David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Rudolf Carnap: Win the Future

Rudolf Carnap, arch-positivist and analytic philosopher sine qua non, was also a committed socialist and pacifist, to the point of having to flee Austria in 1935 despite not being Jewish. This passage is from the introduction to his grand vision of logical positivist unification, the Aufbau, revealing the frequently overlooked space he made for emotions and irrationality, which he acknowledges to be unavoidable and even valuable, within their domain.

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.

The Logical Structure of the World

And yet:

Even if modem movements frequently underestimate the importance of science for life, we do not wish to fall into the opposite error. Rather, we wish to admit clearly to ourselves, who are engaged in scientific work, that the mastery of life requires an effort of all our various powers; we should be wary of the shortsighted belief that the demands of life can all be met with the power of conceptual thinking alone.

The ”riddles of life” are not questions, but are practical situations.

And this attitude is reflected in this humanist passage, from his autobiography many years later:

The transformation and final abandonment of my religious convictions led at no time to a nihilistic attitude toward moral questions. My moral valuations were afterwards essentially the same as before. It is not easy to characterize these valuations in a few words, since they are not based on explicitly formulated principles, but constitute rather an implicit lasting attitude. The following should therefore be understood as merely a rough and brief indication of certain basic features. The main task of an individual seems to me the development of his personality and the creation of fruitful and healthy relations among human beings. This aim implies the task of co-operation in the development of society and ultimately of the whole of mankind towards a community in which every individual has the possibility of leading a satisfying life and of participating in cultural goods. The fact that everybody knows that he will eventually die need not make his life meaningless or aimless. He himself gives meaning to his life if he sets tasks for himself, struggles to fulfill them to the best of his ability, and regards all the specific tasks of all individuals as parts of the great task of humanity, whose aim goes far beyond the limited span of each individual life.


  1. I had a teacher in philosophy as an undergraduate that used to lament about how the picture people have of Carnap (and logical positivists in general) is a caricature. What is remembered is his rather absurd argumentation against Heidegger and some notion about logical reduction of language that might have been mentioned briefly in a phil.history class. But Carnap was a lot more complicated than that, and it is nice that you remind us of that.

  2. David Auerbach

    5 August 2011 at 14:11

    Thanks NN. Carnap was a bit “softer” in some ways than Schlick, who tended to keep politics a bit more strictly separate (while still having similar political views). The “anti-metaphysical” rhetoric can sound draconian and in many ways it is, but I think that in the context of the times, it makes a great deal of sense as well. It was only later with Ryle in particular that the rhetoric became very hardened and hostile toward even the discussion of “metaphysical” issues. But to see Carnap as part of a broad tradition alongside Peirce, Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Davidson, and even (maybe) Kuhn is I think fair. Quine rejected logical empiricism but his debts to Carnap are clear.

    Michael Friedman’s “Parting of the Ways,” about Carnap and Heidegger and Cassirer at Davos, is a good portrait of the disputes, though his sympathies are quite obviously with Cassirer rather than the other two. Mine ultimately are as well, but I still maintain great sympathy for Carnap despite the ultimate failure of the verificationist program. Call me a softy, but it’s hard for me to read the passages above and not like him.

  3. These passages are wonderful. Tell me more, as this is the first time I’ve heard the name of Carnap (philosophers are not my strong point, unless they come from France, then I do better). Are the sentiments you’ve captured here considered to be unusual in his thought? It’s just that reading them as stand-alones, they feel so intrinsic, and so much about what binds together, what unites, what underlies.

  4. David Auerbach

    10 August 2011 at 18:41

    litlove: The sentiments here are certainly atypical in their *form*, as his work is mostly hardcore logical representation of reality. The question: to what extent are these sentiments captured in such a logical positivist effort? This passage is more a mission statement, with the actual work being heavily analytic.

    He wrote an autobiography which is much more in the vein of the passage above, which is well worth reading.

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