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Biography & Memoirs

Philosophy With a Human Face

by Adam Tamas Tuboly

There are many stories about the history of analytic philosophy, captured in monographs, edited volumes, special issues of journals and innumerable conference talks. Historians were always at odds, however, with pictures and their role in historiography. It is not at all surprising then that reconstructions of philosophical events and achievements, with some laudable exceptions, were constrained mainly to longish and dusty texts. A few years ago, the Austrian mathematician, Karl Sigmund made a nice effort with his German book on the history of the Vienna Circle (Sie nannten sich der Wiener Kreis, Springer, 2015), which almost had more pictures than texts! The book, which was published as a companion to a well-attended Vienna Circle exhibition at the University of Vienna, hit a second edition last year (discussed below), but, as the author tells us in the afterword of the recent version, he “always hoped most of all for an Anglo-Saxon audience. After all, the best books on Vienna come from that world” (p. 387). Though Sigmund’s book (Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science) has its own competitor in German (Christoph Limbeck-Lilienau and Friedrich Stadler, Der Wiener Kreis: Texte und Bilder zum Logischen Empirismus, LIT Verlag, 2015), it became the very first picture book in English on the history of the Vienna Circle, or something very close to it.

What happens when on a cold, dark night in a red city, a mathematician, a sociologist, a physicist, a lawyer, a philosopher, and a few more mathematicians enter a small library room, filled with chairs and tables, and a thin layer of chalk covering everything? As the history of the Vienna Circle has shown, they form a philosophical circle to discuss the relevance and philosophical questions of their fields in a precise and scientific manner.

Entrance to the Mathematical Seminar, Boltzmanngasse, meeting place of the Vienna Circle (photo: IVC, source: Wikimedia Commons, used under CC-BY SA 4.0 License)

At first, the mathematician Hans Hahn, the physicist Philipp Frank, and the economist-sociologist Otto Neurath started to hold meetings on a weekly basis in Viennese coffee-houses to discuss all the questions and problems that the new scientific (and often philosophical-logical) achievements prompted. After a few years of intense discussions, members of the so-called First Vienna Circle left Vienna and migrated to the various corners of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy: Neurath went first to the Balkans to study the effect of war on the economy and later to Bavaria and Munich to socialize the economy as the director of the Central Planning Office in the short-lived Bavarian socialist government (1918-1919); Frank went to Prague in order to replace Einstein in his chair at the Physics Department; and Hahn started to teach in Czernowitz. In 1922, though, after Hahn had returned to Vienna (no doubt in order to be served coffee…), he was able to persuade the University (against all odds) that they should hire the eminent physicist-turned-philosopher Moritz Schlick for one of the vacant philosophy chairs, actually the one that was obtained before by Ernst Mach.

When Schlick – a good friend of Albert Einstein’s and one of the first philosophers to write a book on the theory of relativity that was well-received by Einstein’s himself – accepted the chair and started to gather students around him, one thing led to another, and the most varied scientists/philosophers found themselves again in a small room, having discussion nights on a regular basis, leaving behind family and work-related issues for hours on end. Sometimes their number reached twenty, sometimes less, but the core group consisting of Schlick, Hahn, Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Friedrich Waismann, Heinrich Neider, Herbert Feigl and Karl Menger started to feel that the whole circle is something more than a mere collection of its individual members. (This indeed sounds like one of those metaphysical claims that wouldn’t have been approved by the Circle, but let’s kindly move on). Thanks to the works of Schlick, Carnap and Neurath, the Vienna circle, over time, became known internationally. Yet, when the violent persecution of the Nazis reached them in the mid-1930s, most members were deprived of their university status, Schlick was murdered on the main stairway of the University of Vienna, and the regular members of the Circle emigrated as fast as they could – spreading their ideas on both sides of the Atlantic as a result.

In spite of such adverse circumstances, during its fifteen years of existence (though in fact only during three of these years were all the members actually located in Vienna at the same time), the Vienna Circle indeed revolutionized philosophy. They redefined its problems, methods, aims and platforms, and developed techniques that eventually became useful in various scientific fields. In fact, Sigmund’s book is much less about the actual achievements of the Vienna Circle but shows rather in which ways, and through which personal relations, they were able to influence the subsequent decades (whether in the social sciences, economics, mathematics, physics or the computer sciences). Hence the book may sometimes convey the feeling that all these people were and are important today because they knew, and influenced, later, really important people.

The only exception to this pattern of presentation is Kurt Gödel, who is discussed at length, both personally and in terms of his scientific contribution; the Gödel chapters indeed show that our current life is almost unthinkable without Gödel’s scientific achievements, but strangely Gödel was never a regular and active member of the Circle, nor did he share any of the views that the majority of the Circle held. So the following statement by Sigmund must be taken with a grain of salt: “[A]s our story shows, the digital world that holds the entire world in sway today sprang out of extremely abstruse investigations into mathematical logic carried out by a quiet and self-effacing (and sadly paranoid) member of the Vienna Circle, way back in the early 1930s” (p. 312). Nevertheless, as it would be almost impossible to discuss the history of the Circle without Gödel and his influence, these chapters indeed have their rightful place in the book.

One might ask, quite legitimately, why anyone should discuss, in such vivid manner, some philosophers, who after all were often dealing with highly abstract mathematical reasoning or physical theories? Answering this question would require an entire book – just like Sigmund’s. Almost everyone discussed in Exact Thinking had adventurous lives and odyssey-like journeys. Neurath experienced, for example, Eastern Europe’s political life in the Bavarian socialist republic of 1918-19; after its fall he was imprisoned and expelled from Germany (narrowly escaping a death penalty for treason); in the 1920s he organized world-famous museums around the globe (from Vienna to Berlin, from The Hague to Moscow, from Oxford to Mexico): as the Nazis burnt down Europe, he left the continent on a small boat when Holland was invaded, but was imprisoned for eight months in England as an “enemy alien” on the Isle of Man.

Neurath is just one example of many; members of the Circle indeed lived by their vows, and they were as political as one could be, short of pursuing party-politics. They lectured in adult education centers, wrote informal and easily understandable pamphlets for a lay audience to explain how science worked in a society, and many did everything they could to emancipate the suppressed. Tolerance was not just a catchy word, but a practice-guiding idea: women were allowed to discuss, participate and publish in the Circle, a move that was regarded with suspicion by the general University-administration that time.

Pages from Otto Neurath’s International Picture Language, 1936, aimed to establish a universal pictorial means of representation; source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

All the materials and events (some of them joyful, some of them shameful) that characterize the Circle provide first-rate fodder for gripping stories about their lives. And Sigmund has a talent for piquing our curiosity: every chapter begins with a short and mysterious summary, hinting at some of the major events to be discussed in the chapter to follow. And this is just as it should be. Philosophy is not a one-dimensional matter: place, time and motivations determine it on various levels. Theoretical arguments, presenting only the abstract relationships, may not suffice for showing what philosophy is and how is it done on the earthly plane. Therefore, if one wants to prepare a conscious reconstruction of the events that led to philosophical theories and arguments, the socio-cultural context of the philosopher seems to be inevitable. Sigmund does a nice job of describing how the Vienna Circle was formed and maintained against a radical and threatening background that might be structurally quite similar to various attacks on science that followed in subsequent decades as well.

Describing the context of the Circle, Sigmund actually reconstructs a complex network of Austrians: while some names are just dropped in without initial explanation, they always come back later as belonging to someone’s nephew, who happened to be a teacher of one of Schlick’s colleagues, or someone (Gomperz), whose father was involved in getting Ernst Mach to Vienna, thereby enabling him to become a cornerstone for the scientific philosophy. And so on; in the end, Vienna seems to be just one huge family, with its ups and downs, and much jealousy and support.

As happens in real life as well, families are often pulled apart by hatred and resentment. Sigmund’s book is not a story of joy and happiness. Almost every chapter points toward the final outcome, towards “demented times”. With the rise of Catholicism and nationalism at the Universities, critics of religion and metaphysics became at first just suspicious, then enemies of those harbouring these suspicions. The socialist Red Vienna was a town of socio-cultural experiments, an isolated enclave in Austria which was doomed to failure in the long run. As fascists took the Parliament in the early 1930s, the situation got worse, and some members of the Circle left their hometown. Others stayed, hoping for the best, but after Moritz Schlick was murdered, all hope seemed lost. With the Anschluss in 1938, the Circle was officially dissolved, and exact thinking was replaced by tricky reasoning in order to figure out alternative pathways and escape routes (like in the case of Gödel who traveled through Siberia by train, to approach the United States via the Pacific Ocean). As all members of the circle, and even most of their first students have passed away (some of them quite recently), one might get the feeling that history is indeed over for the Vienna Circle – but we will get back to this in a minute.

The two most important merits of the German and English books are how they treat their audiences. Sigmund’s books are highly readable and entertaining texts for non-philosophers as they bypass all the irrelevant details and longish footnotes, and show lively snapshots of a group of talented and enthusiastic scholars, struggling through the trenches of life (as members of the Circle belonged to the generation that fought in the Great War, getting through, and out of the trenches, can be taken quite literally). On the other hand, Sigmund has something to offer to professional philosophers of science as well, especially in the English edition. Here, finally, is a book that focuses not only on the ‘usual suspects’ (like Carnap, Schlick and Neurath), but instead treats almost all the members of the Circle. While Hahn, Menger and Gödel are handled more carefully and in more detail than other lesser-known figures (like Waismann, Kraft, Neider, and Zilsel), it is quite understandable that a mathematician chooses his heroes from the mathematician camp. Interestingly though, Bela Juhos – occasional attendant of the meetings and later one of Sigmund’s teachers – is not at all mentioned in the story (save for one short sentence at the end of the book). It would have been nice to learn a bit more about him.

Yet the English edition has its own drawbacks and errors that must be mentioned as well. Sigmund made some concrete, though in the grand scheme of things minor, historical errors, which would usually go unnoticed. More importantly, however, the philosophical ideas that are reconstructed in the volume are sometimes also a bit muddled. Take first the subtitle of the book: “The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science.” Anyone, after just a quick glance at the enormous secondary literature on logical empiricism, can easily realize that foundationalism was simply not a real “quest” for the Vienna Circle. Recently, even Schlick’s project has been deprived of its foundationalist overtones; not to mention Neurath’s unstoppable fight against any absolute and unshakable foundations. And it is not just the subtitle, but many other passages in the book, which present philosophical narratives that may have been widespread up until the 1990s, but which have been thoroughly critiques in the last decades. One might charitably say that philosophy is only a minor issue in the volume, and that it is the practitioners – philosophers – who take centre-stage with their lives and idea-formations, so that there is nothing to worry about. However, since the book may very well become a popular reader’s guide to the Vienna Circle, it would have been especially important to be more cautious about what to preserve, and what to drop, of the formerly received views.

This is especially true of the preface that was written for this edition by Douglas Hofstadter. After telling the long story of how he arrived to write a preface for this book, Hofstadter makes bold statements about the Circle that no one with any sort of familiarity with recent scholarship would have written: though one could debate whether “the Vienna Circle’s philosophical vision, though idealistic, was also quite naïve” (p. xvii), it is quite evidently false that the Circle claimed that “the act of induction […] plays no role at all in science” (ibid.), and it does not help that Hofstadter adds that this is “one of the silliest ideas I have ever heard”. These lines are not just misleading, but also set a strange tone for a book about the Vienna Circle. After all, why read a book about philosophers, who were not just naive, idealistic, simplistic, but also held the silliest ideas ever? The German edition was perhaps more cautious by putting Hofstadter’s flawed essay at the end of the volume.

Both books, the second edition of Sie nannten sich Der Wiener Kreis (Springer) and the expanded English edition (Exact Thinking in Demented Times) have their own merits, not least in terms of their production value. The Springer version is filled with beautiful, informative and colorful pictures about the works and lives of these philosophers. There are portraits, reproductions of manuscripts, paintings, newspaper clippings, posters, and photos of buildings, often more than one on a single page. This “photo album” is a nice way to get accustomed to the rich and vivid cultural milieu of Vienna. The whole book is printed on decent glossy paper, leaving a good impression on the reader, who will be pleased to know where their money went. It has only a small bibliography and a few footnotes, thus leaving more space for the other materials. Anyone who thinks that history is more than a sequence-like order of neatly describable logical events should have a copy on their bookshelf.

The Basic Book edition, however, has only a few selected pictures in black and white, and even these are not always reproduced at high quality. On the other hand, the dust jacket of the book is one of the most elegant covers in recent years, symbolizing dark times and the always-present light of hope, with a sleek layout and font. The yellowish pages give the book a somehow old, but familiar character of novels, promising indeed an epic quest. Every philosophy book should look like this. Though Exact Thinking is more scholarly than the German version (with an ever so slightly updated bibliography, lots of quotes and long lists of references), it is still more than a simple book on the history of philosophy. Perhaps it would be altogether better to consider the book not primarily as a book about philosophy, but as akin to a family saga about the very human lives of philosophers. Anyone who is prepared to treat both books as such will be pleased to acquire them.

Karl Sigmund, Exact Thinking in Demented Times:
The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science.
New York: Basic Books, 2017.
xviii + 449 pp, Hardcover.
ISBN 9780465096954, price: US$ 32.00

Karl Sigmund, Sie nannten sich der Wiener Kreis:
Exaktes Denken am Rand des Untergangs.
2., wesentlich erweiterte Auflage.
Vienna: Springer, 2018.
379 pp, Paperback.
ISBN 9783658180218, price: € 24.99

Adam Tamas Tuboly is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He was supported by the MTA BTK Morals and Science Research Group and the MTA Premium Postdoctoral Scholarship.

(c) 2019, The Berlin Review of Books.


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