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Carnap’s answer to Wittgenstein on artificial languages

Everyone (well, everyone reading this, anyway) knows the story of Wittgenstein’s refusal to countenance Carnap’s further participation at the meetings with himself, Schlick, Waismann, and sometimes Feigl in the late 1920s.  One can speculate on Wittgenstein’s motivations here (I have my own ideas, which I won’t go into), but Carnap’s most notorious offense was to have shown some sympathy for Zamenhof and the Esperanto movement, which Wittgenstein — here a true disciple of Herder — found appallingly vulgar and inauthentic.  Wittgenstein’s family, parentage, and background have been the subject of extensive biographical and cultural-history study, so it’s clear where he was coming from.  Few have heard Carnap’s side of the story, though, which he briefly gives (without reference to Wittgenstein) in a passage from his autobiography that was omitted from the published version:

In discussions about the potentialities of a constructed international language, I have often heard people expressing 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.  I have found that those who make these assertions had mostly no practical experience with such a language, either in conversation or in conference negotiations or in books or periodicals.  On such occasions I was sometimes reminded of a talk I had shortly after the First World War with a peasant in a remote village in the Black Forest.  We looked at an airplane at a great distance, high in the sky, and he said: “They say that sometimes people fly in such machines.  But that is not possible.” I told him that I had flown a few times in an airplane.  He looked at me somewhat suspiciously, shook his head, and said: “Now look here; I am much older than you.  I know very well what can be done what what cannot.  Now you believe me, this thing is just not possible.”  (UCLA Ms. Coll. 1029, Box 2, CM3, M-A5, pp. N17-N18.)


5 thoughts on “Carnap’s answer to Wittgenstein on artificial languages

  1. Thanks. What has become of Open Court? (And is there a history of the Press?)

    1. Open Court was part of Carus Publishing Company, which had mainly become a children’s magazine business at the time it was sold (in late 2011); its best-known titles were Cricket magazine, Ladybug for beginning readers, and Muse, a somewhat mischievous non-fiction magazine for pre-teens. Open Court was not really viable as a stand-alone business, and without the rest of the publishing business there was no obvious way of subsidizing it by sharing overheads etc., so we let it go with Carus Publishing, but reserved certain rights through a family foundation (which also publishes The Monist, among other things), and some of the items we reserved will in fact now come out with other publishers. (More on that another time.)

      There is no history of the whole period from the founding of Open Court in 1887 (by my great-great-grandfather Edward Hegeler) to its exit from our family in 2011. I was however once asked to contribute a piece on American monism to a centenary conference at the Haeckel House in Jena on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of Haeckel’s Monistenbund in 2005; it tells the story of Open Court’s founding by Hegeler up to my great-grandfather Paul Carus’s death in 1919. All the lectures were published in a special issue of some periodical that wasn’t at the time available electronically (it may be meanwhile); a pdf of my near-final script (with some notable typos) is available here. It’s a little sardonic; I was accused of being disrespectful toward my ancestors.

      There is also a biography of Paul Carus, Catalyst for Controversy: Paul Carus of Open Court by Harold Henderson, and by the same author, a book about Open Court’s foray, from the early 1960s through 1996, into elementary school textbooks: Let’s Kill Dick and Jane: How the Open Court Publishing Company Fought the Culture of American Education (2006). Finally, there is a bibliography, with some historical remarks, of all the books published by the original academic and trade publishing division of Open Court in its first century: Open Court: A Centennial Bibliography, 1887-1987 by Ralph McCoy. That’s about it, as far as I know.

  2. Why was this omitted? A wonderful anecdote that could have happily appeared in _On Certainty_.

    But, I’d like to know if Carnap discussed “serious problems of life” in Esperanto.

    1. That’s a very good question, and one I’ve been intending to write something about. Since I happen to have a xerox of the relevant section of the (unpublished) autobiography with me here in Munich, I should be able to get to it shortly.

      The whole Schilpp volume was far longer not only than any previous volume in the series, but also than Schilpp had warned the publisher (at that time Tudor Publishing Company); when Schilpp delivered the manuscript in the late 50s, they balked and said it had to be cut by at least a quarter. Carnap had got comments from various friends, including Feigl and Hempel, to the effect that American readers wouldn’t be so interested in the parts of Carnap’s draft autobiography on the transformative effect on him of the German Youth Movement before WWI, and also in the (originally quite long) section on Esperanto and other international languages, so he agreed to cut those. (The same friends said the volume could well dispense with some of the longer contributions, including that of Adolf Grünbaum, but Carnap agreed with Schilpp that contributors couldn’t very well be disinvited.)

      Eventually it turned out Tudor was on the ropes anyway, so Schilpp had to find a new publisher; the one he found was Open Court (which was owned and run by my family until recently), but the process of transition delayed things further, which is why the volume only appeared in 1963, despite having been mostly written in the mid-50s.

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