Frege as clickbait

Why would a respected historian of ancient philosophy, formerly a professor at Yale and now at All Souls, resort to claiming that Frege had “plagiarized” the Stoics? When you look at the paper more closely, you realize a number of things: (1) We’re not talking about Frege the inventor of modern predicate logic (the author of the Begriffsschrift and Grundgesetze), nor even about Frege the philosopher of logic, logicism, and arithmetic (the author of The Foundations of Arithmetic); we’re talking only about Frege the supposed “philosopher of language,” the later Frege who wrote “On Sense and Reference” and related papers. (2) Even in the case of this Frege, a case is made only that he was influenced by the Stoics, not that he “plagiarized” them (as the author herself recognizes perfectly well, e.g. on pp. 202-4). (3) Most of her case rests on evidence of Frege’s borrowing from the Stoics that had previously been documented in some detail in a 2009 HPL paper by Gabriel, Hülser, and Schlotter, which she dismissively makes fun of in the beginning of her paper and claims to have refuted. (4) Her supposed refutation of that paper concerns none of the details of the Stoics’ influence on Frege, but consists merely in showing — ostensibly — that Frege’s use of Stoic motifs derives not from Frege’s friendship with the scholar of ancient Stoicism Rudolf Hirzel (Frege’s tenant of an apartment in his house in Jena), but from Frege’s own reading of Prantl’s history of logic. Her case here remains (as she admits) circumstantial and far from clear-cut.

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Science is not democratic

So says Roberto Burioni, and I have to say, I found it refreshing to hear someone say that out loud! Burioni is a pugnacious virologist at a university in Milan who isn’t afraid to attack Italian anti-vaxxers in the aggressive terms in which they attack the scientific establishment. He expands it into a general issue of science vs. populist anti-science. The speed of light is an established fact, he says; it’s not decided by popular vote. He’s become quite a celebrity in Italy, a TV and social-media personality with a huge following. He is hardly “vulgar,” though, as the article in Foreign Policy by an Italian journalist (that brought him to my attention) claims, nor does he descend to “Trumpian” rhetoric (no self-aggrandizement, no gratuitous insults, no lies) — but he doesn’t pull his punches, and his aggressiveness reminds me pleasantly of the Vienna Circle in its heyday. Yes, they went further than they should have, and brought some perfectly respectable ideas into temporary disrepute, but at least they were campaigning for something worth campaigning for; they were letting sympathizers around the world know that someone out there was sticking up for the scientific world view when the hordes of brown-shirted Heideggers and Carl Schmitts and other devotees of authenticity were bent on crushing it underfoot. Burioni is inspiring in the same sort of way. Why don’t we have Burionis in Germany or in the US? Americans I can see; they might not be willing to stick their necks out at the moment since you never know what may turn out to be politically incorrect and unleash a Twitter mob, leading to unemployment. But Germans? I guess there is Christian Drosten, but he’s come across more as a foot soldier for Merkel than as a skeptical voice of reason in the midst of the (very considerable, and deeply traditional) German skepticism about science. Both Fauci in the US and Drosten in Germany are much more narrowly focused, less combative, and more emollient than Burioni. Why?

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A missed opportunity

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. Continue reading

Carnap as plagiarist

A new book has just appeared that sets the record straight, and shows that not just Carnap’s ideas, but pretty much the whole of analytic philosophy, are largely derivative of Husserl’s phenomenology.  It is edited, of course, by none other than the redoubtable Guillermo E. Rosado Haddock, who has been on the case for quite a while.  It contains, among other papers, the one Haddock himself gave at the Aufbau conference Christian Damböck organized at the MCMP in Munich in 2013.  I’ve mentioned Haddock’s performance there in a previous post.  The published version of his paper does not refer to my paper (which he called “the big lie” in the Munich discussion) or even deign to list it in his bibliography (it’s been out for almost a year, and available online for over 18 months).  Haddock does however — a new addition since the conference — include references to, and even quotations from, the Carnap diary entries I used in my paper (the first time they were referred to in print).  At the Munich conference, he had cast doubt on the authenticity of these passages, implying that I had fabricated them or badly distorted their content.

Haddock has never quite come out and claimed that Carnap stole Husserl’s ideas, though he’s often insinuated it, and hinted darkly at various conspiracies to hide the dirty secret of Husserl’s influence on Carnap.  In this new volume, though, Haddock also includes a long paper by Verena Mayer that takes this step explicitly, right from the title — “Der Logische Aufbau als Plagiat.”   Continue reading

Carnap, Brandom, and the “myth of the given”

Recently I came across the following from Robert Brandom (he’s talking about “representationalism” and Rorty’s attack on it):

The proximal difficulty is that thinking of our broadly cognitive and intentional relations with our environment principally in terms of our representing things as being thus and so (thinking of the mind as a ‘mirror of nature’) requires, he thinks, commitment to various kinds of epistemically privileged representations.  Prime among these, in their 20th-century analytic form, are what is given in sensory experience and cognitively transparent meanings. . . Representations of these sorts are understood as having a natural or intrinsic epistemic privilege so that their mere occurrence entails that we know or understand something. But there is no way to cash out this sort of intrinsic authority in terms of the practices of using expressions or interacting with each other or our world. . . [In] ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ (1956) Sellars mounts a broadly pragmatist critique of the idea of things known simply by being in some sensory state, and in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism’. . . Quine does the same for the idea of things known simply by our grasp of our own meanings. (Rorty took it as persuasive evidence of how hard it is fully to disentangle ourselves from this particular tar baby that Sellars seemed to hold on to a version of the analyticity Quine had discredited, and Quine remained committed to the sensory given.  Carnap, of course, embraced both forms of givenness.)  (Huw Price et al. Expressivism, Pragmatism, and Representationalism, p. 92)

Carnap at no point in his career, even in the Aufbau, “embraced” either form of “givenness.”  Brandom’s gratuitous assertion Continue reading

More on “ontological pluralism”

Some afterthoughts on my previous remarks about “ontological pluralism.”  I said there that

A “string of symbols” cannot “come out true in some languages but false in others, while meaning what it actually means,” because “what it actually means” is not specifiable language-independently. To suppose that a string of symbols “actually” means something independently of the language it is expressed in is just to take an external statement literally, at face value.

Of course there may be multiple explicata for a single explicandum, but this is not a case of a string of symbols coming out true in some languages but false in others; Continue reading

Popper and Carnap again

Anyone who’s even heard of Popper knows that he advanced his falsifiability criterion (of science) in opposition to the Vienna Circle’s verifiability criterion (of meaning). What the Popper fans seem unaware of (yes, I know, they’re no longer as numerous as in the days of Helmut Schmidt’s public endorsement) is that Carnap actually responded to this criticism by pointing out that you can’t distinguish between verification and falsification except in certain special cases, which happen not to include the laws of e.g. physics. That was in “Testability and Meaning” (1936-7), which Popper praised volubly, e.g. in his Schilpp volume. But despite the fatal consequences of Carnap’s argument for Popper’s whole edifice, Popper never responded, nor, as far as I’m aware, has any of his followers. Continue reading

Hirsch on common sense

Eli Hirsch, in his paper in the Metametaphysics book, says he wants to conjoin a “Carnapian” approach to ontological questions with a “robust realism” (p. 231) and a defense of common sense, which, he claims, “doesn’t seem to be a concern for Carnap” (p. 232). Actually, it was a constant concern of Carnap through all stages of his career.  He saw a continuity, rather than a sharp break, between common sense and science (Schilpp volume, p. 934).  But he also saw them as playing fundamentally different roles; he saw an increasing gap, since perhaps Newton (or Archimedes), between the ordinary language in which we live and act and the technical languages (to which alone sentences could be “internal”) we depend on for knowledge. He thought it simply unfeasible — a kind of category mistake (Huw Price considers the parallel to Ryle) — to rely on the former kind of language in the latter context.

Only the continuing general ignorance about Carnap makes it possible for people to get away with this sort of thing.  Would anyone take you seriously if you said you wanted to combine a Kantian approach to ontological questions with a robust realism and a defense of common sense?  Or Frege’s approach to arithmetic with Mill’s?  But apparently you can still say almost anything you like about Carnap and no one will call you out on it.  More examples to come.