Rudolf Carnap Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Carnap is recognized as a leading figure in the philosophy of logical positivism and made significant contributions to logic, the theory of probability, philosophy of science, and linguistic analysis.

Early Life

Rudolf Carnap was born in Ronsdorf in northwestern Germany on May 18, 1891. His parents were deeply religious and did not want to expose their children to secular influences. Consequently, both Rudolf and his sister were educated by their mother at home. His father died when Rudolf was seven years old, and his mother continued to supervise his education until he left for the Universities of Jena and Freiburg in 1910. For four years, Carnap studied physics, philosophy, and mathematics. While studying at Jena, Carnap attended the lectures of Gottlob Frege, widely acknowledged as the most eminent logician of his time. Frege deeply influenced Carnap’s future work, although at that moment, Carnap’s interest lay in the physics of electrons. Carnap began his doctoral dissertation in physics when World War I began. He spent three years at the front and, in 1917, was transferred to Berlin to work on developing wireless communication for the army. For Carnap, the period of the war created an awareness of his pacifism and the irrationality of violent human conflict, and confirmed his belief in the values of rationality and science.

Carnap returned to philosophy in 1919 and at the same time encountered the works of Bertrand Russell. Frege had earlier sparked an interest in logic, and now Russell renewed that interest. The idea that symbols could take the place of sentences and that sentences operate with each other in a limited number of ways led Carnap to write a dissertation on an area that bordered both philosophy and physics. In 1921, he completed his work and received his Ph.D. from Jena with a thesis that compared the concepts of space used in physics, mathematics, and philosophy.

For several years, Carnap was content to work independently in areas of logic and physics. He wrote a number of articles on space, time, and causality, and began work on a textbook on symbolic logic. In 1926, he was invited to teach at the University of Vienna, and this turned out to be the decisive step toward an important career in philosophy.

Life’s Work

When Carnap was invited to become an instructor at the University of Vienna in 1926, he was ready to begin a unique exploration of one philosophical area. Moritz Schlick, who had arranged the invitation to Vienna, also formed the Vienna Circle that year by bringing together philosophers, mathematicians, linguists, and other scholars. Schlick wanted to develop a system of philosophy in which all statements could be rigorously verified by logic. Carnap became a leading member of the Circle and from their discussions shared in the initial ideas of logical positivism or logical empiricism.

Before going to Vienna, Carnap had begun to organize his interest in mathematical logic. Frege recommended a reading of Principia Mathematica (1910-1913), a masterful work on logic by Russell and Alfred North Whitehead which attempted to derive all of mathematics from a set of premises. Deeply influenced by this work, Carnap in 1924 completed a first draft of a textbook on mathematical logic entitled Abriss der Logistik mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Relationstheorie und ihrer Anwendungen. It was first published in 1929 and later translated into English from a considerably different version in 1958 as Introduction to Symbolic Logic and Its Applications. Carnap arrived in Vienna in 1926 and began his duties as an instructor at the university. During the next five years, he actively participated in conversation with the members of the Vienna Circle, taught, and wrote.

During this period in Vienna, Carnap became one of the leading advocates for a philosophical position called logical positivism or logical empiricism. This school of thought synthesized the empiricism of David Hume and, combined with the revolution in modern physics, attempted to create a precise and rigorous philosophy that claimed all human knowledge originated from immediate experience. For Carnap, the culmination of these five years was the publication in 1928 of Der Logische Aufbau der Welt (the logical construction of the world). Carnap organized all the objects of the world into four main types: socio-cultural objects, others’ minds, physical objects, and personal experiences. By accepting the human ability to remember similarities, Carnap built a system of knowledge where comparison between similarities would lead to the creation of a temporal order. Carnap believed that a person’s experience at any given moment was created from a series of elements and that these series...

(The entire section is 1980 words.)