The Endarkenment: Carnap to the rescue?

Finally someone has made an issue of this urgent and fundamental problem, and even diagnosed it as a (partly) philosophical problem. — Or rather I should say, finally I stumbled on the book where someone does this! To my embarassment, it’s not even something new, but was published six years ago, by Oxford, so it’s not as if it’s been hiding in the shadows or anything: The Great Endarkenment by Elijah Millgram. He comes at the problem from a different angle than I did in my book, but it’s unmistakably the very same problem, and he paints it in even darker colors than I did, if that’s possible. But like me, he thinks there are resources within the philosophical tradition (if not within the philosophy profession as currently constituted and incentivized) to resist the great endarkenment he writes about.

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Quine’s reading of ESO, according to Ebbs

Gary Ebbs published an extended version of his previous paper “Carnap on Ontology” in the JHAP a couple of years ago, but I’m still not convinced. The core of both papers is the claim that “Carnap’s method of identifying and eschewing ontological questions . . . stands or falls with his analytic-synthetic distinction. . .” (“Carnap on Ontology,” p. 54). The new paper now also seeks to defend Quine’s reading of “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology” (ESO), and I have to admit that Ebbs does a decent job of making Quine’s paper “On Carnap’s Views on Ontology” (OCV) seem surprisingly reasonable, if you’re willing to grant Quine’s priors. But I get lost when Ebbs positions this against what he calls the “new standard reading” of OCV, which conflates a number of quite disparate views from all over the map into a homogeneous phalanx of opposition to Quine. It’s possible that some of the named authors agree about some things, but Ebbs doesn’t characterize this “new standard view” precisely enough to get across what he’s really talking about, or what his criteria for inclusion were (he leaves a lot of anti-Quine things out of his list). I will stick with Graham Bird’s 1995 paper in Erkenntnis, for now, which Ebbs acknowledges as the earliest of those he positions himself against, and quotes most frequently. I will argue that Ebbs fails to address its main argument. If I’m right, then presumably whatever one may think about the “new standard view” more generally, Bird‘s critique, at least, of Quine’s arguments in OCV survives Ebbs’s cavils unscathed.

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Frege as clickbait

Why would a respected historian of ancient philosophy, formerly a professor at Yale and now at All Souls, resort to claiming that Frege had “plagiarized” the Stoics? When you look at the paper more closely, you realize a number of things: (1) We’re not talking about Frege the inventor of modern predicate logic (the author of the Begriffsschrift and Grundgesetze), nor even about Frege the philosopher of logic, logicism, and arithmetic (the author of The Foundations of Arithmetic); we’re talking only about Frege the supposed “philosopher of language,” the later Frege who wrote “On Sense and Reference” and related papers. (2) Even in the case of this Frege, a case is made only that he was influenced by the Stoics, not that he “plagiarized” them (as the author herself recognizes perfectly well, e.g. on pp. 202-4). (3) Most of her case rests on evidence of Frege’s borrowing from the Stoics that had previously been documented in some detail in a 2009 HPL paper by Gabriel, Hülser, and Schlotter, which she dismissively makes fun of in the beginning of her paper and claims to have refuted. (4) Her supposed refutation of that paper concerns none of the details of the Stoics’ influence on Frege, but consists merely in showing — ostensibly — that Frege’s use of Stoic motifs derives not from Frege’s friendship with the scholar of ancient Stoicism Rudolf Hirzel (Frege’s tenant of an apartment in his house in Jena), but from Frege’s own reading of Prantl’s history of logic. Her case here remains (as she admits) circumstantial and far from clear-cut.

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Science is not democratic

So says Roberto Burioni, and I have to say, I found it refreshing to hear someone say that out loud! Burioni is a pugnacious virologist at a university in Milan who isn’t afraid to attack Italian anti-vaxxers in the aggressive terms in which they attack the scientific establishment. He expands it into a general issue of science vs. populist anti-science. The speed of light is an established fact, he says; it’s not decided by popular vote. He’s become quite a celebrity in Italy, a TV and social-media personality with a huge following. He is hardly “vulgar,” though, as the article in Foreign Policy by an Italian journalist (that brought him to my attention) claims, nor does he descend to “Trumpian” rhetoric (no self-aggrandizement, no gratuitous insults, no lies) — but he doesn’t pull his punches, and his aggressiveness reminds me pleasantly of the Vienna Circle in its heyday. Yes, they went further than they should have, and brought some perfectly respectable ideas into temporary disrepute, but at least they were campaigning for something worth campaigning for; they were letting sympathizers around the world know that someone out there was sticking up for the scientific world view when the hordes of brown-shirted Heideggers and Carl Schmitts and other devotees of authenticity were bent on crushing it underfoot. Burioni is inspiring in the same sort of way. Why don’t we have Burionis in Germany or in the US? Americans I can see; they might not be willing to stick their necks out at the moment since you never know what may turn out to be politically incorrect and unleash a Twitter mob, leading to unemployment. But Germans? I guess there is Christian Drosten, but he’s come across more as a foot soldier for Merkel than as a skeptical voice of reason in the midst of the (very considerable, and deeply traditional) German skepticism about science. Both Fauci in the US and Drosten in Germany are much more narrowly focused, less combative, and more emollient than Burioni. Why?

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Catching up: Recent and forthcoming publications

We all know, meanwhile, about the productivity gap that has opened up between academics (and lots of others) who have children at home full time because the schools have been closed and those who don’t. I’m pretty sure it’s worse for the children than it is for us, on the whole, but anyway, I’m on the wrong side of that divide. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to squeeze out a few bits and pieces over the past year or so.

For Thomas Uebel’s forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Logical Empiricism, I wrote a shorter and snappier and more accessible version of “Carnapian Rationality” (I’ve noticed that other contributors have had their chapters online for years).

For Jordi Cat and Adam Tuboly’s huge new Neurath Reconsidered, I contributed a chapter on Neurath’s notorious disagreement with Carnap about semantics. The book has the terrific feature that it reprints the entire wartime (1940-45) Neurath-Carnap correspondence, in which that disagreement largely played out, so I was able to refer to it very conveniently. (The correspondence is on pp. 521-685, which I point out here since it doesn’t appear in the Table of Contents. Very mysterious that the publishers should choose deliberately to hide their light under a bushel.)

In the forthcoming issue of the Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook, on “The Vienna Circle and Religion” (edited by Esther Ramharter), I put together an English version of things I’ve published in German in the past few years to trace the origins of Carnap’s later non-cognitivism. Teaser: it turns out that in the beginning (before 1914) the religious writings of Johannes Müller played a major role; Kant came later — and (Rickert’s) Goethe seems to have played a key role in the transition from Müller to Kant.

Frameworks vindicated

During the past few years a lot of rubbish has been circulating about Carnapian frameworks. I have been watching this infestation with dismay, but so far addressed it only occasionally, e.g. here with respect to Chalmers, or here with respect to Eklund (and that was a while ago). I’m very glad to see that someone has now decided that enough is enough, and sprayed some serious ant killer on this irruption of philosophical insect life. Bravo to Gabriel Broughton for having taken on this unpleasant task in his new paper “Carnapian Frameworks” (Synthese)!

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Ontology and explication: Lavers narrowly misses the point

In his paper on “Carnap, Quine, Quantification, and Ontology,” Gregory Lavers holds forth — mostly quite instructively — on the connections between Carnap’s and Quine’s conceptions of ontology, and on the connections between these and their respective conceptions of explication. He misses a few critical details, though, and it seems to me that these apparently minor omissions undermine some, at least, of the points he wants to make.

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Carnap and Quine on evidence

Peter Hylton has a paper in the Monist, now a few years old, that I’ve been meaning to comment on because it exemplifies a bad habit much of the Carnap-Quine literature suffers from: comparing the early Carnap with the later Quine. This is tempting, of course, because Quine himself did it (as e.g. Gregory Lavers has pointed out), and even Burton Dreben (Peter’s doctoral supervisor), though far more scrupulous than Quine, tended to fall into it; I guess it became a sort of Harvard thing, and Peter can’t be blamed too much for slipping into the ruts of his elders. However, he happens to have chosen a subject where this mismatch gets him into serious trouble, since if he’d actually compared the mature Quine with the mature Carnap, his main points wouldn’t be just questionable, they’d have collapsed entirely.

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Mormann replies

Thomas Mormann has sent a response to my Vienna talk about Carnap’s 1917-18 political development, which I posted here in April. In that talk, I had criticized Mormann’s reading of “Deutschlands Niederlage,” a programmatic essay Carnap wrote just before the German Revolution in October 1918 but never published.

Mormann’s response is largely ad hominem; he impugns my motives, but introduces no new facts or arguments concerning the questions over which we differ. So I won’t respond, beyond these two points, which I will make in German (to remain consistent with my policy of addressing Mormann’s remarks in the language he wrote them in):

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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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