New details on why Tarski was reluctant to leave Poland before WWII

Paolo Mancosu has a new paper out in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics:

This article makes available some early letters chronicling the relationship between the biologist Joseph H. Woodger and the logician Alfred Tarski. Using twenty-five unpublished letters from Tarski to Woodger preserved in the Woodger Papers at University College, London, I reconstruct their relationship for the period 1935–1950. The scientific aspects of the correspondence concern, among other things, Tarski’s reports on the work he is doing, his interests, and his — sometimes critical but always well-meaning — reactions to Woodger’s attempts at axiomatizing and formalizing biology using the system of Principia Mathematica. Perhaps the most interesting letter from a philosophical point of view is a very informative letter on nominalism dated November 21, 1948. But just as fascinating are the personal elements, the dramatic period leading to the second world war, their reaction to the war events, Tarski’s anguish for his family stranded back in Poland, the financial worries, and his first reports on life in the East Coast and, as of 1942, at the University of California, Berkeley.

There is much that is interesting in this correspondence, but what struck me most was letter 8, dated May 22, 1939. This is exactly the time when Tarski was considering offers by Quine and others to come to America. Tarski was hesitant, something we now, in hindsight, find puzzling. The Fefermans, in their biography of Tarski, also found this puzzling. Their explanation was that Tarski’s “surpreme absence of self-doubt” was the determining factor. Leśniewski had just died and, the Fefermans conjectured, Tarski was certain that as “clearly the pre-eminent logician in Poland”, he would be appointed as Leśniewski’s successor in Warsaw (p. 106–107).

Letter 8 paints a completely different picture, which any current precariously employed scientist can appreciate. Quine suggested that Tarski should travel to the US in the Fall of 1939 and stay for a year. There was no offer of employment, no grant money, nothing, just vague assurances that invitations and perhaps honoraria would be forthcoming. In Poland, Tarski made ends meet as a high-school teacher and adjunct lecturer at Warsaw University. This is Tarski’s evaluation of his situation:

It seems to me that it would be criminally reckless if I decided to follow Quine’s “suggestions” and your advice. You don’t take into account a circumstance. I have two parents, a wife and two children. And these are all people, and no marmots, no bears, etc.: they are not able to sink into sleep for a few months. If I decide to go to America and spend the next school year there (regardless of whether I get a job there), I have to inform the school that I am giving up my hours next year; as a result, a third of my income will be taken away as early as 1 August (i.e. the money I receive at school). I have to do the same at the university—I have to inform them that I do not intend to give lectures in the coming year; as a result, on 1 September, the second third of my income will be eliminated. The last third (i.e. the money I get in university for my adjunct position) will be eliminated on October 1st if I don’t take up my duty at that time. My savings are enough for the passport, the visa, the trip to America and back and still for a one-month stay in America. So what will my family live on in September? My wife earns about 6.50£ a month, but that’s too little for one person, let alone for five.

He goes on to contrast Quine’s offer to him with the much more generous and definite offers of funding to Carnap and Woodger himself. Later letters detail his repeated attempts at rescuing his family from Nazi-occupied Poland. Read the whole thing here.

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