The current issue of Philosophy Now has a little article on Carnap by one Alistair MacFarlane, a Scottish electrical engineer who has held a number of academic administrative posts. To judge by a few of the details he relates about Carnap’s life, he seems to have known or met Carnap personally, though he also commits a surprising number of factual errors. More seriously, he seems completely unaware that after a long period in the doghouse, logical empiricism has attracted some attention again, and a huge literature has accumulated on many aspects of its leading figures, especially Carnap. He acknowledges none of this. The Carnap he presents is the die-hard positivist, verificationist, and reductionist familiar from the old comic-strip versions of philosophical mythology that we fancy ourselves to have overcome. So let this be a warning: the old comic strips may have lost some credibility, but there are still lots of philosophically interested non-philosophers (and perhaps even philosophically interested philosophers) out there to whom this news has not penetrated. And apparently no one in Philosophy Now editorial is aware of it either, or they’d have asked MacFarlane for revisions.
Before focusing a little on the aspect of the crusty old picture that MacFarlane seems most interested in, I want to emphasize that I have nothing whatever against the basic idea of engaging in this sort of popularization. I regard Philosophy Now as a Good Thing. I myself contribute to something called AskPhilosophers, which pursues a similar mission in a different way, and I’m well aware that you have to cut corners when you’re doing this sort of thing. (I also once long ago started a non-fiction magazine for pre-teens called Muse.) But there’s a difference between simplifying and distorting. Simplifying without distorting is of course an impossible ideal at infinity to which one can only approach asymptotically, but without such an ideal to guide it, simplification quickly degenerates into passive regurgitation of clichés. As I used to lecture people writing non-fiction for children, it’s an extremely difficult task; it’s difficult in the way that writing advertising copy is difficult — you have to get your whole message across (not just its literal content but a strong hint at why it deserves space on the reader’s attentional radar) in a headline! Or at least the headline has to be interesting enough to draw the reader into the first sentence of the body text. (And so on.) This is not, believe me, how writing non-fiction for children — or popular explanations of philosophy — is usually approached!
As so often in the old comic-strip portrayals of Carnap, MacFarlane jumps straight from the Aufbau to the probability work, without mentioning the turning point(s) of 1931-2. The principle of tolerance is not mentioned. Amazingly the Syntax, now largely agreed to be Carnap’s greatest achievement, is not even obliquely referred to in passing! MacFarlane’s main preoccupation is Carnap’s supposed reductionism. Perhaps this is understandable in an electrical engineer with interests in artificial intelligence; MacFarlane wants to argue (as Clark Glymour once did, years ago, in an APA paper he appears now to have removed from his website) that the Aufbau should be understood as a kind of primitive AI routine, and that Carnap’s whole agenda was to reduce human reasoning (and, MacFarlane assumes, human agency) to discrete logical steps, or elementary procedures such as Turing’s. (He doesn’t actually commit himself to rule-based AI, but I didn’t pick up any allusions to neural networks or anything along those lines.) The reduction of human reason and agency to machine intelligence is contrasted, by MacFarlane, to outdated “humanistic values” that Carnap supposedly had left behind.
For those who have even dipped into the recent Carnap literature, I hardly need to comment on this. But apart from the crude application of the idea in AI, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the supposed reductionism of the Aufbau is not actually to be found there. This was one of the first findings of the new literature on Carnap that began to appear in the late 1980s and early 90s. It was Michael Friedman, of course, who first pointed out that the reductionist program diagnosed in the Aufbau by Anglo-American readers from the beginning was due more to Russellian prejudices than to anything in the actual text, which reads much more naturally as a contribution to the then still ongoing discussions among various neo-Kantian schools. (Once again, as in an earlier post, on the fundamental differences between Carnap and Russell I stongly recommend Chris Pincock’s paper in the Cambridge Companion to Carnap.) Michael has continued to develop that theme ever since, along with his student Alan Richardson and many others. No one at Philosophy Now, unfortunately, has noticed.
Update: I start this post by claiming that MacFarlane’s Carnap piece is in the “current issue” of Philosophy Now. Oops. Well, I wrote this last month and somehow forgot to post it until just now, seemed hardly worth it. Anyway, the link still works.