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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy

Philosophische Notizbücher
Band 1: Philosophie I Maximen 0

Philosophical Notebooks
Volume 1: Philosophy I Maxims 0

Kurt Gödel

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To purchase Philosophical Notebooks: Volume 1

Title: Philosophische Notizbücher (1)/Philosophical Notebooks (1)
Author: Kurt Gödel
Genre: Notebook
Written: 1934-42 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 223 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Philosophical Notebooks: Volume 1 - US
Philosophical Notebooks: Volume 1 - UK
Philosophical Notebooks: Volume 1 - Canada
Philosophische Notizbücher: Band 1 - Deutschland
directly from: De Gruyter
  • German title: Philosophische Notizbücher - Band 1: Philosophie I Maximen 0
  • English title: Philosophical Notebooks - Volume 1: Philosophy I Maxims 0
  • Edited and with a Preface by Eva-Maria Engelen
  • Translated by Merlin Carl
  • This is a bilingual edition

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Our Assessment:

(--) : an exceptionally well-presented edition, though clearly very much a work for a small and specific audience

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Between 1932 and 1955 or so, Kurt Gödel kept 'philosophical notebooks' (which he called Maximen Philosophie). Of the original sixteen notebooks all but one have been preserved, with scans of the originals available online. Starting in 2019, with this volume, a complete scholarly edition of the Philosophische Notizbücher / Philosophical Notebooks, edited by Eva-Maria Engelen, has been in the works, with the ambition of publishing one or two of the notebooks annually -- a vital and most welcome addition to the available material by and about Gödel.
       The notebooks are largely written in the 'Gabelsberger' shorthand notation, the most popular German stenography at the beginning of the twentieth century. (Among others who used it extensively in their writing are both Husserl and Heidegger, as well as Boltzmann, Planck, Schrödinger, and Ludwig von Mises.) These volumes offer a transcription of Gödel's Gabelsberger-writing in the original German, as well as a complete English translation.
       The German version is printed in such a way that the editorial additions and interpretations are clearly discernible: so, for example, words originally written in longhand are printed in italics, while abbreviated words/text are completed in grey print (e.g.: what Gödel wrote (in longhand) as: "exp Psych" is printed as: "experimentelle Psychologie".) Punctuation marks that Gödel used are printed in bold, while all others printed normally; deletions and illegible and ambiguous text are also clearly marked. The English translation simply presents the complete(d) German text, without these indications -- but, since the German original is included in the same volume, it is easy to check these details there.
       Gödel's own footnotes and additions are printed in the margins -- in both the English and German versions of the text -- with editorial footnotes printed at the bottom of the page. There are a considerable number of editorial/explanatory footnotes; in the original German, the footnotes of the Gödel-section are (thankfully) not numbered by reference in the text proper (i.e. Gödel's text is not riddled with ¹ and ², etc.) but rather simply noted at the bottom of the page with the corresponding line number. (The lines in the German version are discreetly numbered on the inside margins.) In the English text, traditional footnote-annotation is used (i.e. the text is riddled with ¹ and ², etc.); given the simpler/neater typographical presentation of the English text this is less of an issue here. The one slight objection one might raise is that the numbering of the footnotes in the English version is entirely continuous -- beginning with the Preface; while that eliminates any possible citational ambiguity (there's only one footnote 27, for example, whereas there would be two if the footnote numbering had started at one again for the Gödel-section proper), there's something to be said for a separate numbering of the two sections of the book, Eva-Maria Engelen's Preface and Gödel's text. (For those keeping count: this first volume has 341 footnotes, of which 37 are in the Preface (36 in the German version); the second volume tops 1000.)
       The German text of Gödel's notebook is then also preceded by a detailed Handschriftenbeschreibung -- a description of the notebook (including its dimensions, condition, and brand) and the writing (noting that Gödel wrote in pencil, and that his handwriting is very: 'delicate and small' ('zart und klein')). This short section/information is not included with the English translation.
       Useful, too, in the Preface, as reference -- especially for the later (mostly as yet unpublished) volumes -- are charts tallying the nature of the fragments (as: remark, question, maxim, etc.) and the subject-matter (philosophy, psychology, theology, etc.), volume by volume. As these tallies already make clear, the notebooks are not, as one might have expected, focused solely or even primarily on mathematics and logic; instead there is a great deal about foundations, and philosophy (more generally) -- and also a consistent interest in questions of psychology and even theology.
       Meanwhile, an appendix of 'Biographical Vignettes', providing summary personal information (dates; specialization; affiliation; etc.) about the people mentioned by Gödel is also helpful. Beyond that, there is also an appendix of 'References and Index of References' -- a bibliography of works mentioned, and index of where in the text they are mentioned -- as well as the traditional 'Index of Names'. (There is no subject-index, but given the nature of the text -- in the form of notes -- that is understandable.)

       In her Preface, Eva-Maria Engelen concludes:

     Though Gödel's notebooks share the fragmentary character of many notebooks, and although Gödel also used the space for thinking they opened up as an experimental ground, the remarks therein are not randomly arranged, but pursue the guiding idea of perfectionism in all aspects that the history of Western philosophy has to offer. For Gödel, they are not only a tool of self-perfection [Selbstvervollkommnung], but also one of establishing the unity of the sciences.
       This first volume begins with taxonomy -- a: "Classification of the various Weltanschauungen". (As already noted in the Preface, 'Weltanschauung' was a commonly used term in the place of 'philosophy' in the Vienna of the 1920s and 30s; Gödel uses both.) Gödel here creates several 'programs' -- reading-/study-lists covering various fundamental areas. He asks himself: "What does one need to know to obtain an historical understanding of modern philosophy ?" for example, and then lists the authors he thinks are key. -- but it seems like an evolving list, Gödel open to adding others that he might have initially overlooked, as he repeatedly wonders which works and authors are of significance (and how to determine whether they are significant). So also he asks himself: "How can one find out the main representatives of the various present directions ?" (i.e. the leading figures in the various areas of (then-)contemporary philosophy) -- wondering how reliable, for example, specific university affiliations are in determining whether someone is a thought-leader ("Question: How does one determine the importance of a university ?").
       One maxim he comes to is to:
Use the presentation from secondary literature: Taxonomies, history, including self-presentations, to get to know names and schools of thought roughly, then read the authors themselves (if only in excerpts).
       Although already a full-fledged academic by the time he began this notebook -- he was granted his Habilitation in 1932 and a Privatdozentur in 1933 --, he clearly still sees a need for a much greater grounding in, specifically, philosophy. One list of 'Program desiderata' includes everything from a 'Philosophical dictionary' (plural in the German, and with an exclamation point), 'Medieval logic', and the: 'Last encyclica of the popes'. And he concludes:
Remark: The right method to obtain an overview of a topic is not to read a small book about it, but to excerpt the most important points from a lot of small books and in particular from comprehensive works [handbooks] (that means to excerpt everything that contains an answer to a pre-established questioning scheme).
       Beside the reading/study programme he outlines at the beginning of this notebook (and then returns to later in it as well), this volume also includes his notes from a variety of lectures he attended in these years (1934/5 and 1937) -- by Moritz Schlick (on 'Logic and Theory of Knowledge'), Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Alfred Kastil (on Brentano). In the case of these lectures and talks, this edition also usefully compares, in the footnotes, Gödel's notes with the actual transcripts of their talks and other writings.
       What's on offer here, in the lecture-notes, is mostly just summary, but does offer some interesting insight into what was of interest to Gödel, and the questions these lectures raised for him. It's amusing, too, to see some of what Gödel chose to note, from the size of the audiences and their make-up ("20 audience members, 6 of them female") to some of their behavior ("5 students ½ h - ¾ h late / 1 student leaves ½ h early"). The very occasional real-life observations are also of interest, as in the boxed observation near the conclusion of his notes on Hildebrand's lecture;

The audiences faces all look devoted.

       [Yes, sic; the original reads: 'Gesichter der Hörer sehen alle hingegeben aus'.]
       Beyond these lecture-notes, Gödel does then also delve into questions and issues of, especially philosophy. Despite the (sub)title of the volume, there is, in fact, only one maxim (unlike the succeeding volume, in which maxims are particularly prominent). Instead, it is 'Remarks' (71) and 'Questions' (25) that crop up most frequently here.
       Gödel's interests range to what he terms parapsychology; among his questions is: "Can the demons cause passiones (i.e. perceptions) of the soul directly (i.e. without detours via bodies) ? Can the angels "speak" to each other without the transmission of some sort of matter ?" And among his footnotes at one point he considers 'mental [seelische] wounds': "What is a mental wound ? Is every unfulfilled desire a mental wound and vice versa ? Or a forgotten unfulfilled desire ?" (The German seelisch isn't quite just 'mental', suggesting also, inter alia, the spiritual (Seele being 'soul').)
       Following on Leibniz -- a central figure for Gödel -- another question he poses is:
Is every "idea" constructible via a symbolic construction or are there human and divine ideas ?
       Gödel concerns himself repeatedly with the difference between, and handling (thinking) of, the abstract and the real -- suggesting, for example, that: "There are only very few things that we can perceive" (with the German of course being the more evocative: wahrnehmen -- literally also: 'truth-taking). So then also among his remarks is:
That the "connection to reality" gets lost means that one no longer recognizes the corresponding concepts when using words, but a substitute [possibly the intensive occupation with mathematics has this effect, since it is necessary in mathematics to substitute the symbol for the concept as the concepts themselves are remote from perception] with which one can nevertheless operate in a positivist (nominalistic) manner.
       Indeed, Gödel focuses a great deal on the (seeming) impossibility of a fundamental full understanding, observing that:
Oddly enough, even those states of affairs that we absolutely know for sure (2 + 2 = 4 , my name is Kurt) consist of concepts that we do not fully understand (and which are very complicated).
       Surprisingly (or, by that point perhaps not so much ...), it is a remark that Gödel categorizes as theological that includes the observation:
There is no wisdom that one really knows → that one knows a great piece of. To really know it probably means that one sees some perfectly precise concepts and some sentence for these.
       [Note that the German here has 'Wahrheit' (also: truth) for what has been translated as 'wisdom' here, and 'Begriffe' (also: terms) for 'concepts'.]
       Gödel is particularly concerned with (the difficulty of) understanding/comprehension -- from noting that: "To understand a sentence means to gather the words occurring in it together to a unity. This cannot possibly take place in one step (in the case of a longer sentence)", to his finding that: "There are two kinds of "understanding" philosophical works", involving close sentence-by-sentence readings and parsing or "through preoccupation with mathematics".
       Interestingly, he sees many of these issues not simply as philosophical ones -- categorizing a number of questions as "psychological curiosities", for example, including:
     1. One does not know whether one is sure of something (knows it).
     5. One does not know whether one "did something and was passive while doing it, or: whether one really decided something or [whether] it just "seemed [to be] better".
     7. One "understands" a concept even though one does not know its definition.
       The psychological also extends to the more personal: his "reading of non-mathematical works" leads him to consider questions such as: "What pleases me (or what do I consider to be the purpose of existence) ?" A late remark, from 1941 (when he was already in Princeton) has him consider personal examples of thought and (in)action, and some of his 'sins', as he feels guilty about neglecting "mail and practical matters", such as:
  1. I work without timing and without a specific program (in particular, not whether I should go to the institute or not).
  2. I don't sufficiently take care of Adele and I am not nice enough to her (cf. to take photos).
  3. I don't hike enough.
  4. I neglect mail and practical matters.
  5. ? I am too much concerned with non-work related activities.
  6. ? I don't publish enough.
       A one-page loose-leaf addendum (Apparently from another notebook, but inserted here), then offers an interesting sequence of 'Perceptions', 'Impulses', and 'Acts', taking an exchange between his wife and him as they listen (or prepare to listen to) radio-commentary by Raymond Gram Swing, including, for example:
Perception: Adele says: "He can only tell us what's in the newspaper".

Perception: That may be partly true.

Act: But I prefer to let her believe.

Act: I say: But he makes remarks on it.

Question: Is Adele right after all ?

Perception: In general, one does not learn anything interesting, and always the same from him.
       It's a fitting coda to this notebook, a real-life illustration of aspects of Gödel's reflections on what we can know or understand, and how -- one of the central issues of this particular collection.
       Philosophische Notizbücher: Band 1 / Philosophical Notebooks: Volume 1 is a very loose and varied collection, but it is more than a mere miscellany. It's of particular use and interest in showing what philosophy -- and specifically what works and authors, as representative and relevant -- Gödel was interested in learning more about and from. It is also fascinating to see what preöccupied him in these times, especially since the focus here is much more general, taking a much broader look than the mathematical-logical specificity of his best-known work (broadly applicable and relevant though that too is) -- much of it a kind of back-to-basics. Fascinating, too, is the presentation of the material: though loosely structured, the notebook is more than one of just stray thoughts, with a variety of issues and questions brought up repeatedly in different forms; it neatly gives a glimpse of a philosopher/thinker at work, reaching few definitive conclusions but working a variety issues out for himself. The mentions of personal experience and feeling also provide a bit more insight into the man behind the thought, making the volume also of biographical interest.
       Certainly, this volume is mainly of academic interest, and hardly something for the casual reader. For those interested in Gödel, it and the volumes to follow are of course invaluable, a complement to both the previously available published writing as well as the biographies of Dawson and Budiansky. More generally, it is also a fairly accessible example of a philosopher-at-work, as the notebook is somewhat organized and not just a collection of stray thought.
       The presentation of the material in this edition is exemplary, and very thoughtfully done. Providing a full English translation is certainly helpful in making the writings more accessible, and Merlin Carl's translation is solid and, importantly, consistent; having the German original in the same volume makes it easy to compare the two (and see precisely what terms Gödel used). The editorial work here is also exemplary -- as a comparison with the original manuscript [pdf] makes very, very clear --, and the annotations are thorough but also, in all respects, succinct, with the notes (or, for example, the Biographical Vignettes) very much to the point and also concise. Of particular note: the comparisons to primary material elsewhere is exceptionally well done and very helpful. And editor Eva-Maria Engelen's Preface is very informative about both the entire series of notebooks and their planned publication and then also specifically this first volume.
       A remarkable achievement and a very welcome one. One looks impatiently forward to the complete series being made available !

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 October 2021

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Philosophische Notizbücher: Band 1 / Philosophical Notebooks: Volume 1: Kurt Gödel: Books about Kurt Gödel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel lived 1906 to 1978.

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© 2021 the complete review

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