Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tarski's conversion to Catholicism and Heidegger's abandonment of it

            Many, apparently, questioned Alfred Tarski's nominalism.  How could he devote his life, they asked, to something he didn't believe?   That he himself agonized over this is evident.  On one occasion he described himself as "an extreme anti-Platonist . . . . However, I represent this very crude, naive kind of anti-Platonism, one thing which I could describe as materialism, or nominalism with some materialistic taint, and it is very difficult for a man to live his whole life with this philosophical attitude, especially if he is a mathematician, especially if for some reason he has a hobby which is called set theory."
            Tarski practiced something else he didn't really believe in, Catholicism.  He was born Alfred Teitelbaum, but greater opportunities, he was told, would open up to him if he changed his name and converted from Judaism to Catholicism, and so he did.  His name change became official days before he received his PhD, and it was important to him that it bore his Polish name Tarski, rather than his Jewish name Teitelbaum. 
            To contrast Tarski once again with Heidegger.  Heidegger was assured continued support from the Catholic Church if he would remain a Catholic and practice Thomist philosophy, but he wouldn't submit to the Church's authority.  He said he wouldn't be able to pursue philosophy honestly if he had the Church looking over his shoulder.  Heidegger had no other means of support at the time; so he had to scramble to find something.  Tarski had no adequate means of support (his parents had been wealthy but had begun to struggle financially); so he converted to Catholicism in order to gain support. 
            Samuel Eilenberg later became a "distinguished mathematician and professor at Colombia University.  "In his first year at Warsaw University, Eilenberg had taken a logic course from the docent, Alfred Tarski.  He was one of the few who claims to have been 'only moderately impressed' by Tarski's lectures.  In Eilenberg's frankly hostile opinion, Tarski, should neither have changed his name nor -- even worse -- become Catholic:
            "He did it so that life would be easier and he did it with great zeal.  People poked fun at him because suddenly he was interested in all kinds of things which were strictly not in the Teitelbaum repertoire, if you know what I mean.  Things like Catholic liturgy and the rites associated with it.  He wasn't very popular and not just because he switched.  Other did it; in fact, his colleague Bronislaw Knaster did it, and nobody poked fun at him.  It's just because Tarski acted so pious.  People told stories about him and treated him as a comical figure.  He, himself, had absolutely no sense of humor." [pp 54-5 of Alfred Tarski, Life and Logic]
            Did Tarski need to convert to Catholicism because he was being persecuted as a Jew?  Only in a sense.  Warsaw at the time had the second largest Jewish population in the world and the Jewish population did very well at the time.  Tarski would have been discriminated against in regard to career opportunities if he remained Alfred Teitelbaum.   So it was to avoid career discrimination that he converted to Catholicism.  But as we see this conversion was no hardship for him for even then, I suspect, he was an atheist.

1 comment:

Pulcheria said...

That's very bizarre contrast. I found it while I was serching if Tarski ever said sth about Heidegger but I don't think so. Analytic philosophers are usually too pompous especially when they are contemporaries.