Wouter Cohen and Benjamin Marschall, two graduate students at Cambridge (one of my long-ago almae matres), have a terrific new paper in the latest issue of The Monist (the issue whose theme is “Against Metaphysical Grounding”), arguing that Carnap was not only — as everyone knows — against German idealism and the various metaphysical schools current in Germany between the wars (including the wilder and woolier outgrowths of phenomenology such as Heidegger), but would have been just as opposed to the current metaphysics emanating from analytic philosophers.
This might seem totally obvious, and not worth writing a paper about, but actually, if you look at analytic philosophy right now, not only is it once again in the grip of metaphysics, but many of those so gripped think their metaphysics is entirely reconcileable with some not-too-nitpicky version of logical empiricism, or of Carnap anyway. Theirs is a chastened metaphysics, they believe, and escapes the strictures pronounced back then. Many of those I’ve criticized on this blog, over the years, are of this persuasion, as are many I haven’t criticized. (Which means that being of this persuasion isn’t a sufficient condition to get yourself criticized on this blog.) Unfortunately, the situation isn’t very straightforward, though; there is no bright line separating the side of the angels from the dark side, and the toleration of analytic metaphysics ranges from zero to 100, with most people somewhere in the middle. So to explain why I think this new Cohen and Marschall paper is so terrific, I need to situate it in a larger picture of the place of metaphysics (and of Carnap) in current analytic philosophy.
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?
During the past few years a lot of rubbish has been circulating about Carnapian frameworks. I have been watching this infestation with dismay, but so far addressed it only occasionally, e.g. here with respect to Chalmers, or here with respect to Eklund (and that was a while ago). I’m very glad to see that someone has now decided that enough is enough, and sprayed some serious ant killer on this irruption of philosophical insect life. Bravo to Gabriel Broughton for having taken on this unpleasant task in his new paper “Carnapian Frameworks” (Synthese)!
Peter Hylton has a paper in the Monist, now a few years old, that I’ve been meaning to comment on because it exemplifies a bad habit much of the Carnap-Quine literature suffers from: comparing the early Carnap with the later Quine. This is tempting, of course, because Quine himself did it (as e.g. Gregory Lavers has pointed out), and even Burton Dreben (Peter’s doctoral supervisor), though far more scrupulous than Quine, tended to fall into it; I guess it became a sort of Harvard thing, and Peter can’t be blamed too much for slipping into the ruts of his elders. However, he happens to have chosen a subject where this mismatch gets him into serious trouble, since if he’d actually compared the mature Quine with the mature Carnap, his main points wouldn’t be just questionable, they’d have collapsed entirely.
Two months ago today (seems like a bygone era!) I was in Vienna at a workshop about Carnap’s early diaries, hosted by Christian Damböck, who is in the final stages of editing them for publication. I also gave a little talk there, about one of the major turning points in Carnap’s life during this early period, his political awakening during his year in Berlin before and during the German Revolution in October 1918. Just before the revolution, Carnap wrote a kind of manifesto summarizing his political outlook at the time, a piece that remained unpublished (for reasons unknown), called “Deutschlands Niederlage: Sinnloses Schicksal oder Schuld?”
A few years ago, Thomas Mormann wrote a very tendentious diagnosis of this essay and put it up on PhilPapers. He probably intended it just as a kind of provocation; well, I fell for it, and — true to form — overreacted. In any case, I think it was worth it, as the company Carnap kept in the German youth movement before and during the war is certainly a bit suspect, and one inevitably has to wonder whether he really did escape any influence from that quarter altogether. Predictably, I argue, against Mormann, that Carnap did actually emerge entirely unscathed. (And here are the slides for the talk.)
One of the main themes of my book about Carnap is that a decisive component of the original motivation first to write the Aufbau and then to push forward to the radical pluralism of the Syntax (and beyond) was Carnap’s diagnosis of the political situation immediately after the First World War in Germany. Amidst revolution and upheaval, Carnap saw very clearly that the German intelligentsia had contributed to the outbreak and continuation of the war by failing to get politically involved in the 19th century as French and British intellectuals had done, and thus failing to restrain the German elite’s war-oriented Betonköpfe (yes, that’s an anachronism — to make a point). So he advocated greater political involvement (and got involved himself), but also thought that to prevent future wars, the chaotic development of societies over the past century or two of rapid industrialization had to be steered by reason to a greater extent. But there existed no satisfactory account of reason, no system in which all the knowledge accumulated by the sciences over the past century could be seen to fit together. In contrast to the traditional Enlightenment system of knowledge (e.g. the Encyclopédie), where the various parts and components of knowledge were anchored in the various human cognitive, practical, and other mental faculties — so that the system was ultimately grounded in human psychology — Carnap (having studied with Frege) thought, like Leibniz, that the system of knowledge should be deductive. And so on from there.
To show that there was really something to this, I attempted in my concluding chapter, very briefly, to suggest how one might apply the later Carnap’s perspective to actual political discourse. This was suggested to me by Michael Friedman, who was on my dissertation committee, and who said that it might help people to get what I was talking about if I applied it to a controversy they were familiar with, such as the Rawls-Habermas debate. Well, I did exactly that, but no one really noticed, and when they did, they ridiculed the idea that such a rarefied nerd as Carnap, who sticks to the “icy slopes of logic,” could possibly have had a political motivation for the intricacies of his formalistic obsessions — or that his perspective could possibly contribute anything to political deliberation. Until now. James Pearson has taken pity on this explicitly political dimension of my book and devoted a paper to it, in which he tries to apply my Carnapian suggestions to a couple of concrete cases. Continue reading
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
This year’s conference season is over (for me at least), and I will now once again, I hope, be able to devote a few shreds of surplus attention to keeping my posts here a bit more regular. The latest conference I went to was in Vienna (where I always like to go anyway); the last day of it was on the Berggasse right next to where Freud’s office used to be (and a Freud museum now is). I’m sure that someone somewhere must have remarked on the irony that the Berggasse is the continuation of the Schwarzspanierstraße, where Beethoven died — in the building Otto Weininger sought out to commit suicide in 75 years later. (Freud, by the way, unlike Wittgenstein, was apparently unimpressed by Geschlecht und Charakter.)
One thing that came up a number of times at this very interesting conference, organized by Christian Damböck (together with Meike Werner and Günther Sandner), was Carnap’s “non-cognitivism.” The word was used in a number of different ways, which I found very confusing. I propose that when talking about Carnap, at least, we stick to what Carnap himself meant by it, which seems especially appropriate since, as far as I can tell, he actually introduced the term. Continue reading
When I was putting together my conception of Carnap’s early development, and the wellsprings of his later philosophy, in the first chapter of my book, I relied largely on his manifesto-like article on “Deutschlands Niederlage” (Germany’s Defeat), which was written in October 1918 but remained unpublished. I knew from the original draft of his autobiography about his effort of earlier that year (February through August) to stimulate discussion among his Youth Movement friends with a series of commented excerpts from the foreign press and from more extended essays (including Kant’s “Vom ewigen Frieden”!), which he continued to circulate and to correspond with individual friends about until he was prohibited by his commander, in September 1918, from further activity; as he remarked in the original version of the autobiography, he was lucky that his superior was so lenient, and that he wasn’t prosecuted for Hochverrat (high treason), since some of those he’d circulated his Rundbriefe to were actually still in action on the western front.
I had also seen the large folders of these Politische Rundbriefe in the Pittsburgh archive, and leafed through them, reluctantly deciding that I simply couldn’t afford the time to study them in detail. I was wrong. Continue reading
Has professionalization been good for philosophy? When people ask this question (usually to answer firmly in the negative), they think of logical positivism as a kind of turning point, at which philosophy (programmatically, at least) became “technical.” They remember the Vienna Circle’s pronouncements about breaking the big, unmanageable problems down into subunits it makes better sense to address, and about the corresponding submersion of the individual thinker into the collective endeavor of (unified) science. But, such critics object, did Kant’s hope of putting philosophy “auf den sicheren Weg einer Wissenschaft” (which the logical empiricists were trying to realize) even make any sense? Isn’t this a category mistake?
I agree with this criticism but I don’t think logical empiricism is to blame for what has happened to philosophy. Continue reading