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Update: Carnap’s Diaries

Time to revive this blog again at last — after a somewhat excessive post-pandemic interruption — with an update about a recent publication that will interest anyone who’s at all concerned with Carnap or the Vienna Circle: the first two volumes of Carnap’s diaries are now out in book form, published by the Meiner Verlag (the venerable philosophy publisher who issues those green volumes — the Philosophische Bibliothek — that generations of German philosophy students have grown up with). Volume 1 (1908-19) includes all Carnap’s wartime diaries; volume 2 (1920-1935) has all the famous passages about the Vienna Circle in it that are quite familiar from the secondary literature by now, not just the Carnap literature but also adjoining ones about Gödel, Neurath, and on the Vienna Circle more generally. Volumes 3 and 4 (from 1936 through 1970) aren’t out yet, but are on the way.

Dogged followers of this blog may remember that I drew their attention, some years ago, to an online first draft (i.e. first rough transcription) of these diaries. The project has come a long way since then! I have to admit that I was a skeptic about the advisability of publishing the diaries in book form, but my doubts have proven entirely groundless, mainly because Christian Damböck, the editor, his collaborators (Brigitta Arden, Roman Jordan, Brigitte Parakenings, and Lois M. Rendl), and the publishers have done such a good job. The volumes, though very bulky, are also very handsome, well-designed, and well-produced; the signatures are sewn, not glued, so the pages don’t fall out when you open the book up. Many of the gaps in the online 2015 version have meanwhile been deciphered; the vast majority of the people referred to have been identified, and there is a comprehensive index of persons as well as one of institutions; also a detailed genealogy of the Carnap family, along with the young Carnap’s lists of books he had read, the university courses he attended in Jena and Freiburg, and other helpful information. It’s an absolutely indispensable resource for anyone working on Carnap or the Vienna Circle. I wish it had existed when I started working on Carnap in the 90s — it would have made my job a lot easier!

In his very first entry, of 14 February 1908 (Germans did not celebrate Valentine’s Day back then), the 16-year-old Carnap begins with an explanation to himself why he has started a diary:

This evening I will finally carry out my intention of writing in a diary. Perhaps somewhat differently from the way other people do it. I am in general not, after all, quite like all the others. Thank goodness, I want to say. For: A lady once brought my grandfather [the well-known educational reformer and writer Wilhelm Dörpfeld] a piece of rock from the grave of Pestalozzi, on which lies, according to his wishes, an irregular block of granite. “You too are a rock of that kind,” she wrote him, “take care not to be polished to smoothness.” I too will take care.

The resolution of writing a diary in the sense I’m thinking of goes back a year or more. I’ve often read recently that it is extremely useful and pleasing if later in life you can see what and how you thought at earlier stages. Thus the outward experiences will fall into the background for me. What I want is to have a sketched portrayal of my life of thought [von meinem Gedankenleben], especially the development, the progress of my mental life. Later these lines are to remind me what sort of world view I had, what sort of conception about various philosophical things arose in me at this time or before this, and how that all developed over the course of time. Even years ago I observed sometimes in small children that they often think and contemplate and ponder and philosophize all sorts of things of which nothing or only a little or only a shadowy reflection comes across in their words. How did I know then what they thought? I don’t know any more exactly; often my own thoughts occurred to me that I had turned around in my little head when I was a child and have nearly all forgotten, with a few exceptions. That made me think that if I’m now thinking things without saying anything, and forgetting them again, then I can never make a more accurate picture of myself in my younger years. How about writing it down?

In the thousands of pages of diary that follow, this original intention is almost completely left behind (or aside anyway); we hear exclusively about events. Conversations and interactions are reported, but the inner life of the narrator is almost completely invisible. Christian Damböck, in his editorial introduction, regards this as a reflection of a “modernist” attitude, perhaps further shaped by the post-war 1920s “neue Sachlichkeit” of the Weimar Republic in which this modernist attitude first came to an articulate self-consciousness. Perhaps; I’m more inclined to see individual character traits at work here. Certainly Carnap was a child of his times, and nowhere is this more evident than in his riveting narratives of certain battles, especially (vol. 1, pp. 369-83) the second battle of the Aisne in early May 1917 (also called the Bataille du Chemin des Dames or the Schlacht am Winterberg), in which literally hundreds of thousands of French and German young men lost their lives. Carnap’s response to the war, once he got back to Berlin and began to inform himself, was a fervent pacifism — certainly one of the characteristic responses of his generation (not the only one — see Wittgenstein, for instance, for a quite different, but perhaps equally common response).

And yes, the shattering experience of the war probably reinforced certain tendencies in him — but my sense is that they were already largely there. The air of scientific detachment he had cultivated as a teenager was reinforced by the need to keep one’s nerve under fire, and he evidently — at least from my own reading of the wartime diaries — gravitated to a self-image in which his steely sang-froid stood out prominently — der Carnap, der ist eiskalt! Nor was this just a superficial matter of personal vanity; at least in his own conscious processing of the experience, it was a (characteristically German) matter of an inner stance more than of a social attribute, as we can see from a passage in a letter home (6 May 1916, Pitt RC 025-09-33):

A short while ago Fränzel [an old friend] wrote, as he was preparing to go back to the front at the Somme “Lord, let me not falter, make me steadfast.” I didn’t really understand him properly at the time; “steadfastness” didn’t seem so difficult to me. Now I understand it better. To remain upright inside on days like that isn’t easy, but it’s the most worthwhile thing one carries away from all this. That one gets through it alive is, on the other hand, inconsequential [unwesentlich]. This inconsequential thing is left to chance; but that essential thing [jenes Wesentliche] is a thing of the mind [ist geistig] and is based in a different realm.

This was a month or two after he wrote his “open letter” to the protestant pastor Eduard Le Seur that I first published in these pages a few years ago but which has meanwhile been published in an improved version (improved by Wolfgang Kienzler of the University of Jena) in this open-access Springer volume also edited by Christian Damböck (with Günther Sandner and Meike Werner), along with an introduction in which I explain the provenance and context of the document.

Suffice it to say here that the quotation above from Carnap’s 1916 letter home is entirely consistent with the attitudes expressed in that open letter to Le Seur, in which Carnap undoubtedly speaks — as he intends — for the millions in the trenches, but is also being his unvarnished, rough-hewn self, as he set out to be when he first, at age 16, decided to begin keeping a diary, and to take care that he would not — any more than his grandfather — be polished down to smoothness and mere social acceptability. That part of the resolution he stuck to.

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