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Carnap and C.K. Ogden

James McElvenny (now a Humboldt Fellow at the University of Potsdam) has written a dissertation, Meaning in the Age of Modernism: C.K. Ogden and his Contemporaries — not in history but in English, if you can believe it!  There is a chapter on Ogden’s interactions with Carnap and Neurath (Chapter 4: Ogden and the Vienna Circle).  McElvenny has published some papers derived from it, which I haven’t looked at yet, but the dissertation itself is terrific.  I mostly focussed, of course, on Ch. 4, which is refreshingly unburdened by clichés about the Vienna Circle, and just looks at Carnap and Neurath through Ogden’s eyes, against a very rich and well-sketched backdrop of cultural and political preoccupations of 1930s Europe. McElvenny uses the Ogden papers, but neither of the two Carnap collections (UCLA and Pitt), so provides a novel perspective on familiar characters and events.

I remember Leonard Linsky once asking, with genuine puzzlement, “What do people mean when they talk about ‘modernism’?” Nor, it turned out, was Leonard being coy or illiterate.  He knew all the stuff about literary, artistic, and architectural modernism and just found that the more he thought about it, the more puzzled he got.  Well, I wish he’d have lived a couple of years longer, for I then I’d have been able to suggest he look at this dissertation, which comes closer to conveying a sense (no, not a theory, if that’s what you’re looking for) of what “modernism” thought it was about than almost anything else I can think of.  In the sense in which McElvenny uses the term, not only Carnap and Neurath and the “neue Sachlichkeit” but also Wittgenstein (the philosopher and the architect), Musil, Proust, and many others count as “modernists.” It represents a certain resolute austerity in the face of democratization and mass consumption, but need not (though it did in some cases) represent a welcoming acceptance of mass society or of the role of technology and mass media in shaping popular tastes.  One common experience of this generation (not addressed by McElvenny, as far as I’m aware, but it would certainly fit into his portrayal) is the experience of war in 1914-18, which probably played a major role (as I think it did in Carnap’s case) in their common realization that the world had changed, and that the common cultural currency of the bourgeois nineteenth century was dropping out of circulation.

One attractive feature of the dissertation, quite apart from the specifically Carnapian angle, and the background on the frame of mind Carnap was rooted in, is its sensitive awareness of the potentially authoritarian tendencies of certain reforming modernists, including certainly Ogden himself as well as Neurath and Carnap, in their trust that engineering solutions, arrived at by a clerisy of enlightened intellectuals such as themselves, could solve the problems generated by democratization, industrialization, mass markets, and mass media.  What I find attractive is that this dimension of modernism seems, from what I’ve read so far, to be dissected with a certain sympathetic impartiality, free of ideological axes to grind.  Hayek, for instance, in The Counterrevolution of Science, identifies this same phenomenon, the “engineering frame of mind,” but sees its sinister influence behind all attempts to use the welfare state to authoritarian ends.  John Carey, in The Intellectuals and the Masses, condemns all modernism as elitist and anti-democratic because it refused to identify with the mass market values that were, it thought, relentlessly flattening anything uncomfortable or unconventional.  And Foucault (who equates The Enlightenment with enlightenment-from-above), thought there was no escaping the vicious feedback loop by which all attempts to diminish the authority of social institutions over the lives of individuals results in greater and more efficient repression.  Nothing like any of that in McElvenny — no system, no formula, no pretentious jargon.

And there are plenty of striking insights along the way.  McElvenny argues, for instance, that Orwell’s “Newspeak,” the official language imposed by Big Brother in 1984 that lacked words for certain ideas or emotions the authorities preferred people not to think about, was modelled on Basic English, the auxiliary language Ogden had invented and was promoting as a simpler alternative to Esperanto or Ido. Basic English, of course, was the focus of Carnap’s and Ogden’s interactions.  I admit I haven’t gone through the details of McElvenny’s argument here (and he modestly claims no originality), but the idea strikes me as highly plausible.

It’s one of those classic cases of direct confrontation between the two Enlightenments (the continental engineering tradition and the Anglo-liberal tradition — think d’Alembert and Condorcet on the one side and Locke, Hume, Mill on the other), with Orwell on the Anglo side, in this case, and Ogden (despite being English), along with Neurath and Carnap, on the continental engineering side.  Lots more to be said about that, and yes, lots more that isn’t even raised in this dissertation, but the excavation of this episode of intellectual history brings the basic trade-offs into focus very clearly.


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