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Intellectual History

Felix Kaufmann and the Merging of Traditions

by Ádám Tamás Tuboly

In 2015, Robert S. Cohen and Ingeborg K. Helling edited Felix Kaufmann’s Die Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften as Theory and Method in the Social Sciences. Kaufmann’s book, originally published in German in 1936, at the peak of the logical positivists’ activities in Europe; but given Austria’s highly unfavorable circumstances (before and after the Anschluß), Kaufmann, in 1938, like many logical positivists, emigrated to the United States. After his arrival, he was invited to produce a similar work as his 1936 book, but instead, during the arrangement of the publishing process, he completed a new manuscript which, in 1944, became the Methodology of the Social Sciences (New York, Oxford University Press).

Thus the new book was not just a translation of the older, but a polished and updated one, adapted to the new American environment: it was injected with John Dewey’s pragmatism and logic of inquiry. The English-speaking world had to wait almost eighty years for a translation of the original book – but, as I will attempt to show, it was worth it for various reasons.

Felix Kaufmann, 1895-1949 (source: public domain)

Felix Kaufmann, 1895-1949 (source: public domain)

A few words of contextualization may help the reader to appreciate Kaufmann’s work both in its original and contemporary circumstances. The history of twentieth-century philosophy may be considered as the development of nineteenth century thought into the so-called “analytic” and “Continental” philosophies. Though there are numerous definitions of these types of philosophy most of them cannot be viewed as exclusive and comprehensive. A few names and debates shall suffice to motivate this distinction: Whereas hermeneutics, existentialism, phenomenology, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty are typical examples of the continental movement, logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, Rudolf Carnap, W. V. O. Quine, Saul Kripke, and David Lewis are examples of analytic philosophy.

These two traditions or canons are usually held to be separated by their problem-horizons, definitions of key term and notions, their historical self-estimation, their goals and aims, and their scientific-philosophical character. These features in themselves should not be expected to stir up more than some heated academic and institutional debates conducted in professional journals. But given the highly questionable and isolated character of much of contemporary philosophy, as practiced in university classrooms, any inside debate about its very legitimacy – and the debate between Continental and analytic philosophers has often tended to degenerate into existentially loaded disputes about who is a real philosopher – may come at the detriment of the discipline as a whole.

In recent decades, however, there has been a growing awareness of the hidden dangers behind the divide that characterizes the profession and people have started to work out different strategies to bury the hatchet. This could be done, in very general terms, as either a normative or a descriptive project. (i) One might attempt to show that even if there are few prima facie substantial connections between the traditions (besides both calling themselves ‘philosophy’) one has to work out such connections for the greater good. (ii) Or it might be shown that there is no need to work out such a faux rapprochement since the required connections and linkage are already there; scholars just need to dig deeper into the history of philosophy.

Occasionally, the second approach even tries to show that back in those days the aforementioned deep-seated divide within philosophy as we know it today either did not exist or surfaced in very different ways. The typical examples in this respect are the problem of non-existent entities (with the names of Bertrand Russell, Alexius Meinong, and Edmund Husserl), considerations of relativity, space and physics (with Husserl, Nicolai Hartmann, Ernst Cassirer, Hugo Dingler and Rudolf Carnap), the status and meanings of metaphysics (Martin Heidegger, Carnap), and the philosophy of mathematics (Husserl and Gottlob  Frege). Finally, a lesser-known example is Oskar Becker’s ‘Mathematische Existenz,’ which appeared in Volume 8 of Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung (1927), founded by Husserl. Becker is interesting for two reasons. On the one hand, he tries to combine mathematical intuitionism with a vaguely Heideggerian philosophy. On the other hand, Becker’s work was published in the same volume as Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit and did not become as widely read and discussed as the later.

Interestingly a quite similar story can be told also about Felix Kaufmann. He published his Das Unendliche in der Mathematik und seine Ausschaltung in 1930 (the English translation, together with other articles, appeared in 1978 as The Infinite in Mathematics – Logico-mathematical Writings, as volume 9 of the Vienna Circle Collection): in it, he tried to give a systematic and comprehensive account of mathematical intuitionism from the viewpoint of Husserlian phenomenology. While Kaufmann’s work did not get much attention (though Carnap made an effort to debate Kaufmann’s ideas in his Logical Syntax of Language), it is still an important historical document. It was written and published the year before Kurt Gödel announced his incompleteness theorem, one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century (philosophy of) mathematics.

Thus, it was not only the nature of philosophy and metaphysics in general, and mathematics and phyics in particular, which provided a common field for many philosophers during the first decades of twentieth century; the philosophy and methodology of social science, too, meant a shared interest for analytic and Continental thinkers. Kaufmann’s aforementioned Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften, in this sense, may be just what one needs to turn to if one is looking for a documentation of that shared interest.

Continue reading Part II for a review of Kaufmann’s Methodenlehre der Sozialwissenschaften

(c) 2016 The Berlin Review of Books


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