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.
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
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”). Continue reading
The Carnapian linguistic turn was never widely accepted; most of Carnap’s interlocutors, early and late, did not take it seriously. Only the “left wing” of the Vienna Circle warmed to it; most other scientifically-oriented philosophers, including Schlick, Reichenbach, Russell, Popper, Quine, and Feigl, rejected it. Most of them misunderstood it quite fundamentally, and certain others (Ayer, Urmson, Rorty) attacked or ridiculed the Carnapian linguistic turn without grasping what it even was (see my book, pp. 34-5). Resistance to it remains obdurate, insofar as it’s even discussed. The idea is that you can’t just do away with all the grand old philosophical problems, you have to take them at face value. There is an austere, Quinean version of this impulse, but most people (or rather, I should say, most philosophers) want there to be something right about our everyday intuitions mediated by natural language, especially about the conflicts among such intuitions that result in the classic philosophical problems. These people tend to go for something more like an argument Peter Strawson first made fully explicit (in his contribution to the Schilpp volume). Carnapian explication, he said, misses the point. It is no substitute for philosophical analysis (of any kind) because “typical philosophical problems about the concepts used in non-scientific discourse cannot be solved by laying down the rules of use of exact and fruitful concepts in science. To do this last is not to solve the typical philosophical problem, but to change the subject.” (Schilpp volume, p. 506)
Esperanto and artificial languages for everyday communication have been unexpectedly (for me) high profile on this blog; in its short lifetime of about two months, I’ve already devoted three posts to that apparently recondite historical curiosity, one on Carnap and C.K. Ogden, one about Carnap’s application of the principle of tolerance to a practical question, and one on Carnap and Wittgenstein. The latter consists mainly of a quotation in which Carnap tells the story of a backwoods Black Forest peasant, designed to undermine “the firm conviction that an international auxiliary language might be suitable for business affairs and perhaps for natural science, but could not possibly serve as an adequate means of communication in personal affairs, for discussions of serious problems of life, political conferences, for discussions in the social sciences and the humanities, let alone for fiction or drama.” Well, a recent commenter on that post, Alexander George, asked the perfectly reasonable question whether Carnap himself actually ever discussed “serious problems of life” in Esperanto. Continue reading