Carnap Did Nothing Wrong!

This is a post about what it means to have a fave, a philosopher one likes and identifies with and champions. Spurred by the fact that folk on twitter pointed out that more people will hear of Carnap though my social media promotional efforts than actually read him. (Incidentally, the rumour mill has it that Kristie Dotson has in production a paper on philosophy as a fandom, so watch that space!) But first a note on how I got here. Back in the day I used to always say #NoHeroes and had various arguments against the role of hero worship in academia and intellectual practice. I thought (and in fact still think) that it is bad for scholarship and the way we organise ourselves as a discipline that some figures gain such high stature in the prestige economy of our discipline. For instance, people become overly charitable to their views, and thus come to misrepresent them or fail to acknowledge clear reason to reject their claims - and we thereby lose out on valuable sources of intellectual diversity.

But because I became so associated with this (and it had a catchy hashtag!) I started having people tag me every time their second cousin got the third runners up prize in the sub regional 8th divisional 4th place quarter finals for the national spelling bee. They'd say "So proud of little Chadwick! Sorry Liam <tag>, but it seems like there are some heroes after all!!!!!!!1!!111!!!ELEVEN!!1!!" Then (I imagine) they would spend the next week or so high fiving all their friends and calling up their grandparents to tell them about this delightful witticism they just put out there. Obviously this was intolerable, so I totally dropped the hashtag, and memed my way out of it by conspicuously coming to like and identify with Carnap. This has worked pretty well and now I don't get that anymore. In fact, once at a conference I met some people who only knew me from twitter; we'd all had a bit to drink, so I said "Who did nothing wrong?" then in unison everyone shouted "Carnap!" So, why Carnap? That's what this post is about.

Because, here's the thing, when it comes to the philosophical positions he spent most time developing, I don't actually agree much with Carnap on substance nor do I work on the same project as him. His work on the semantics of modal logic was certainly historically important but it has been quite appropriately supplanted by Kripke's approach. Likewise his work on syntax and early responses to Gödel was certainly important. He discovered an important generalisation of the diagonalisation lemma Gödel had relied upon. But he did not actually prove this lemma or even indicate how it could be proven (in fact he often asserted things without properly proving them, as noted throughout here) and as to his more general philosophical approach - while I in fact think it does, it's at least contentious whether his conventionalism holds up in light of Gödel's results. The project of the Aufbau is in some sense beautiful and impressive - but as far as I can tell it has, again, been set aside on good grounds, and I am not pursuing its contemporary analogues. I have a lot of respect for the people working on inductive logic (which definitely has direct links to the historical Carnap's project) but I haven't followed it in enough detail to know exactly what of Carnap's has been kept and where I agree. I actively disagree with the view of race I gleaned from him and others. I love the nameless-station railway map metaphor for structuralism that Carnap came up with, but I'm not invested one way or another in the view. I am more sympathetic than most to Carnap's later verificationism, but even there (as I have wrote previously) I think Carnap never did a good job of explaining why exactly one should believe it and how exactly it is to be applied in its own case.

The one place where I am more directly sympathetic and it affects what I do is a cluster of views around Carnapian tolerance. In the Logical Syntax of Language Carnap says:
In logic, there are no morals. Everyone is at liberty to build his own logic, i. e. his own form of language, as he wishes. All that is required of him is that, if he wishes to discuss it, he must state his methods clearly, and give syntactical rules instead of philosophical arguments.
He even backs up this easy going tolerance with some rather stirring words:
The first attempts to cast the ship of logic off from the terra firma of the classical forms were certainly bold ones, considered from the historical point of view. But they were hampered by the striving after ‘correctness’. Now, however, that impediment has been overcome, and before us lies the boundless ocean of unlimited possibilities.
This basic attitude of tolerance for conceptual exploration and engineering, and pragmatism in matters of application, is then related to a broader metaphilosophical perspective most famously outlined here. Scholars have done much interesting work on the principle of tolerance, and the related engineering projects. Here I do substantially agree, I have given various talks promoting the idea, and have tried to work in this vein in some of my publications. However, at best, that means I relate to Carnap as someone who I thought had a great Big Idea but who never really applied it in ways I find correct or relevant.

None the less, I like him a lot. And I think the three main reasons I like him are pretty similar to the reasons you get a lot of the bizarre hero worship of the humanities. Firstly and most boringly, he just seems to have been a basically quite admirable human being. As far as I can tell his experience of the trenches in world war one radicalised him, and from that moment on he was consistently on the side of the angels. He spent the latter years of the war spreading thinly veiled pacifist propaganda (he only narrowly escaped getting in quite serious trouble for this), then a supporter of the socialist opposition to the war - the commitment to socialism was then lifelong. He was an anti-Nazi when that counted, this is the only-now-coming-to-be-appreciated context for his famous anti-Heidegger polemic. Then when he came to the US he got involved as a supporter of the the black civil rights movement. He was a consistent opponent of the various imperialist wars the united states was involved in in the mid 20th century, and a proponent of renouncing nuclear weapons. He quite bravely (at some cost to himself) refused to take the McCarthyist loyalty oaths universities implemented. (The FBI actually started spying on him and kept a file on him - I've read what's available here, and it seems they basically concluded he was too much of a head-in-the-clouds professor to actually be any serious threat, lol). There are stories of him standing up to professors bullying students at Chicago that are in the air in the philosophical community, and he apparently once went out of his way to save a student from homelessness. I once spent some time looking at the material on him in the Carnap archive at Pittsburgh university, and it seems that towards the end of his life he was gathering material on the Angela Davis controversy, I think with an eye to supporting her case to administration. His last publication was a letter of solidarity for Mexican political prisoners and a hope that a leftward turn in US immigration policy that would allow refugees in. There's no sense denying that - I just find this to be an admirable person, I think a lot of the reason Carnap was initially attractive to me was just that being a kind of introverted techy nerd who none the less has these rather leftist philosophical positions obviously speaks to me on a personal level. (It's maybe relevant that Wiredu and Condorcet are other philosophers I like, who seem relevantly similar on this front.)

Secondly, there's a kind of aesthetic appreciation. There's a quip about Carnap whose origins I forget that says that he was someone who had Frege on the study desk and Nietzsche by the bedside table. (There's a good paper here exploring this element of his persona and how it played out in his work.) And I really like that, the idea of connecting up this very dry, clear, technical style, with a deeper existentially informed perspective. In another of those stirring passages, this time from the Aufbau, Carnap says:
We feel that there is an inner kinship between the attitude on which our philosophical work is founded and the intellectual attitude which currently manifests itself in entirely different walks of life; we feel this orientation in artistic movements, especially in architecture, and in movements which strive for meaningful forms of personal and collective life, of education, and of external organisations in general.  We feel all around us the same basic orientation, the same style of thinking and doing.  It is an orientation which demands clarity everywhere, but which realizes that the fabric of life can never quite be comprehended.  I makes us pay careful attention to detail and at the same time recognizes the great lines which run through the whole.  It is an orientation which acknowledges the bonds which tie people together, but at the same time strives for free development of the individual.  Our work is carried by the faith that this attitude will win the future.
I got the quote from here, which also has a couple of other similar passages quoted. Of course, it defeats the whole object to try and simply state the full content of the underlying attitude. The idea is that it must show itself in one's bearing towards life, other people, and the problems one faces. But I think I have some grasp of what is at stake, and it is indeed attractive to me, and I try and live up to it. I'll note that this is why I think the metaphilosophy in Carnap appeals to me more than his particular views - it is the attitude it embodies rather than the specifics of what he said that I find philosophically admirable.

Third, there is a certain sort of error which I think will be familiar to both scientists and humanists but which is hard to explain. Some errors just seem to one to be fruitful, the sort of mistakes one feels that it was well worth one's time to think through and diagnose even as one is quite confident they are mistaken, in order to better calibrate one's own view. I often see or hear humanists use the locution "thinking with X", and inevitably the name that substitutes in for "X" is someone who I think they don't agree with but who they feel they have benefited from looking at their thoughts on a topic of interest. Whereas I think that this felt experience is a lot of the psychological basis for the frequency with which scientists will say that they find Popperian falsificationism an intuitive philosophy of science. Carnap's errors very frequently seem to me of this sort. I think he did a bad job of explaining and defending verificationism, but I think it has been very useful to me to think about why and how this relates to my own empiricist sensibilities. As far as I can tell it is consensus among historians of logic that his work on modal logic was of just this sort when considered from a communal perspective. The Aufbau was plausibly influential in the development of early AI research, and Carnap's formal work on syntax was cited and used in one of the most influential early papers on AI, authored in part by  a student of his. As I said, I think about structuralism in a way that is guided by Carnap's fundamental picture of it, even while I don't actually know whether I agree or disagree! So inducting from all this, when I see a new Carnap piece to read I tend to be excited, since I anticipate getting more of this sort of fruitful error.

So that's Carnap for me. Someone I think was either wrong or just working on things I don't think much about for the most part. But with whom I feel a kind of aspirational moral identification, who I have this somewhat cringey aesthetic appreciation for, and who I think was, like, wrong about everything but... in a cool way. I suspect that my own reasons for finding Carnap so impressive are similar for people who are specialists in other individual figures, or generally fans and describe themselves as "X-ians" for their fave as X. I think reflecting on this explicitly does two things. First, there is a common mistake in popular discourse about teaching in the humanities that would have it that if we teach a class on ABC it is because we wish students to come to accept ABC or glorify the progenitors of ABC. My strong experience is that this is not the case, and a good illustration is that even when we humanists base our teaching on our faves there's often a lot of disagreement. Second, and somewhat in tension, I think that while this is easy to hold in mind during moments of high explicit reflection (like during teaching or when engaged in metaphilosophical blog posts!) in practice it becomes difficult to separate out an intellectual figure from their views. In some heated contexts people become defensive for their faves in a way that can make it natural to defend the content of their views - hence, probably, the impression of the humanities just mentioned, corroding effects of hero worship, and #NoHeroes.

Rudolf Carnap - the title was promising but
I was less keen on the main body of text.


  1. Yup.

    I think I once said something like, "Everything Quine wrote is false, but I believe it all."

    Thanks for the background on Carnap "with the angels". I hadn't thought of that in connection with the "das Nichts nichtet" dispute.

  2. It's a good attitude to have towards oneself

  3. The Nietzsche on the bedside table quip is from Gottfried Gabriel's intro to Carnap Brought Home:


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