Kurt Gödel, Philosopher-Scientist #3

We are talking about the second paper of this volume, namely “Kurt Gödel’s Philosophical Remarks (Max Phil)”  by Gabriella Crocco and Eva-Maria Engelen, and are turning to its third and final section titled  “The content of the Philosophical Remarks (=Max Phil). First insights”.

(3) Crocco and Engelen say that the philosophical notebooks were started “as a realization of an ethical approach. Self-perfection and self-admonition are part of this approach. They seem to be very much in the tradition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius or Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections. At the same time Gödel discusses philosophical problems from the view point of different academic disciplines and has a kind of 17th century metaphysics as an outline in mind.” But our authors don’t actually give us any quotations illustrating the first, ethical, aspect of the (early?) notebooks. They turn instead to a remark from the end of notebook IX which, they say, “gives us some precious insights into the nature of his philosophical concerns and tasks”. Here’s their translation:

Remark Philosophy: My work with regard to philosophy shall consist in an analysis of the uppermost concepts (the logical and psychological ones); in other words what has to be done after all, is to write down a list of these concepts and to think of their possible axioms, theorems and definitions (including the application on the empirically given reality of course). But in order to be able to do so, one has first to have acquired a sense of what one can assume through (halfway understood) philosophical reading and the writing down of philosophical notes. On the other hand, the understanding of an axiomatics will in turn increase the understanding of philosophical authors [thus an interplay from above and below at which the right proportion is important]. A replacement for the reading of works by philosophers is the reading of some other good books accompanied by a precise analysis, the learning of languages [Hebrew, Chinese, Greek?] and the precise definition of the occurring words and concepts.

This surely must be a rather ropey translation: ‘application on’? ‘halfway understood’?? ‘at which the right proportion’??? And “good books accompanied by a precise analysis” [“accompanied” sounds as though we have to add the analysis as readers] actually renders “guter Bücher mit genauer Analyse” which surely means good books which have, i.e. already include, accurate/precise analysis.

The general thought, however, seems to be this: Engaging charitably with the philosophers we read — those, at any rate, who aim to offer a systematic metaphysics with an account of the “uppermost concepts” and basic principles governing them — must also mean thinking things through for ourselves, trying to reconstruct a coherent story of those concepts and principles: and deepening our understanding of those concepts and principles on the one hand and of the philosophical texts on the other hand involves a two-way process. But that is, surely, a very familiar reflection. And equally for the thought that there isn’t a sharp distinction to be drawn between engaging with canonical ‘philosophical’ texts and with other works by analytically reflective mathematicians, logicians, physicists, biologists, psychologists, etc.: that is surely entirely familiar too. Which isn’t at all a complaint about Gödel’s own reflections here (after all, these are familiar truths, not fallacies!). But it is perhaps odd for Crocco and Engelen to pick out this remark — the only one from Max Phil which they actually quote here — as offering especial insight into Gödel’s thinking: on the contrary, we’d surely be rather surprised to find any half-competent twentieth century thinker explicitly denying these thoughts.

At the end of their essay, Crocco and Engelen do add a page or so mentioning four subjects which they say feature importantly in the later notebooks which they have worked on. (1) A theory of concepts where concepts can apply to themselves (so not a stratified type theory). (2) Self-referentiality. (3) Time. (4) Issues about definitions of mathematical notions. However, for the moment, they only hint here how the discussions might go:  hopefully we’ll find out a lot more from later papers in this book.

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