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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”).

In any case, it is a notable document in its own right, as a manifesto of a certain attitude and for the many ways in which it prefigures the later Carnap; it makes clear once again how much continuity there was in his development.  There are many specific things one might point out, such as the explicit endorsement of Goethe (in a rather interesting context), the clear statement of Kantian ethics (supporting Alan Richardson’s thesis about the Kantian origins of Carnap’s is-ought distinction), the evident influence of the cosmopolitan Esperanto movement and the liberal Wyneken wing of the Youth Movement — and the continuity in this respect with the almost-published 1918 article on “Deutschlands Niederlage” that has sometimes been discussed in the literature as if some of the common German vocabulary of the time employed there should be construed in the most nationalistic, tribal, backward-looking way that such terms in other contexts can easily suggest.  It is clear from the present document that this is not how “Deutschlands Niederlage” can or should be read.

Finally it is hard not to be struck by Carnap’s early talent for controversy — despite all ambitions to find a common denominator of concepts in which the contending parties can make themselves mutually understood (e.g. in Der Raum, and the Aufbau) — “Aber es ist doch etwas Schönes um einen ehrlichen Streit!”

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