Tuesday, May 18, 2021

A Carnap gold mine!

Rudolf Carnap, one of the central figures of 20th century philosophy, was born 130 years ago today. He was the leading exponent of what is called logical positivism or logical empiricism and helped found the idea of a philosophy of science. Born in Germany, he emigrated to the United States in the mid-1930s. Throughout his life he kept shorthand diaries. Recently, many of these have been made freely available online as series of digital images, and some of them have also been transcribed (but only in German). André Carus, an academic philosopher who runs a Carnap blog, has called the diaries ‘a Carnap gold mine!’ None of the diary material, though, has yet appeared in English.

Carnap was born on 18 May 1891 in the small town of Ronsdorf, now part of Wuppertal, an industrial city near the Ruhr area of northwest Germany. His mother was a teacher, and his father owned a ribbon-making factory. He was educated at home before secondary school years, and, in 1908, he moved with his family to Jena, to live with his uncle, Friedrich Wilhelm Dörpfeld, a well-known and highly influential archaeologist. He attended Jena university to study philosophy, physics, and mathematics, and was drawn to Gottlob Frege’s courses in mathematical logic. He was an enthusiastic member of the Youth Movement then sweeping Germany, and became one of its local representatives. Although opposed on moral and political grounds to the war, he felt obliged to serve in the army. After three years he was given permission to study at the University of Berlin (1917-1918) where Albert Einstein was a newly appointed professor. 

Returning to the University of Jena, he wrote a thesis defining an axiomatic theory of space and time but it pleased neither the physics or philosophy departments, so he wrote another on the theory of space in a more orthodox Kantian style. This was published in 1921 as Der Raum (Space). For several years he continued his researches in logic and the foundations of physics and wrote a number of essays on problems of space, time, and causality, as well as a textbook, Abriss der Logistik, on symbolic logic. In 1926, he was invited by Moritz Schlick, the founder of the Vienna Circle to join the faculty of the University of Vienna, where he soon became an influential member. Initial ideas of logical positivism, or logical empiricism emerged from discussions within the Circle, as they sought to develop a scientific world view through bringing the precision of the exact sciences to philosophical inquiry.

Carnap and his associates established close connections with scholars in other countries, among them a group of empiricists in Berlin under Hans Reichenbach. Carnap and Reichenbach founded a periodical, Erkenntnis as a forum for the new ‘scientific philosophy’. In 1928, came Carnap’s first major work Der logische Aufbau der Welt (The Logical Structure of the World). From 1931 to 1935, he was professor of natural philosophy at the German University in Prague, where he developed a more liberal version of empiricism, elaborated in his essay Testability and Meaning.

In 1935, Carnap emigrated to the US (becoming a naturalised citizen in 1941) and took up a post as professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, where he remained mostly until 1952 (1939-1941 was spent at Harvard University). He wrote books on semantics, modal logic, and on the philosophical foundations of probability and inductive logic. After a stint at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he joined the UCLA Department of Philosophy in 1954. He worked on scientific knowledge, the analytic–synthetic distinction, and the verification principle. Other writings on thermodynamics, and on the foundations of probability and inductive logic, were published after his death in 1970. He was married twice, having four children by his first marriage to Elizabeth Schöndube, and marrying his second wife, Elizabeth Ina Stöger, in 1933. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopadia of Philosophy.

Carnap kept diaries for much of his life, in German and using a shorthand. They are held with a large collection of other material (donated by Carnap’s daughter in 1974) in the Carnap Papers at the ULS Archives & Special Collections at the University of Pittsburgh. The diaries cover a long period, from 1911 to 1969. A full list is available online with links to the digital images of many, if not most, of the diaries. According to the inventory, transcripts of the diary images are pending and will be put online soon.

Indeed, work has been under way for sometime to produce a working draft of the diaries up to 1935. Brigitta Arden and Brigitte Parakenings have been transcribing them in collaboration with Christian Damböck’s research project Historical-Critical Edition of Sources from the Nachlass of Rudolf Carnap. The initial result is available as a pdf here, but, as the authors state, the text comes with a warning that it must not be cited - there is no introduction, no editorial report, no index of abbreviations, only sketchy annotations, a fragmentary index etc. 

Here is a short bit about the project from an article (entitled Carnap gold mine!) written by André Carus, a philosopher (Munich Centre for Mathematical Philosophy) who runs a Carnap blog,

‘Thanks to Christian Damböck, who has a multi-year grant for this purpose from the Austrian government, Carnap’s diaries (up to 1935) - long inaccessible, and only recently open to the public - have now all been transcribed from Carnap’s Stolze-Schrey shorthand. [. . .] Carnap’s shorthand is not just a standard off-the-shelf system. It is based on Stolze-Schrey, but he used hundreds of personalized abbreviations of his own, which can only be learned by long experience of trial and error. So learning to read it is hard, and I have to admit that even after a lot of practice, I find it slow going. I’ve had a look at some of these diaries in shorthand, and they are often hard to puzzle out. Even with the occasional gap here and there I’m very impressed at the thoroughness and completeness of the job the transcribers have done.’

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