Carnap’s ‘Elimination Of Metaphysics’

by V. Brushlinsky

What does Carnap understand by the ‘metaphysics’ which he is trying to overcome? ‘Metaphysics,’ he declares, ‘seeks to find and express the knowledge that is inaccessible to empirical science’ [p. 236]. Carnap divides all propositions having a meaning into three classes: (1) Propositions that are true in virtue of their form alone (tautological or analytical judgments). These propositions, according to Carnap, say nothing of reality. Among these he counts the formulae of logic and mathematics. (2) Propositions containing a logical contradiction: these are false in virtue of their very form. (3) The remaining propositions are judgments of experience and belong to empirical science and may be either true or false. Now propositions that do not belong to any one of these classes are devoid of all sense. Such he declares metaphysical propositions to be, understanding by ‘metaphysical’ not only speculative metaphysics which claims knowledge on the basis of ‘pure reason’ and ‘pure intuition’ independent of experience, but also ‘metaphysics’ which is based on experience but, through special kinds of inferences, seeks to know what lies behind direct experience (‘the thing in itself’). Carnap proceeds to enumerate the metaphysical trends which he is combating. These are ‘realism’ (Carnap means ‘materialism’) and its opponents: subjectivism, idealism, solipsism, phenomenalism, positivism (in its old sense)’ [p. 237].

Carnap’s philosophical position is quite clear: it is that of ‘shamed idealism’ fancying itself as having risen above the radical contradiction between materialism and idealism. It is equally dear that Carnap's position is not very original. Long ago, Hume divided the objects of human knowledge into relations between ideas and what he called ‘facts of experience.’ Hume also thought that mathematics deals not with an aspect of the real material world but with the ideal relations independent of reality.

How then does Neo‑Positivist Carnap overcome metaphysics? He thinks that, although the enemies of metaphysics have existed for a very long time, only the ‘latest Logic’ can give an accurate answer as to whether metaphysics is possible, this answer being provided by an analysis of language. This language analysis reveals that there are word combinations which look like propositions at first glance but which actually are not propositions at all. In the strict sense, these pseudo‑propositions are meaningless. This is because either the words appearing in them are meaningless or, if they have a meaning, they are combined in such a way as to break the laws of logic.

In order that a word should have a meaning, it must, according to Carnap, satisfy the following conditions: (1) the form of the simplest proposition in which this word figures has to be determined (e.g. for the word ‘stone’ the form of an elementary proposition would be ‘x is a stone’); (2) for this elementary proposition there must exist the answer to the questions ‘from what propositions can it be deduced?’ and ‘what propositions can be deduced from it?’

With this criterion, Carnap proceeds to the analysis of ‘metaphysical words’ and discovers that these words are devoid of significance and meaning. As an example, he takes the word ‘principle’ in the metaphysical sense of ‘the principle of being’ or ‘the universal principle,’ etc., and the word ‘god.’ The word ‘principle,’ Carnap declares, had at first the empirical meaning of ‘origin’ (‘that from which something derives’). The metaphysicians, however, use it in some different, super‑empirical sense, which they cannot even define themselves. In the same way, ‘god’ used to have, once upon a time, an empirical meaning which it has since lost, and which used to denote certain beings inhabiting certain empirical places. According to Catnap, this word has lost its primary, naive meaning but failed to acquire any other. The concepts of ‘essence,’ ‘thing per se,’ ‘infinite,’ and ‘absolute’ are, according to Carnap, just as meaningless metaphysical words as the word ‘god.’

Further, he gives some examples of meaningless combinations of meaningful words. The proposition ‘Caesar is and’ is meaningless because of its grammatical form, since ‘and’ cannot be a predicate. Now, the proposition ‘Caesar is a prime number’ is meaningless because it mixes logical categories, since ‘prime number’ cannot be either affirmable or deniable with respect to persons (or to things). Carnap holds that if language were built in accordance with strict logic, with arrangement of words into logical categories, meaningless propositions of the second type would be almost as impossible as meaningless propositions of the first type (‘Caesar is and’).

After these formalistic exercises in the ‘logical analysis’ of words and propositions, Carnap quotes from ‘What is Metaphysics’ (1929) by Martin Heidegger, one of the metaphysicians now in vogue in Germany. The quotation, true, enough, is almost nothing but an accumulation of words on the subject Das Nichts nichted (‘Nothing nothings,’ formed by an analogy with the proposition ‘the rain rains’). By a lengthy ‘logical analysis,’ Carnap discovers the absurdity of this quotation. But even without this cumbersome analysis, it is quite evident that there is no positive scientific meaning in Heidegger’s reasoning about ‘nothing.’ It does not follow however that this reasoning is devoid of social significance. It is quite typical of the decadent, degenerate philosophy of the modern bourgeoisie which, feeling the ground slipping from under its feet, is trying to escape into verbal mysticism, away from reality which no longer promises its lasting domination over the toiling masses. But Carnap is only interested in formal logic and is concerned with nothing but the scholastic analysis of individual words and propositions.

Summing up his ‘analysis,’ Carnap declares: “All metaphysics is meaningless” (p. 233). But, in his words, while metaphysics is devoid of all cognitive content, it is nevertheless useful as an expression of the ‘feeling of life’ of those individuals who create metaphysical systems. But even in this, Carnap tries to present himself as an irreconcilable opponent of metaphysics: he declares that whereas art (particularly music) is an adequate means of expressing the ‘feeling of life,’ metaphysics is a quite inadequate one since it lays claim to be something, namely a knowledge, which it cannot be. ‘Metaphysicians,’ Carnap says, ‘are musicians without musical talent’ (p. 240).

This is all of Neo‑Positivist Carnap's ‘overcoming’ of metaphysics. It is obvious that there is no question here of an actual overcoming of metaphysics. There is not even any understanding of metaphysics. Carnap painstakingly elaborates mechanistic, formal‑logic, scholastic schemes and criteria to determine the ‘meaning’ and the ‘sense’ of words and propositions without noticing that these very schemes and criteria are devoid of all concrete content and are therefore incapable of giving a correct idea of science or of metaphysics. Declaring war on all metaphysics, Carnap himself sinks into the phenomenalist type of metaphysics which asserts that the task of science is simply to provide the most convenient description of phenomena. ‘Essence’ for Carnap is a meaningless metaphysical word. He does not understand ‘the essence is,’ ‘a phenomenon is essential,’ ‘human thought goes infinitely deeper, from phenomenon to essence, and from essence of, so‑to‑speak, the first order to the essence of the second order, and so on without end’ (Lenin). But then Carnap, the logician and mechanist, is unable to understand either, the gnoseological or the social‑economic roots of the idealism and metaphysics that he claims to combat. He does not understand that ‘philosophical idealism is a one‑sided, exaggerated development (blowing up, swelling) of one of the traits, aspects, facets of knowledge in the absolute, torn off from matter, from nature, deified’ (Lenin), and that it is fed and strengthened by the ‘class interest of the ruling classes’ (Lenin). Failing to grasp all this, Carnap cannot climb out of the bog of mechanistic idealism with its positivist coloring, despite all his attacks on every form of ‘metaphysics,’ despite his aspirations toward a ‘scientific philosophy.’ His is not a scientific philosophy but a special kind of scholastics, in which he uses the whole arsenal of sterile formulae of formal logic, in order to give it a scientific appearance. We have here not the overcoming of metaphysics but a plea for idealism, mechanism and formalism—and this is what Carnap's Neo‑Positivism is.

Bourgeois limitations appear at every step in Carnap’s ‘anti‑metaphysical’ philosophizing just as they do in the philosophizing of other staff members and contributors to the ‘left’‑wing bourgeois magazine Erkenntnis.


SOURCE: Frank, Philipp. "The Pragmatic Components in Carnap's 'Elimination of Metaphysics'," in: The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1963), pp. 159-164. Embedded in this essay is the article by V. Brushlinsky, pp. 160-163. No title, translator, or page numbers are given; the reference cited is Pod Znamenem Marksisma [Under the Banner of Marxism] (1932).


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