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Why I am so very unFrench, and other essays

Jacques Bouveresse

Rudolf Carnap and the Legacy of Aufklärung

Note de l’éditeur

First published in Pierre Wagner (ed.), Carnap’s Ideal of Explication and Naturalism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. – Complete, definitive and much longer French version as “Carnap et l’héritage de l’Aufklärung”, in Jacques Bouveresse, Essais VI. Les lumières des positivistes, Agone, 2011.

Texte intégral

1The book of André Carus on Carnap, Carnap and Twentieth-Century Thought, begins with a quotation which, as some of you can imagine, was an agreeable surprise for me:

  • 1 André W. Carus, Carnap and Twentieth-Century Thought: Explication as Enlightenment, Cambridge Unive (...)

Mathematicians, unlike the rest of us, have retained something of the original Enlightenment spirit, thought the novelist Robert Musil; they provide examples of a spiritual daring that has otherwise fallen by the wayside. “We others,” Musil regretted, “have let our courage drop since the time of the Enlightenment. Some small bungle was enough to get us off the track of reason, and we now let every soft-headed visionary denounce the projects of a d’Alembert or a Diderot as misguided rationalism.” We are apt to plead the cause of feeling against the intellect, forgetting that we inhabit an intellect-constructed world. By “we” he meant Central Europeans of the early twentieth century, but his warnings are no less relevant to our own times. “We must be on our guard,” he wrote, “against all yearnings for the de-complexification of literature and life, for Homeric or religious warmth, for uniformity and wholeness.”1

  • 2 Robert Musil, “Der mathematische Mensch” [1913], in Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke in acht Bänden, (...)

2The two quoted statements are taken from “Der mathematische Mensch,” an essay which was written in April-June 1913, and “Analyse und Synthese,” which was written in November of the same year. I have used them myself frequently to describe the situation of the contemporary intellect, and I think that André Carus is completely right when he observes that Musil’s warnings are no less relevant to our own times than they were to the beginning of the twentieth century in Central Europe, and in fact also, I think, from Musil’s point of view, more or less in Europe in general. Musil says that “there is today no other possibility of such a fantastical mode of feeling as the one of the mathematicians,” and he goes so far as to suggest that the mathematicians “are an analogy for the intellectual man who is about to come.”2

3Let me add to that one more quotation, which is directly relevant to our topic, I mean a passage in which Musil remarks that the powerful movement of modern science was inspired by a mental attitude that can indeed be characterized as pragmatist and positivist (in the broadest sense) and has determined largely the form of the actual world, but we have too quickly and quite regrettably forgotten the degree to which it had also been and could still be attractive and even exciting not only for the intellect, but also fort the feeling and for he soul iself:

  • 3 Robert Musil, “Das hilflose Europa oder Reise vom Hundersten ins Tausendste” [1922]”, in Robert Mus (...)

The formula for that has approximately the following wording: “Don’t tell yourself fanciful stories. Trust your own senses. Search always until you can put your feet on the rock!” It is a powerful movement of abstinence from the soul, by which a powerful impulse of the soul in a new direction arose, and we must not be mistaken about the fire, the force, which it has still in itself.3

4Whenever I read that, I cannot help thinking that what Carnap wrote in the preface of Der logische Aufbau der Welt (1928) gives one the most typical examples of what Musil means by the impulse of the soul in a new direction to which he alludes. Carnap was quite conscious of and eager to lay stress on the fact that the search for clarity and exactness in the practice of philosophy and in general had not to be perceived exclusively under the aspect of abstinence and renouncement: one should never forget that, contrary to what the appearances might suggest, it was quite able to provoke also an emotion and a passion of the most genuine kind.

  • 4 Rudolf Carnap, Der logische Aufbau der Welt, zweite Auflage, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1961, p. (...)

The practical doing with philosophical problems and the finding of new solutions must not proceed in a purely thinking way, but will always be determined according to instinct, will use intuitive (anschauliche, intuitive) means. But the justification has to be brought before the forum of the intellect; here we have no right to appeal to an experienced intuition or to needs of the mind [Bedürfnisse des Gemüts]. We too have “needs of the mind” in philosophy, but they aim at clarity of the concepts, soberness of the methods, responsibility of the theses, efficiency through collective working, into which the individual is able to take his place.4

5Those who are of the opinion that there is a kind of antinomy between affectivity, on the one hand, and the exigency of rationality and logic, on the other, make simply, according to Carnap, the mistake of forgetting that the needs of affectivity, in philosophy, can also be satisfied by the search for clarity, precision, soberness, rational discussion and methodical cooperation between the individuals. Qualities and abilities of the sort he mentions, contrary to a view which is very widespread and probably dominant among the philosophers, should never be considered as alien to philosophy or, still worse, as the enemies of philosophy, at least of deep and genuine philosophy. There is no reason to believe that there is only one way of writing in philosophy and that it has to be essentially literary and suggestive, rather than scientific and argumentative.

6In Our Knowledge of the External World, where he pleads for the use of logic and the logical methods in philosophy, Russell observes that the irrational substratum in the human nature, which may have some difficulties to satisfy its needs in a relatively ordered and quiet world like ours – as he himself remarked later, he had written that before 1914 – may very well try to find in imagination, including philosophical imagination, what it can not have in action.

  • 5 Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, London, Allen & Unwin, 1914, p. 21.

“Hence [Russell said] James’s protest against what he calls the “block universe” of the classical tradition; hence Nietzsche’s worship of force; hence the verbal bloodthirstiness of many quite literary men. The barbaric substratum of human nature, unsatisfied in action, finds an outlet in imagination. In philosophy, as elsewhere, this tendency is visible; and it is this, rather than formal argument, that has thrust aside the classical tradition for a philosophy which fancies itself more virile and more vital.5

  • 6 Id., p. 28.
  • 7 Id., p. 40.

But Russell himself was forced to admit that philosophy, practised in a strongly theoretical and genuinely scientific way “cannot hope to appeal to any except those who have the wish to understand, to escape from intellectual bewilderment. It offers, in its own domain, the kind of satisfaction that the other sciences offer. But it does not offer, or attempt to offer, a solution of the problem of human destiny, or of the destiny of the universe.”6 In other words, according to Russell, “the philosophy […], which is to be genuinely inspired by the scientific spirit, must deal with somewhat dry and abstract matters, and must not hope to find an answer to the practical problems of life.”7

7But, many philosophers would object, what can remain properly philosophical in philosophy, once it has decided to satisfy only intellectual needs and to renounce trying to solve and even to discuss the practical problems of life? And what would be the interest of making philosophy more scientific, if the science in question can only be of the most abstract kind and without any real link with the problems that may seem to be the most important for us? André Carus begins his book by reminding us that one of the most central tenets of the tradition of the Enlightenment was that knowledge – and that means even knowledge of the most theoretical kind – can be used and has to be used by human beings to shape their own lives and to improve them. As he says:

  • 8 CTT, p. 1.

A certain, recurrent, perhaps inextinguishable human ambition found its classic expression in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, especially in the circle around Diderot and d’Alembert: the ambition of shaping individual and social development on the basis of better and more reliable knowledge than the tangled, confused, half-articulate but deeply rooted conceptual systems inherited from our ancestors. The Enlightenment is identified with the idea that improved knowledge can be an instrument of individual and social liberation.8

  • 9 CTT, p. 3.

8That most fundamental conviction of the Enlightenment was completely shared by the Vienna Circle, which, as André Carus remarks, tried to counter the dominant romantic reaction against the spirit of Aufklärung in Germany and Austria, by reasserting the Enlightenment values, i. e. by what he calls “a programme of re-Enlightenment.”9 I have quoted Our Knowledge of the External World mainly because Russell, in that book, seems to express a sceptical point of view about the possibility to have a philosophy that would be able both to satisfy the exigencies of scientific seriousness and to afford a real contribution to the solution of the problems of practical life. If you expect from philosophy, practised in the new style, successes comparable to those of Newton and Darwin, you will have them; but that implies, for Russell, the complete abandoning of some of the most central hopes and promises of traditional philosophy.

  • 10 Russell, Our Knowledge, op. cit., p. 41.

9Russell did not, of course, deny that what he calls “the new and powerful method of investigation” which the new philosophy brings with it will raise up a sense of power and a hope of progress which will be more reliable and better founded. But they will have to be really different and certainly very frustrating for the great majority of the philosophers: “Many hopes which inspired philosophers in the past it cannot claim to fulfil: but other hopes, more purely intellectual, it can satisfy more fully than former ages could have deemed possible for human minds.”10 What Russell says here is probably easier to understand if we remember that he recommends to philosophy to adopt the kind of ethical (and, needless to say, also political) neutrality that science has imposed to itself as a fundamental principle and that has been a condition of its progress. That does not mean that philosophy itself must renounce completely understanding the world in terms of notions like good and evil and trying to make it better than it is. But the way it can hope to be able to change things for the better will have to be much more indirect than it usually thinks or rather imagines:

  • 11 Id., p. 39.

If philosophy is not to remain a set of pleasing dreams, this belief must be driven forth. It is a commonplace that happiness is not best achieved by those who seek it directly; and it would seem that the same is true of the good. In thought, at any rate, those who forget good and evil and seek only to know the facts are more likely to achieve good than those who view the world through the distorting medium of their own desires.11

2. Carnap and the wish to “out-Russell Russell”

10Richard Wollheim is certainly right when he writes:

  • 12 Richard Wollheim, “Bertrand Russell and The Liberal Tradition”, in George Nakhnikian (ed.), Bertran (...)

Where Russell exaggerates […] is in the assertion, which he was fond of making, that his political thinking had intellectually nothing to do with his general philosophy. Nor do I find Russell’s argument for this assertion – namely, that, though he agreed with Hume on most points of general philosophy, he was in total disagreement with him on politics – as convincing as Russell would like it to be. But there is at least this to the assertion: that it corrects the error of thinking of Russell’s political ideas as a mere application of his general philosophy, designed to round off the picture as it were. It restores to them the immediacy of their inspiration.12

Russell did, in fact, not only believe in the complete separability of general philosophy and politics; he, apparently, was also convinced that hard and serious philosophy, based mainly on logic and logical analysis, on the one hand, and political thinking, on the other, do require completely different capacities and that his own ability to the first (but not necessarily to the second) might have disappeared relatively early in his life.

11The authors of the Manifest of the Vienna Circle, which was published in 1929, one year after Der logische Aufbau der Welt, had an idea of the new – i.e. scientific – philosophy, which was, at first sight, very different from Russell’s. They were convinced that it is not and cannot be ethically and politically neutral. In the social and political struggles of the present the representatives of the scientific world-conception cannot but stand on a very definite side. Between what Russell calls knowledge of the facts, which, for the Vienna Circle, means empiricism in its modern form, on the one hand, and democracy and socialism, on the other, there must be a link that cannot be purely accidental. In the conclusion of The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle, it is said that:

  • 13 The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle, Dordrecht, D. Reidel, 1973, p. 19.

The increase of metaphysical and theologizing leanings which shows itself today in many associations and sects, in books and journals, in talks and university lectures, seems to be based on the fierce social and economic struggles of the present: one group of combatants, holding fast to traditional social forms, cultivates traditional attitudes of metaphysics and theology whose content has long since been superseded; while the other group, especially in central Europe, faces modern times, rejects these views and takes his stand on the ground of empirical science. This development is connected with that of the modern process of production, which is becoming ever more rigorously mechanized and leaves ever less room for metaphysical ideas. It is also connected with the disappointment of broad masses of people with the attitude of those who preach traditional metaphysical and theological doctrines. So it is that in many countries the masses now reject these doctrines much more consciously than ever before, and along with their socialist attitudes tend to lean toward a down-to-earth empiricist view. In previous times, materialism was the expression of this view; meanwhile, however, modern empiricism has shed a number of inadequacies and has taken a strong shape in the scientific world-conception.13

  • 14 Ibid.

12The Vienna Circle did, of course, not expect of nor require from each of its members that he would be actively participating in the social and political struggles of the time. But the idea was that even those who, as the manifest says, would choose to “lead a withdrawn existence on the icy slopes of logic,”14 would produce achievements which have their place in the historic developments toward a better future. I am not, of course, claiming that the leaders of the Vienna Circle succeeded in demonstrating the real existence of a kind of “logical” link between the principles of the scientific world-conception and the kind of moral, social and political commitments which were supposed to follow from them or at least to go with them. It is generally admitted that they did not. But those who, like Carnap, were willing to fight not only on the most theoretical, but also on the most practical questions had apparently no doubt about the existence of a connection of that sort.

13André Carus notes that:

  • 15 CTT, p. 4, note 5.

In the letter accompanying the Aufbau (1928), Carnap says to Russell that he has here embarked on the programme sketched in Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World, but has carried it through more radically and consistently, so that he sees his book as Russellischer als Russell (“more russellian than Russell).”15

  • 16 Ibid.

It it not completely unreasonable to suppose that an aspect in which Carnap and some other members of the Vienna Circle, to speak as André Carus, “sought to out-Russell Russell”16 consisted in their conviction that it should be possible to establish a much more direct link between serious – i.e. “scientific” – philosophy, on the one hand, and moral reforming and social and political transformation, on the other. André Carus mentions also an earlier letter, in which Carnap alludes to Russell’s pacifist commitments and activities during the war and suggests that it cannot be a pure coincidence that philosophers who have learned to respect the exigencies of logic and the constraints of natural science are also those who fight against war and oppression. Russell’s French pupil, Jean Nicod, could also have been mentioned as another typical example of that kind.

14The book of André Carus contains a whole chapter, the fifth, whose title is “The Impact of Russell”, devoted to an examination of the influence exerted by Russell, and especially by Our Knowledge of the External World, on Carnap. In his Intellectual Autobiography, Carnap quotes Russell’s famous programmatic statement:

  • 17 Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge…, op. cit., p. 246.

The one and only condition, I believe, which is necessary in order to secure for philosophy in the near future an achievement surpassing all that has hitherto been achieved by philosophers, is the creation of a school of men with scientific training and philosophical interests, unhampered by the traditions of the past and not misled by the literary methods of those who copy the ancients in all except their merits.17

Carnap’s personal reaction to Russell’s claim was very enthusiastic.

  • 18 Rudolf Carnap, “Intellectual Autobiography”, in P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Rudolf Carna (...)

I felt as if this appeal had been directed to me personally. To work in this spirit would be my task from now on! And indeed henceforth the application of the new logical instrument for the purposes of analyzing scientific concepts and clarifying philosophical problems has been the essential aim of my philosophical activity.18

15But what exactly can be expected from the new logical instrument, if one wants to analyze not only scientific concepts, but concepts of any kind, and not only to clarify the philosophical problems, but also have a better chance to find a real solution for them? As I have already suggested, Carnap was not willing to admit that the adoption of the new logical method could have as one of its first consequences the fact that the problems which the philosophical tradition had considered as the most important, particularly the practical problems of life, as Russell calls them, should, from now on, be simply dismissed by serious philosophy. André Carus is certainly right when he remarks that, on that point, Carnap’s attitude has always been more ambivalent and tolerant than superficial readers generally believe. He felt as his personal duty to fight for the new style in philosophy and was ready to do it, if need be, in quite polemical ways; but he also never departed from a certain respect for the philosophical tradition:

  • 19 CTT, p. 158.

On the one hand […], Carnap (like his Vienna Circle contemporaries) saw his proselytisation for a “scientific philosophy” as a political duty, of involvement in the general culture and of helping to shape a rational Gemeinschaftsgestalt. On the other hand, he was not by nature very doctrinaire, and his personal style was always very much that of the mediator. […] His impulse, in discussions where participants were talking past each other, was to find a common framework in which their positions could be located and dispassionately compared. This conciliatory impulse, though, was to some degree in tension with his new-found political duty to proselytize for a doctrine. The two tendencies could work together, as when the doctrine could be furthered by showing its commensurability with others – hence the Aufbau. But they could also be at odds, as in polemical documents like the pamphlets Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung, Scheinprobleme in der Philosophie, or Philosophy and Logical Syntax. But these are the documents that have shaped the popular view of the Vienna Circle, and given it a reputation of partisan intolerance and simplistic vituperation that does scant justice to the complexity of its real views, and the degree of heated intramural controversy.19

16André Carus is, unfortunately, not exaggerating when he remarks that a disastrous consequence of that was the fact that the ideas that are generally attributed to the Vienna Circle, and particularly to Carnap, by their enemies and even by some of their friends have in most cases almost nothing to do with what they have really thought.

  • 20 CTT, p. 7-8.

It will – Carus says of his book – try to state Carnap’s main ideas clearly and explain how they developed. As we will see, these ideas bear little resemblance to the crude caricature of them prevalent in the literature. Even some of Carnap’s closest interlocutors – including Ayer, Hempel, Popper, and Quine – misrepresented fundamental aspects of Carnap’s mature view. Carnap, it will turn out, clearly anticipated the recent anti-modern (or “post-modern”) critiques, and took account of them; he had after all confronted many of the same Romantic, anti-modern ideas in Weimar Germany.20

It seems to me that Carnap had indeed clearly anticipated not only certain critiques, including post-modernist critiques, of modernity, but also some of the most fundamental critiques which have to be formulated against post-modernism itself. But to understand Carnap, it is necessary to have at least some knowledge, which is generally lacking, of what he had already confronted in his youth in Germany and had decided to oppose.

17Judging from my own experience in the French philosophical circles and institutions, what Carus says is certainly true. When I was a student, in the beginning of the sixties, Carnap, when he was not completely ignored, was judged mainly on some polemical texts that do not express his real views or at least do not do it in a satisfactory way, and he was seen as the most perfect incarnation of philosophical – or rather anti-philosophical – dogmatism and intolerance, that is to say, almost exactly the contrary of what he really was. Needless to say, his real intellectual and moral personality, and the personal element that was involved in his attitude toward the philosophical tradition and the philosophical culture in general, were, if possible, still less known. As Carus explains, in Carnap, the tension between conciliation and confrontation was very far from being only a tactical question:

  • 21 CTT, p. 159.

There was a tension in what Carnap actually thought, i.e. in his personal attitude toward the philosophical tradition. On the one hand, there was once again a sense of duty toward promotion of the doctrine. But, on the other, there was a genuine personal interest, quite highly developed, in questions of values and the larger life context or Lebensgefühl, as one would naturally expect of someone from a family so immersed in Bildung, and of someone who had been so deeply involved in the German Youth Movement. It was not Carnap’s intent, as the very expression Lebensgefühl might indicate, to trivialise these questions.21

  • 22 Quoted in CTT, p. 159.

18Carus quotes a letter of 1922 to Heinrich Scholz, in which Carnap distinguishes two parts in philosophy: the first includes things like ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, etc., and the second what is called in traditional terminology logic and epistemology. And as to his own relation to the first part, he explains that he does not feel professionally qualified to teach or to do serious research in that field, “although, he says, I have a lively interest in it, and have made myself familiar with its questions and attempted solutions through books, lectures, seminars, and a number of conversations with friends – but [this was] always just from personal interest, from a desire for personal self-improvement, not as a productive researcher or a reproductive teacher.”22 As Carus remarks, there was no trace of politeness or caution in what Carnap said:

  • 23 Cf. Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer and Heidegger, Chicago & Lasalle, Ope (...)
  • 24 CTT, p. 159. Carnap had also an extensive knowledge of Husserl’s work and it has even been suggeste (...)

What he reports is no more than the literal truth; not only had he invested considerable time in thinking and talking about such questions, but he continued to do so, even through the whole “partisan” Vienna period – during which, among other things, he surprised people with his knowledge of Heidegger23, and spent several weeks in Davos at the ‘Europäische Hochschultage’ in February and March 1929 to witness the confrontation between Cassirer and Heidegger.24

19When I began reading Carnap, I immediately suspected that not only his philosophical, but also his literary culture was probably much more extended and diversified than it was generally supposed to be. And I was not completely surprised by what Heinrich Neider says of him in the conversation which has been published in 1977 in the review Conceptus:

  • 25 “Gespräch mit Heinrich Neider, Persönlichen Erinnerungen an der Wiener Kreis”, in “Österreichische (...)

Carnap came from the Jugendbewegung, had been present on the Hohe Meissner [the place, near Kassel, where 13 Jugendverbände, in October 1913, had celebrated the great festival of the “Freideutschen Jugend”], became a volunteer in the war, fought for a long time on the front, ended the war as lieutenant, but after the revolution participated to the activities of the Councils of Soldiers and more precisely – it seems to me – of the Central Council of Soldiers in Berlin. He was then an independent social-democrat [a member of the Unabhängige Sozialdemocratische Partei Deutschlands (USPD)], Carnap was never a communist. But he was nevertheless a radical socialist, even if it was not something you would have guessed when you saw him. He was a man unable of any outburst of affect, from whom I have never heard an impolite or despising word and to whom any kind of fanaticism was alien. I considered him which such a reaction of incredulity, when he said: “I, who was an independent at that time,” and I said: “I would absolutely not believe that of you” and he answered to that by the following reflection: “There are many things you would not believe about me, I have also been there at the Hohe Meissner festival.” And he, for that reason, knew for instance the poems of Stefan George quite well.”25

20I have always found Neider’s testimony both illuminating and very moving; and I must confess that it has determined in an important way the idea I have made myself of Carnap’s personality and personal history. It is certainly much more difficult for a reader of our time than it was already for Neider to believe what Carnap says about his own relation to the Jugendbewegung and also what Neider says about the knowledge he had of George’s poetical work. In 1913, Carnap was 22; and in itself the fact that a young German of his origin and education could have been a member of the Jugendbewegung and an admirer of Stefan George has certainly nothing astonishing. But it is difficult, retrospectively, to forget that George had been the pope of a kind of aristocratic, elitist and reactionary artistic and intellectual church, whose programme of spiritual regeneration for Germany and Europe could hardly have been farther from the spirit of the Enlightenment and from the kind of renovation which Carnap evokes in his preface to the Aufbau.

3. From the Jugendbewegung to the Vienna period

21Considering the way in which the world of Stefan George is described, for instance, by Georg Lukacs, it is difficult to imagine a greater distance between it and the kind of world which perhaps already was or at least was to become that of Carnap and of which the preface to the Aufbau gives a very striking idea:

  • 26 Georg Lukacs, Skizze einer Geschichte der neueren deutschen Literatur, Neuwied am Rhein und Berlin, (...)

A severely aristocratic world. George refuses passionately the social life of his time. He sees in it only a kind of soul-murdering prose, only the embodiment of depravity. His aristocratism is unbrotherly: there is in his world only creative genius and crude mass, without intermediary degrees, without mediation, without community of any kind. There are genuine human beings, who are able to follow him on his spiritual heights, who can breathe only in such a pure and rarefied atmosphere – and there is the rabble, the low-class people, who, through their own fault, their own blindness and inferior value, are excluded from genuine life.26

22Almost all what George contemptuously rejects is exactly what Carnap celebrates and tries to promote in his preface: modernity, progress, democracy, equality and fraternity among all human beings, use of the best of what scientific knowledge and technology can offer for making life, materially and morally, better for all men, belief and trust in the possibilities and promises of the future instead of nostalgia of the past, etc. As Carus says:

  • 27 CTT, p. 4.

The Vienna Circle wanted to create a new kind of intellectual culture that would be adequate to scientific knowledge and democratic society. They wanted to replace the culture of German classicism, underpinned by Kant, with something better and more durable, something more unequivocally ‘enlightened’, though equally nourishing. The Vienna Circle was, in its way, the explicit voice of modernism. It preached a comprehensive, root-and-branch reformation of human mental and social life, and allied itself with movements in science, literature, politics, social thought, art, and architecture sympathetic to the idea that human life and culture must adjust to changing conditions of society and knowledge in the modern world.27

It is, of course, quite possible to be fascinated to the highest degree by George’s poetry without having a sympathy of any kind for his social, political and even intellectual world, as it is characterised by Lukacs. And that is perhaps exactly the kind of relation that Carnap has had from the beginning, to George’s work and personality. But it would be interesting to know whether he might not have had to free himself at a certain moment from the influence of the dominating anti-enlightenment tendency of German culture and literature of the time.

  • 28 CTT, p. 3.

23The German Youth Movement, to which he has belonged and in which we know, thanks to the book of Carus, that he has been deeply involved, was, as he says, “a neo-Romantic glorification of ‘natural’ and primitive, in rebellion against the stuffy, materialistic, petit-bourgeois culture of the post-1871 Gründerjahre that the young Nietzsche had eloquently complained about […]. Thomas Mann wartime diatribe against ‘Western’ – Enlightenment – civilisation is an indication of the tight grip that Romantic categories retained on a considerable proportion of the German educated class.”28 And it is precisely in the context of that neo-Romantic protest that George is mentioned in the book:

  • 29 Ibid.

The apogee of Romantic influence in German speaking intellectual and public life came after Versailles. Much has been made of figures like Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, or Ernst Jünger, but the phenomenon as a whole and its social context have yet to be adequately studied. Spengler’s Decline of the West was just one pinnacle in the vast neo-Romantic, anti-Enlightenment literature that appeared between 1918 and 1933. Another was the three-volume indictment of intellect, Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele by Ludwig Klages, whose taxonomy of human character had enjoyed wide popularity. Walter Rathenau, a finance mogul and minister in the Weimar government wrote best-selling books whose tendency was hardly different. The cult following inspired by sages such as the poet Stefan George, and their impact on the writing of history, has often been noted. Explicitly anti-scientific anti-modern ideologies as those of Rudolf Steiner enjoyed wide currency and even attained a degree of public acceptance. The atmosphere is well captured and pitiless satirised, in Musil’s great novel, The Man without Qualities.29

  • 30 Robert Musil, Der Man ohne Eigenschaften, in Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke in acht Bänden, Reinbek (...)

As Musil explains in chapter 11 of Book I, “The Most Important Essay”, there was a very widespread tendency, among his contemporaries, to attribute the most serious evils of the time to “the losses that an acute logical thinking inflicts on the soul,”30 that is to say, to the alleged destruction of the soul by the disastrous influence of mathematics, natural science and technology. Musil says of his hero, Ulrich that he liked mathematics precisely because of all the people who could not suffer them. What he describes is the situation as it was just before the First World-War and that is precisely the situation that the young Carnap must have known and experienced.

24That the Vienna Circle is, as Carus maintains, impossible to understand outside this very specific cultural context, is quite evident. But, unfortunately, not much has been made generally of that aspect of the problem even by the historians of philosophy and culture, and still less of the remarkable proximity and similarity there is between Musil’s attitude and reactions, and those of Carnap and the other members of the Vienna Circle. Musil and Carnap had essentially to confront the same unsatisfactory and even dangerous intellectual situation and they had to cope with the same kind of problems, the first within the literary and the second within the philosophical world. They shared the same feeling that the project of Aufklärung had probably suffered from a certain immaturity, but certainly not from being fundamentally mistaken, and the same conviction that there was an important battle to fight against the neo-Romantic dominant trend and in favour of rationality, exactness and scientific method. Musil did not, of course, suggest that literature itself should become scientific, as Russell and other philosophers had thought philosophy should do. Literature is not science and Musil went even so far as to say that it is not properly knowledge either, meaning by that that it does not try to express and to communicate a specific form of knowledge that could be called “literary”, as opposed to scientific knowledge. But it has, he said, the duty to use the best of existing knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, of the internal as well of the external world, for the task it has to fulfil.

25In 1912, Musil had not hesitated to affirm:

  • 31 Robert Musil, “Profil eines Programms” [1912], Gesammelte Werke, op. cit., Bd. 8, p. 1318.

All the intellectual boldness is now to be found in the exact sciences. We will learn not from Goethe, Hebbel, Hölderlin, but from Mach, Lorenz, Einstein, Minkowski, from Couturat, Russell, Peano …31

There is, therefore, nothing surprising in the interest he has manifested on several occasions for what the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, especially Carnap, were trying to do, The 29. October 1935, for example, he wrote in answer to an inquiry of Martin Flinker:

  • 32 Robert Musil, Briefe 1901-1942, herausgegeben von Adolf Frisé, Reinbek bei Hamburg, Rowohlt Verlag, (...)

Of all the books in this year, the one which has made the “strongest impression” on me is without any question Carnap’s Logische Syntax der Sprache. A book of extraordinary qualities. I do not feel qualified to justify that, and can offer myself to you only as an example of the doubtful character of the criterion “strongest impression”.32

  • 33 An Otto Pächt, 20 August 1935, id., p. 653.

Another book of Carnap which Musil tried in the same year, with great difficulties, to read and to understand, ist the Abriss der Logistik. In spite of the difficulties he had with it, he maintained that his interest for logistic was still great, although many things in it left him also in doubt.33 It is also significant that, in 1938, while he was envisaging (not very seriously and without any enthusiasm) the possibility to leave Austria for the USA, he mentioned the Gestalt-psychology and the Logistic among the reasons which could eventually break his resistance.

26I have spoken of the remarkable influence that the spirit of the Jugendbewegung had exerted on the young Carnap before the First World-War. How strong it has been and in some sense remained later has been stressed in a very striking way by Carnap himself. As he explained, the Jugendbewegung had represented for him a kind of family, for which no equivalent was later to be found in Austria, and still less in America:

  • 34 Quoted in CTT, p. 55-56.

The spirit that lived in this movement, which was like a religion without dogma, remained a precious inheritance for everyone who had the good luck to take an active part in it. What remained was more than a mere reminiscence of an enjoyable time; it was rather an indestructible living strength which forever would influence one’s reactions to all practical problems of life.34

  • 35 CTT, p. 56).
  • 36 Quoted in CTT, p. 61.

Unlike Musil, Carnap does not seem to have shared the initial enthusiasm with which the great majority of people, including the intellectuals, in all countries, have gone to war. He presents himself, Carus says, “as having gone to war dutifully, with little awareness of the larger context of the events he was participating in.”35 What he wanted was simply to contribute to save the fatherland from destruction, without being really convinced of the rightness of its cause and its motives. The defeat of Germany was for him an occasion to reflect on the special responsibility his own country might have had in the outbreak of the war and the reasons that had made it appear as a more aggressive and dangerous State than the other European countries. As Musil also came to think after the war, he suggested that the problem had to do with the special difficulty Germany has had to accept a certain evolution which had already occurred in other countries and led to the victory of ideas that were largely inherited from the Aufklärung. In an essay of 1918 on the German defeat, which he wrote for the Politische Rundbriefe and which, finally, remained unpublished, he said that the German aggressive national assertion of power would probably not fail to be judged severely by the ultimate tribunal of the world history and that “our generation and the next have a heavy burden of penance to bear”36

27Carnap’s tentative explanation of war and defeat was, thus, that Germany had probably remained farther than the other European countries from any serious attempt to find a satisfactory compromise in the great conflict between Vernunft and Gefühl (reason and feeling) or even from perceiving the great danger that an unresolved problem of that kind could represent for Europe and humanity in general. It might be interesting to quote on that point what Jules Romains had written in 1915 concerning Germany:

Europe contained the war potentially. But to make it actual, an impulsive force was necessary. Germany provided for it with joy and liberality.

Already since centuries, Germany is the depositary, in Europe and for Europe, of the main reserves of absurdity and irrationality, with all the good and the evil, the fruitful and the terrible, that is implied by that thing.

  • 37 Jules Romains, Problèmes d’aujourd’hui, Éditions Kra, 1931, p. 42-43 ; the date (1915) is, of cours (...)

The German romanticism is perhaps not the one that has produced the most definitive works; but it is certainly the one that has gone down the most deeply into the mystery of the soul and the nature, the farthest from the lights of reason. And we see at the same time how artificial it is to oppose the actual Germany to the old Germany. There is nothing more continuous than the evolution of its psychology. The same kind of fierce genius spreads out from Luther and from Bach to the armies of the Yser.37

28It is certainly impossible to describe in a satisfactory way the evolution of Carnap’s philosophical ideas after the war and the whole project of rational reconstruction, without taking into account the way he understood and tried to apply the lesson that had to be drawn from what had happened to Germany and Europe in 1914. What I find most striking about Carnap is the belief, to which he kept until the end of his life, that, by using in a more rational way the best of the intellectual, and particularly scientific, resources we have now at our disposal, it should be possible to reshape and improve not only our intellectual habits and practices, but also our Lebens- and Gemeinschaftsgefühl, and in this way to contribute to the creation of better ways of human individual and collective life.

29Carus observes, in the last chapter of his book, that the ‘Enlightenment fatigue’, about which Musil already complained, after having been for a long time confined mainly to conservatives and romantics, has broadened considerably in recent years. Its two main arguments are the unmanageable proliferation of knowledge and the steady increase of pluralism, including, of course, the pluralism concerning the question of what does and what does not constitute knowledge.

  • 38 CTT, p. 293.

“I will conclude this book, he says, by offering arguments against the idea that there are inherent limits to explication. Using the Carnapian tools described and developed in the pages above, I will seek to refute the suggestion that the modern trends of knowledge proliferation and of pluralism are grounds for despairing of Enlightenment in its original form.38

To argue seriously and efficiently in that sense, is indeed, I think, very important and urgent.


1 André W. Carus, Carnap and Twentieth-Century Thought: Explication as Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. IX [Hereafter CTT].

2 Robert Musil, “Der mathematische Mensch” [1913], in Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke in acht Bänden, herausgegeben von Adolf Frisé, Reinbek bei Hamburg, Rowohlt Verlag, 1978, Bd. 8, p. 1006-1007.

3 Robert Musil, “Das hilflose Europa oder Reise vom Hundersten ins Tausendste” [1922]”, in Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke, op. cit., Bd. 8, p. 1085.

4 Rudolf Carnap, Der logische Aufbau der Welt, zweite Auflage, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1961, p. XIX-XX.

5 Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, London, Allen & Unwin, 1914, p. 21.

6 Id., p. 28.

7 Id., p. 40.

8 CTT, p. 1.

9 CTT, p. 3.

10 Russell, Our Knowledge, op. cit., p. 41.

11 Id., p. 39.

12 Richard Wollheim, “Bertrand Russell and The Liberal Tradition”, in George Nakhnikian (ed.), Bertrand Russell’s Philosophy, London, Duckworth, 1974, p. 209.

13 The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle, Dordrecht, D. Reidel, 1973, p. 19.

14 Ibid.

15 CTT, p. 4, note 5.

16 Ibid.

17 Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge…, op. cit., p. 246.

18 Rudolf Carnap, “Intellectual Autobiography”, in P. A. Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, La Salle, Open Court, 1963, p. 13.

19 CTT, p. 158.

20 CTT, p. 7-8.

21 CTT, p. 159.

22 Quoted in CTT, p. 159.

23 Cf. Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer and Heidegger, Chicago & Lasalle, Open Court, 2000, p. 8.

24 CTT, p. 159. Carnap had also an extensive knowledge of Husserl’s work and it has even been suggested (not quite convincingly, in my opinion) that Husserl’s influence on him has been much stronger than he ever was willing to admit. According to Guillermo E. Rosado Haddock, there is “a forbidden chapter in the history of analytic philosophy”, namely “the much more than casual influence exerted by Edmund Husserl on the young Rudolf Carnap’s writings. It is a forbidden chapter since Carnap never acknowledged such an influence, though that influence was overwhelming and decisive, especially in Carnap’s Der Raum and Der logische Aufbau der Welt. In Carnap’s ‘Autobiography’ in the Schilpp volume, Husserl is barely mentioned, and certainly not as a decisive force.” (Guillermo E. Rosado Hadock, The Young Carnap’s Unknown Master: Husserl’s Influence on Der Raum and Der logische Aufbau der Welt, Burlington, Ashgate, 2008, p. VII).

25 “Gespräch mit Heinrich Neider, Persönlichen Erinnerungen an der Wiener Kreis”, in “Österreichische Philosophen und ihr Einfluss auf die analytische Philosophie der Gegenwart”, Conceptus, Sonderband, Jg. XI (1977), no 28-30, p. 27-28.

26 Georg Lukacs, Skizze einer Geschichte der neueren deutschen Literatur, Neuwied am Rhein und Berlin, Hermann Luchterhand Verlag, 1963, p. 174.

27 CTT, p. 4.

28 CTT, p. 3.

29 Ibid.

30 Robert Musil, Der Man ohne Eigenschaften, in Robert Musil, Gesammelte Werke in acht Bänden, Reinbek bei Hamburg, Rowohlt Verlag, 1978, p. 40.

31 Robert Musil, “Profil eines Programms” [1912], Gesammelte Werke, op. cit., Bd. 8, p. 1318.

32 Robert Musil, Briefe 1901-1942, herausgegeben von Adolf Frisé, Reinbek bei Hamburg, Rowohlt Verlag, 1981, I, p. 664.

33 An Otto Pächt, 20 August 1935, id., p. 653.

34 Quoted in CTT, p. 55-56.

35 CTT, p. 56).

36 Quoted in CTT, p. 61.

37 Jules Romains, Problèmes d’aujourd’hui, Éditions Kra, 1931, p. 42-43 ; the date (1915) is, of course, important for the understanding of the last affirmation.

38 CTT, p. 293.

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