked this inaccurate understanding of the chronology (in this blog and elsewhere) to explain how Quine could have missed the principle of tolerance. In his Harvard lectures on Carnap (published in Rick Creath’s Dear Carnap, Dear Van, 1990), the principle of tolerance is absent. Nor does it come up in any of Carnap’s notes on discussions with Quine, or in their correspondence during this period.

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