FOM: Re: fom-digest V1 #261

Juliet Floyd jfloyd at
Tue Jan 25 15:00:10 EST 2000

>Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2000 10:22:02 -0500
>From: Robert Tragesser <RTragesser at>
>Subject: FOM: Godel's philosophical acuity vs. logical puritanism
>        I for one found Harvey Friedman's [FOM Jan 17, 2000]
>appreciation of Godel wonderful;  the best brief appreciatione I've
>seen.  I particularly value his emphasis on the importance of Godel's
>philosophical acuity [and by implication,  the genuineness of that
>philosophical acuity] to his mathematical/foundational work. As well as
>the good question of the (details of) the connection between G's
>philosophical acuity and his technical achievments,  which question I'd
>like to see elaborated more.
>        As FOMer's are likely aware,  there have been some violent
>protestations of major "analytic" philosophers against the very idea
>that Godel was philosophically acute (philosophical,  a philosopher).
>Some will remember at a Boston conference not so very long ago Burton
>Dreben in something like a towering rage denouncing the very idea of
>Godel as a philosopher.

Dear FOM (and my friend Robert Tragesser):
        To speak for Burt, who unfortunately is not here to speak for
himself, I'd like to say that no one had more respect for Goedel's
mathematical and logical work than Burt. At the lecture in Boston, his main
point was to question whether we should infer from the fact that  Goedel
was a great logician and mathematician to the conclusion that he was also
an equally great philosopher.   Burt wanted to attack arguments from
authority in philosophy.  He drew an analogy between Newton's work in
theology and Newton's work in physics: Newton was one of the greatest
scientists of all time, but not one of the greatest theologians.
Intellectual achievement does not always just transfer across boundaries,
and for Burt, philosophy was not a discipline in which there could be
theorems, as there can be in mathematics.  Instead, it seeks understanding,
and that is something different.  It is true that Burt did not rank Goedel
as an especially novel or especially profound philosopher, and he did so
rank (for differing reasons) Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, and Rawls (as,
in the nineteenth century, he so ranked Kant and Hegel).  But he never
would have ranked any of these latter names as even close to Goedel as a
logician or mathematician, and he always insisted on the central importance
of Goedel's logical and mathematical work for the history of twentieth
century analytic philosophy. He also always insisted that it was very
important and interesting to read Goedel's philosophical work (and to read
what various philosophers make of that work, e.g., Hao Wang).  I do not
think he was concerned to attack the efforts of those who explore the
interest of connections between Goedel's philosophical ideas and Goedel's
(interpretations of his own) theorems, though Burt did believe that the
extent to which these connections are matters of the psychology of
discovery, and the extent to which they are philosophically  and/or
mathematically relevant, is always subject to debate.
        Burt's lecture is discussed in John Rawls' preface to a forthcoming
book (dedicated to Burt) co-edited by myself and Sanford Shieh, called
TWENTIETH CENTURY PHILOSOPHY.  Fom readers interested in the interplay
between mathematics and philosophy might find that volume of interest; it
will be out from Oxford University Press by next winter.


Juliet Floyd
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Boston University, 745 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215  USA
FAX: 617-353-6805

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