RUDOLF CARNAP & THE SEMANTIC TRADITION

Speaker: Victor Suchar, Member, on 7 Sept. 1999

Rudolf Carnap was one of the major philosophers in this century. He set the agenda for analytical philosophy from 1928 when he published his first seminal work to his death in 1970.

Carnap was born in 1891, in Ronsdorf, Germany, in a family of Lutheran pastors on his mother's side and weavers become prosperous on his father's. From 1910 to 1914 studied philosophy, physics and mathematics at the Universities of Jena and Freiburg. Among his teachers was Bruno Bauch with whom he studied Kantian philosophy. Carnap was particularly interested in Kant's philosophy of space. In 1910 Carnap attended Frege's lectures on logic, and again in 1913 when he was one of three students (this accounts for the famous scarcity of Frege lecture notes). Frege explained then his system of logic and its applications to mathematics. Carnap then served in the first war until 1917 when he was moved to Berlin, where he studied the theory of relativity.

After the war he submitted his dissertation on the axiomatic system for the theory of space and time to Max Wien, Director of the Institute of Physics in Jena and to Bruno Bauch. Both found it interesting, but Wien thought that it was about philosophy, while Bauch , about physics. Finally, Carnap wrote his thesis under Bauch. The work entitled Space, was published in 1922.. He became assistant professor at Vienna in 1926, and a leading member of the Vienna Circle where he met with Goedel, Wittgenstein and Popper. In 1928, Carnap published The logical construction of the world (Aufbau), his first major book and a central work of logical positivism. In 1931, he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the German University in Prague. In 1934 he published The logical syntax of language.

In 1935 he moved to the US, helped by Quine, whom he met in Prague, and who was to become his successor as the leading figure in analytical philosophy. From 1935 -52 he was Professor at Chicago and Harvard; from 1952-54 Professor at the School of Advanced Studies at Princeton and from 1954, Professor at the University of California. He published Introduction to Semantics in 1943, Meaning and Necessity — a study in semantics and modal logic in 1947, Logical foundations of probability in 1950, Observational Language and Theoretical Language in 1958, and Philosophical Foundations of Physics in 1966.

The Logical Construction of the World (The Aufbau), became the bible of a new `anti-philosophy' announced by the logical positivists. From simple observation reports and logical connectives such as `if / then', `or', `and', the logical positivists sought to ground a `scientific', `anti-philosophical' philosophy that would set all reliable knowledge on strong foundations and isolate them from the unreliable. Since all valid inferences would be built on these basic statements, the sciences would be unified by their shared starting points.

The Aufbau, together with Carnap's later works, has exerted a powerful sway over the conduct of philosophy of science, and over analytical philosophy, economics, psychology and physics in this century. But also, an interesting but little known fact, is that on 15 October 1929, Carnap came to lecture at the Bauhaus in Dessau. (his lecture, untranslated, is at Pittsburgh University, in the Carnap Archive). This lecture and the strong contacts between Gropius, the Director of the Bauhaus, Hannes Mayer, the head of the Architecture Department, Kandinski, and others, greatly influenced the idea of the modern promoted by the Bauhaus. For their part the Bauhaus hoped to use scientific principles to combine colour relations and basic geometric forms to eliminate the decorative and create a new `anti-aesthetic' aesthetic that would prize functionality. Carnap's logical positivism was a fundamental component of the Bauhaus basic design programme.

The speaker made the following proposals and raised the following questions in his presentation:

Carnap was in fact the engineer who attempted to build a vast edifice to comprise all of science — exact science and social, on the specifications, or on the briefs, outlined by Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein. We know that he failed to complete his edifice although some of his drawings have remained useful. Did he misunderstand or misinterpret the specifications? Was he unable as an engineer? Did he lack the appropriate tools? The speaker contended that now at the very end of the century it is indeed important to glance and give significance to the attempt by philosophers of science to construct a `modern' view of the world based on science, and Carnap was pivotal to that view. This would give us a chance to appraise what is alive and what are the alternatives to his thought.

According to Richard Rorty, a great critic of the analytical tradition in philosophy "The sort of optimistic faith which Russell and Carnap shared with Kant — that philosophy, its essence and right method, discovered at last, has been placed on the secured path of science — is not something to be mocked or dropped. Such optimism is possible only for men of high imagination and daring, the heros of our time."

According to Quine, Carnap's successor as the major figure in analytical philosophy: " To account for the external world as a logical construct of sense data: such was the programme of 1910 in Russell's terms. It was Carnap in the Aufbau who came the nearest to executing it. What then could have motivated Carnap's heroic efforts on the conceptual side of epistemology, when hope on the doctrinal side was abandoned? There are two good reasons still. One was that such constructions could be expected to elicit and clarify the sensory evidence for science. The other was that such constructions would deepen our understanding of our discourse about the world, even apart from questions of evidence; it would make all cognitive discourse as clear as observation terms and logic"

For a brief time, Carnap's ideology of a single life of artistic and scientific dimensions seemed possible. It was an utopia of a world where a rational engineer could fashion not only the basis of philosophy and architecture, but the way of life that went with them. In later time, others have identified logical positivism as the arch foe of progressive holistic postmodernism. Others have defended it as the last vestige against obscurantism and irrationalism.

The search for new directions in the philosophy of science must be coupled with a cultural and historical assessment of both positivism and anti-positivism; this assesment would find Carnap to be the pivotal figure. He did not eliminate intuition, he attempted to explain it in modern terms, and in his fundamental work, his differences to Kant were of degree not of kind. This, in the speaker's opinion, is the key to understanding of Carnap's theory of knowledge. But these differences were of sufficient magnitude to create a basis for a more precise and consistent language of mathematics and physical science. Carnap's radicalism was first of all in engineering: the attempt to build the edifice of unified science — natural and social, from a single privileged foundation — mathematical and physical science, in which he did not succeed. Second, it was in his utopian modernist ideology of a `single life', scientific and cultural. oriented toward science, which ultimately became more known than his philosophy.

In the speaker's view, an alternative to modernism in philosophy of science is to look at science as a diverse state of scientific practices without a privileged foundational level either in observation or theoretical assumptions. In this case the strength of the enterprise would come from the concept of a network of theories which implicate and partially explain each other.

Victor Suchar