Meet My New Friend R. Carnap: Part 1 of 3

I’ve been holding off on discussing R. Carnap for a while partly because it’s tough to know where to start and even more difficult is where to end. This guy was amazing. A giant in 20th Century philosophy.

I studied him a bit in undergrad in my epistemology course. At ASU I’m taking a full course on him. It was one of those situations where you need to take a class, only one fits your schedule so you take it hoping for the best. I couldn’t be happier. The professor is a Carnap scholar, is very passionate about Carnap’s work and the content of the course is inspiring.
Carnap’s overarching goal was, in some sense, to continue the traditions of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking is characterized by the notion that through human reason we can gain insight and knowledge about the natural world (ourselves included). That knowledge in turn can be used to reshape all aspects of human life (social, political, economic, etc…) improve the human condition.
The Enlightenment view through out history, and even now in the mainstream, has always had strong adversaries. A general term for the countervailing world-view would be Romanticism. It the rejection of the idea that through reason and technical knowledge alone can we describe and form our lives. Romanticists hold that the cold world of logic and science ignore the intuitive awareness humans posses as another way of “knowing” our world. They argue that our values and culture are a special kind of knowledge of which science has no part. For example, science can’t tell us what good art is; science can’t tell us how to resolve ethical debates; it can’t tell me what the best flavour of ice cream is! This debate still goes on today between everyday people, not just philosophers. For a good account of the issues displayed in literary format I highly recommend “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Prisig. (I don’t necessarily condone his point of view but he expresses the points of view of both sides quite well.)
At any rate, one way to frame the whole debate is as a confrontation between two systems of knowledge and language. One the one side you have the systems passed down from our ancestors, our intuitively derived folk concepts, common sense and ideas couched in everyday language. On the other hand there are the theories, laws, derived from reason and the scientific method, all couched in a new scientific language.
One of Carnap’s great goals was to try to reconcile this apparent intractable conflict. Through out my little fireside chat about Carnap it is important to keep in mind his over arching reason for ever undertaking this impossible task. I will repeat it here because it is so important and is the reason why I have fallen in love with his philosophy: His whole goal was to find a method of improving the way we construct and live our lives. He felt that the sciences, having shown more positive progress than any other human endeavour offered the best method. The problem was how do we quantify knowledge in the humanities and everyday life so it can becomes useful to this purpose. When it comes to the social sciences language and concepts are notoriously fuzzy. Enter his first attempt.
Radical Reconstruction
His first attempt was characterized by an effort to piece by piece replace fuzzy imprecise terms of every day language and replace them with exact quantitative and logical terms. These terms would then be used in an artificial language to which the rules of logic could be applied. Any terms that were irreconcilably vague were rejected from the new language, because they did not convey useful information.
For example, the terms “hot” and “cold”: They convey information but not very much. We can add more information and say “colder” or “hotter” or “hottest”. The problem is that the information is still vague and subjective. If we can objectify the information, then we can make rational logical decisions with it. Enter the scientific concept/language of science….temperature! 35o Celcius! Now, the information is objective. Once the language has been objectified it becomes useful and trustworthy for making decisions. Also, now that it is quantified, we can apply the force of mathematics and reason to it and deduce other information and gain new knowledge.
Carnap’s first attempt had many opponents, including many of his peers. Not only was it impractical to go through an entire natural language and word by word, concept by concept; but it ignored out of hand the practical and important role of everyday language. Everyday language may be imprecise but it can serve as a useful tool for expressing human concerns, emotions, and for going about the practical business of one’s day. It wasn’t long before Carnap himself dropped his idea of radical reconstruction.

Well, as usual, I’ve gotten carried away and what I thought would be 30 min of writing turned into over an hour. It’s 4am….time for bed. Stay tuned for Carnap’s next idea “The Principle of Tolerance”.

And as always, I eagerly accept any questions about this post or previous posts!

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