I’ve been in Graz for a week now and I spent a lot of time poring over the very diverse materials kept at the Brentano-Archives and the Meinong-Institute in Graz. Specifically, in connection with my article on Ehrenfels’ dissertation “Relations of Magnitude and Numbers”, I was interested in finding out the reasons of his decision to write his dissertation on a mathematical topic with Meinong here in Graz.
Following a suggestion by Reinhard Fabian, whom I had the pleasure to meet here, I checked the Ehrenfels-Meinong correspondence from the 1880s for clues. After examining both the copies of the letters at the Meinong-Institute as well as the originals in his Nachlass kept in the Sondersammlung (special collections) of the University Library, I did indeed find out Ehrenfels’ quite surprising reasons.
In the very first extant letter of Ehrenfels to Meinong of November 5, 1883 he writes to apologize for his long silence, despite the fact that Meinong had recently visited him and sent him a copy of his “Hume-Studien” (part 2 from 1882, on the theory of relations). First of all, Ehrenfels did not feel like writing “while stuck in the uniform” (i.e. while doing military service), and afterwards he was distracted because he had “very strongly” fallen in love! Now, however, he wants to make haste with his promotion and get his dissertation done. His choice for Graz was not primarily because he expected to find a sympathetic supervisor and examiner, but because he sees in Meinong a strict taskmaster that will demand nothing less than a serious scientific engagement from his pupil. Additionally, Ehrenfels confesses that Graz is also an attractive option because it does not require a classical language … Indeed, he already has a topic, a title, and an outline ready for his dissertation: “Eine grundlegende Definition aus der Moralphilosophie, in sachlicher und logischer Hinsicht dargestellt.” (A Fundamental Definition from Moral Philosophy, from a Material and Logical Perspective). The thing to be defined, is nothing less than what is commonly understood by “good and evil action”. What should be the role of this definition in practical philosophy? And what can the general logical characteristics of such a type of definition teach us about such abstract concepts that can be only elucidated through detailed scientific investigation?
So originally Ehrenfels wanted to write a dissertation on ethics, not the philosophy of mathematics or the theory of relations. Why and when did his plans change? Stay tuned!