Dear Carnap, Dear Van. The Quine-Carnap Correspondence and Related Work
By W.V. Quine and Rudolf Carnap. Edited by Richard Creath
Publisher: University of California Press
Review Author: Gary Mar
“Carnap, more than anyone else was the embodiment of logical positivism, logical empiricism, the Vienna Circle,” wrote Quine in his 1970 tribute to Carnap. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1933, Quine traveled to Prague to meet Carnap. Although Quine became Carnap’s disciple for six years, unresolved philosophical disagreements culminated 20 years later in Quine’s celebrated essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” which is often touted as the single most effective work in toppling the pillars of the Viennese palace. In the 1920s the Vienna Circle had set the philosophic tone for the first half of the century. In the 1950s Quine, assimilating Carnap’s ideas with American pragmatism, set much of the agenda for analytic philosophy during the second half of the century.
It is easy, with hindsight, to belittle the legacy of logical positivism. It is not so easy to get an unbiased view of its history. One reason to do so is that much of contemporary philosophy has been molded by excessive reactions to a historical caricature.
The most widely retold tale goes something like this: Logical positivism was a doctrine originally articulated by Schlick, Carnap, Neurath, and other members of the Vienna Circle who attempted to interpret knowledge in terms of the Verificationist Theory of Meaning (VTM). According to the VTM, all cognitively meaningful sentences are either analytic (true or false by virtue of the meanings of the terms involved) or empirically verifiable. From this radically empiricist doctrine arose the notorious anti-metaphysical attitude of logical positivism: Metaphysical statements such as “God exists” can be dismissed as “pseudo-sentences” void of all cognitive content. Unfortunately, the logical positivists somehow failed to realize that the VTM was itself neither analytic nor empirically verifiable, and so meaningless by their own standards. Then, so the story goes, in the early 1960s, positivism was overthrown by “post-positivist” philosophy of science. Thomas Kuhn’s influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions rendered problematic — beyond hope of redemption — such notions as progress, objectivity, and rationality.
This simplistic and misleading account has recently been refuted by scholars. Dear Carnap, Dear Van contributes to that scholarly refutation.
What emerges from the Carnap-Quine correspondence is a remarkable record of philosophic controversies surrounding analytic philosophy and a portrait of an enduring friendship. In the earliest exchange of letters we can see in seminal form Quine’s dramatic departures from logical positivism — such as opposition to intensional logic. In a 1938 letter Quine admonished: “I proceed to inveigh against your recent intensional propensities…. I fear your principle of tolerance may finally lead you even to tolerate Hitler.” To which Carnap gave this uncharacteristically spirited reply: “Your sermon against my sin of intensionality has made a great impression on me. But I may say as an apology, I do not indulge in this vice generally and thoroughly…. Although we usually do not like to apply intensional languages, nevertheless we cannot help analyzing them. What would you think of an entomologist who refused to investigate fleas and lice because he dislikes them?”
Logical positivism was, in fact, not a monolithic view encapsulated in the VTM. Although it presented a unified front, there was a wide divergence of views within the Circle itself. After briefly flirting with the VTM, Carnap, with characteristic honesty, announced its failure.
Hao Wang, in Beyond Analytic Philosophy, complains that “both Carnap and Quine have inadequate conceptions of logic….” Ironically, analytic empiricism, in the sense of Carnap or Quine, Wang argues, cannot give an adequate account of mathematics and logic. Given the view that mathematics is reducible to logic (logicism) and that all logical truths are analytic (analyticity), and that analytic propositions are true by convention and so void of content (conventionalism), it follows that mathematical knowledge, as Bertrand Russell once put it, “is all of the same nature as the ‘great truth’ that there are three feet in a yard.” Carnap, in his intellectual autobiography, celebrated this consequence as a major “insight” of logical positivism. Wang demurs, drawing on the insights of Kurt Goedel. (Although Goedel attended meetings of the Circle, his philosophy of mathematics was more Platonist than positivist.) According to Wang, more fundamental than the two dogmas that separated Quine and Carnap is their analytic empiricism which blinds them to the autonomy of conceptual knowledge.
Laudan’s Science and Relativism is written with the aim of “setting the exegetical record straight” concerning post-positivist philosophy of science. “My larger target,” writes Laudan, “is those contemporaries who — in repeated acts of wish-fulfillment — have appropriated conclusions from philosophy of science and put them to work in aid of a variety of social cum political causes for which those conclusions are ill adapted.” The currently popular forms of epistemic relativism, argues Laudan, “derive scant support from a clearheaded understanding of the contemporary state of the art in philosophy of science.”
Won’t the Humpty Dumpty of postmodernist relativism, propped up by the discredited philosophy of science of the 1960s, eventually fall of its own accord? Against such a hope, Laudan cites a conference announcement (ironically sponsored by the Nobel Foundation) whose theme was “The End of Science?”: “As we study our world today, there is an uneasy feeling that we have come to the end of science, that science, as a unified, universal, objective endeavor, is over…. We have begun to think of science as a more subjective and relativistic project, operating out of social attitudes and ideologies — Marxism and feminism, for example.” Unfortunately, the echoes of such unthinking postmodernist mumbling can frequently be heard today in the halls of academia.
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