Pierre Wagner (ed.): Carnap’s logical syntax of language. Palgrave-MacMillan, 2009, 288pp, £57.00 HB
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- Richardson, A. Metascience (2011) 20: 599. doi:10.1007/s11016-011-9522-8
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Rudolf Carnap’s The Logical Syntax of Language is one of those troubling books in the history of philosophy—it is clearly of great importance in setting the agenda of analytic philosophy in the middle third of the twentieth century, but it is both technically formidable and strangely idiosyncratic. The reader might have the feeling that he is reading a strangely obscure logic textbook but one that makes very far-reaching philosophical claims. A guide to Syntax is very much to be craved, but we are so far from possessing such a guide that the current volume is, to the best of my knowledge, the very first anthology in any language dedicated wholly to Carnap’s great book.
The volume is divided into five parts, though only four of those parts are explicitly noted in the table of contents. The unmentioned part is a roughly 50-page introduction to Syntax by the volume’s editor, Pierre Wagner. This is a highly useful piece of work that summarizes both Carnap’s own work in Syntax and the main interpretative issues in the recent secondary literature. The essays in the volume are then placed in four parts, one on the historical routes of Syntax, one on logic and philosophy of mathematics, one on the philosophical project of Syntax, and one on empiricism and tolerance. While it is nice for a book to have structure, it seems highly unlikely that any one of these issues could be handled without all of them being on the table at once. After all, could you explicate and critique Carnap’s philosophical project, for example, without understanding the role of the Principle of Tolerance, the place of empiricism, the account of logico-mathematical truth, and the historical motivations that led Carnap to that project? I should think not.
The individual papers range in detail and plausibility (both as interpretations and as critiques of Carnap). Perhaps, the most striking thing is the lack of engagement that papers have with one another. Thomas Uebel’s essay on the evolution of the Syntax project within the context of the Vienna Circle presents a very different history than does the paper by Steve Awodey and A.W. Carus, which present the Syntax project as a sort of working out in Carnap’s mind of his relations to Wittgenstein’s early work. The reader is left to try to decide which history is more plausible. In other cases, one gets the sense that commentators of long-standing in the business of Carnap interpretation—for example, Warren Goldfarb, Thomas Ricketts, Rick Creath, and Michael Friedman—are developing their accounts of Carnap’s work in interaction with one another. One cannot but be impressed by the depth and subtlety of their work, and yet, their essays here do not draw out their disagreements and, thus, fail to present the key places where further work needs to be done to understand Carnap’s technical and philosophical projects.
We live in a philosophical world in which Carnap’s significance for analytic philosophy is largely ignored and poorly understood. We live in a philosophical world in which the leading interpreters of Carnap surely do believe that Carnap’s work offers philosophical resources we dearly need here and now. Given all this—and given Carnap’s own forthrightness in presenting criticisms and responding to them—I would wish one thing of such anthologies: They ought to exhibit more critical interaction. I want to know in detail what Goldfarb thinks about the Awodey and Carus history or where precisely Creath disagrees with Ricketts’s account of the relations of Carnap and Quine. Carnap ends Logical Syntax with a call for “the co-operation of many minds” in the advancing his project for scientific philosophy. Until we see a greater degree of mutual uptake and engagement within the scholarly community that sets itself the task of interpreting Carnap’s work, we will continue to find ourselves, almost 80 years after the fact, still without a clear picture of what the project was.