The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle
Princeton University Press
The Vienna Circle were by all accounts a motley crew. As their manifesto states, “not one of the members [is] a so-called ‘pure’ philosopher; all of them have done work in a special field of science”. The members of the circle that formed around physicist and philosopher Moritz Schlick in the late 1920s were trained as physicists, mathematicians, logicians, historians, social and political scientists, economists and jurists – but not as philosophers. Nevertheless, the Vienna Circle is now most famous for espousing a philosophical view called logical positivism, the thesis that scientific knowledge is gained through experience and systematised with logic.
Despite the fact that ‘positivism’ has a pejorative connotation in modern contexts, the shadow of the Vienna Circle looms large. Aside from Schlick, other well-known members include Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap and Kurt Gödel. Wittgenstein, Popper, Tarski, Quine, Popper, Ayer and even Freud are all associated figures. David Edmonds’ history of the Vienna Circle The Murder of Professor Schlick (2020) offers an account of what united and set apart these individuals. As Edmonds puts it:
They were all fascinated and puzzled by the transformations under way in theoretical physics. They were interested in the methodology of science, the language of science, the claims and status of science, and the distinction between science and pseudo-science. They wished to demarcate the empirical sciences – involving experiments and evidence – from other forms of inquiry. They were interested in the foundations of geometry and mathematics. They wanted to understand how to make sense of probability. They shared the view that philosophy as traditionally practiced was needlessly esoteric and often nonsensical. They shared a belief that philosophy and science should be more collaborative, more closely linked. They wanted philosophy to be useful to science in clarifying the scientific enterprise. They had a broadly left-leaning political orientation. As we shall see, the politics and philosophy were inextricably linked.
As the final sentence of this quote hints, Edmonds pays particular attention to the political context in which the circle was active: the murder that the book’s title refers to took place on the 22nd of June, 1936 and was committed by a mentally ill former student who accused Schlick’s philosophy of ‘interfer[ing] with his moral restraint’. The murderer himself was pardoned soon after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. But while Edmonds carefully contrasts the Vienna Circle’s political views with the predominant culture of the interbellum, he does not ask the more timeless question: what, fundamentally, characterises this positivist form of politics? The answer is neither found in the original members’ left-leaning inclinations, nor in their influence on the post-war right-wing political culture. The Vienna Circle offers a subtly different lens through which to view both the politics of their time, and that of ours.
Though divided on many issues, the circle espoused what they termed the ‘scientific world conception’. This Weltauffassung was built on two pillars: first, empiricism, the belief that all of our knowledge ultimately derives from experience; and second, logical analysis. The empiricism of the Vienna Circle rejected the Kantian orthodoxy which insisted that some truths are ‘synthetic a priori’, that is, discoverable through reason alone yet able to express substantial facts about the world. Instead, the circle adopted the verifiability criterion of meaning, which says that only empirically verifiable statements are meaningful. This doctrine had radical implications for philosophy, as many of its claims were suddenly meaningless. How is one to verify that one ought to maximise happiness, or that God is omniscient? Or, as Carnap wrote in his ambitious paper ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’ about Martin Heidegger’s mysterious concept of ‘the Nothing’: “Where do we seek the nothing? How do we find the nothing? What about the nothing?”
The second pillar of logical positivism is the doctrine of logical analysis. The aim of logical analysis is to reduce a complex sentence into its logical components. The positivists were greatly inspired by Bertrand Russell’s theory of definite descriptions. On this theory, a sentence such as “The King of France is bald” translates into the more awkward but also more transparent: “There is someone who is the King of France, and no one else is the King of France, and that someone is bald”. It is this second doctrine that sets the Vienna Circle apart from their empiricist predecessors from Hume to Comte. The method of logical analysis provided the weaponry for the Circle’s crusade against metaphysics in all its forms. The Vienna Circle argued that such analysis reveals that the grand claims of philosophy – ‘God is dead’, ‘I think, therefore I am’ – are not merely false, but meaningless. For instance, Carnap argued that Descartes’ famous expression contained a logical error. Once the sentence ‘I think’ is translated into a formal language, he argued, one can only conclude from it that someone thinks – but not that someone exists. For Carnap, existence was not a property like redness or flatness, so the sentence “I am” is merely a pseudo-statement.
The elimination of metaphysics required a wholesale revision of ordinary language. In their fight against meaningless philosophy, the circle went so far as to ‘ban’ certain words in their meetings, such as ‘entity’, ‘essence’ and ‘reality’. The irascible political economist Otto Neurath was especially fanatical in this respect, known to shout ‘Metaphysics!’ whenever another member’s language was insufficiently clear. The Circle believed that ordinary language was at best imprecise, and at worst facilitated dangerous demagoguery. In Edmonds’ words:
[W]hereas language had once been seen as a window between us and the world – clean, flat and transparent – now it was treated with suspicion as grimy, warped and opaque, requiring attention precisely because of the way it was capable of distorting or masking reality.
The Vienna Circle’s main concern was the way in which language distorted philosophical thought. But the same worry applied to the way in which words were used in contemporary political discourse.
The Vienna Circle’s activities weren’t simply intellectual. The main theme of The Murder of Professor Schlick is therelation between their philosophy and their politics. The circle clearly swimming against the tide. Both nationalism and anti-Semitism were rife in late 1920s Austria, whereas most of the Vienna Circle members were Jewish; as was their great scientific hero, Albert Einstein. In addition, they were sympathetic to socialism. Neurath ran an office for central economic planning in the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. The socialist mini-state was short-lived, and after its demise Neurath briefly spent some time in prison before his return to Vienna. So the members of the Vienna Circle were clearly politically active. But how did their positivism inform these politics?
Edmonds argues that part of the answer lies in the history of positivism:
Positivism was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. It revered science and technology, which represented progress. It embraced modernism, which many conservatives regarded as decadent and destabilising. It attacked tradition, which conservatives believed was the bedrock of community. It was contemptuous of superstitious thinking. Although there was nothing explicitly pro-democratic about logical empiricism, it was implicitly anti-elitist. The priestly caste claimed some special insight into God, while the metaphysician claimed some special understanding of the world beyond appearance. It is easy to see why the declaration that all knowledge was empirical – and so, potentially open to examination by all – was perceived as threatening both to the church and to a certain kind of philosophical thinker.
By ‘a certain kind of philosophical thinker’ Edmonds is referring to Heidegger, whose inaccessible writings were anathema to the scientific world conception. Although it is still contested to what extent Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies influenced his philosophy, it has become impossible to deny his blatant anti-Semitism after the recent publication of the ‘Black Notebooks’ edited by Peter Trawny.
We can further clarify the connection on the basis of positivism’s two pillars. Firstly, Edmonds’ quote illustrates that the first pillar – the circle’s empiricism – entails a commitment to egalitarianism. To see how this played out in practice, consider Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity from 1905. The theory has some counterintuitive consequences. For instance, it predicts that a person who travels to a distant star will have aged much less on their return than their friends on earth. Now, Einstein’s physics was heavily criticised in Austria and Germany – not because of its empirical content, but because it was Jewish. “The allegation was that Jewish science, unlike Aryan science, was overrefined, appealed to formalism and symbols rather than the world, and somehow (this charge was difficult to comprehend let alone substantiate) lacked the Aryan commitment to truth”, and that it had “no respect for the mystical, failing to acknowledge that the world was ultimately mysterious and inaccessible to human reason.” It sounds wilfully obstinate, but that is what the Vienna Circle were up against. However, their scientific egalitarianism demanded that one takes the empirical evidence seriously. The identity of the particular scientist simply does not matter.
In addition, the second pillar, logical analysis, was used not only to denounce abstract philosophical concepts like ‘the Nothing’, but also ideas that were used to justify nationalism. The notion of das Volk – ‘the People’ – particularly was met with criticism. The Vienna Circle’s recurrent enemy, Heidegger, was just one of many who used the concept of a German peoples to justify his nationalism. According to these ‘metaphysical’ philosophers, “[t]here were the individuals, and then there was the set of individuals, and this set of individuals was to be understood as something more, something greater, than its constituent parts.” The positivists resolutely denied such views: there is no such thing as a collective that exists on its own, over and above the individuals it comprises. Therefore, it does not make sense to elevate the will of the people over the particular collection of individuals within a country. In this way, the tenets of logical positivism carried radically anti-nationalist commitments.
This suggests the answer to the question that Edmonds leaves untouched: the fundamental characteristic of the Vienna Circle’s politics is their distaste for collectivism. In the humanistic tradition, logical positivism emphasised the individual. In his paper ‘Aufbau/Bauhaus’, in which the positivist project is likened to the modernist architecture of the Bauhaus school in Dessau, the American historian Peter Galison coins the term ‘transparent construction’: “a manifest building up from simple elements to all higher forms that would, by virtue of the systematic constructional program itself, guarantee the exclusion of the decorative, mystical, or metaphysical.” The commitment to transparent construction gives positivism its political dimension: “by basing it on simple, accessible units, they hoped to banish incorporation of nationalist or historical features.” Or, as it’s said in their manifesto: “In science there are no ‘depths’; there is surface everywhere.”
It seems that there is a clear path from the Vienna Circle’s philosophy of science to their socialist politics. Neurath is emblematic of this connection: he not only desired a planned economy, but helped organise one – if only for the short month during which the Bavarian Socialist Republic existed as an unofficial state. The leading thought was that one could rationally ‘optimise’ society: with the right parameters, the state could lift up everyone else. But the idea of a ‘Left Vienna Circle’, a thesis espoused over the last few decades by the philosopher of science Thomas Uebel, is still contested. In an exchange with Sarah Richardson, a professor in history of science at Harvard, the latter argued that prominent circle figures such as Carnap and Neurath in fact expressed a commitment to ‘value-neutrality’: science can tell us how to reach a certain goal, but it cannot decide what that goal is. Edmonds’ account of Neurath’s activities supports this view. He claims that Neurath saw himself as a ‘social engineer’ rather than an activist. For Neurath, the aim of science was decidedly non-political. In order to describe this odd mix of views, inspired both by Marxist economics and by Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, Edmonds uses the label ‘Marximite’: half Marxist, half Benthamite. The state is the means to maximise happiness, but not an end in itself. It is no surprise, then, that one of the most scathing critiques of empiricism was written in 1909 by one Vladimir Ilich Ulanov – later known as Lenin.
If one zooms out from 1930s Vienna and considers the circle’s legacy, the socialist connection weakens further. First, the left’s focus on identity politics from the 1960s onwards was alien to positivism. One could venture that the idea of an oppressed minority as a unit of analysis would irk the circle members as much as that of the People. Indeed, Neurath believed that the expression ‘inalienable rights’ as it occurs in the constitution of the United States had no empirically verifiable content – hardly a boon to the Civil Rights Movement! (As Edmonds points out, there exists awkward tension between the circle’s views on this point and their own Jewishness: preferring to assimilate to the German culture, “some members of the Circle, even some Jewish members, held attitudes toward Jews that would make us uncomfortable if articulated today.”) Second, the ideas that the Circle did espouse – techno-optimism, focus on the individual, commitment to efficiency – were successfully co-opted by the libertarian right. Edmonds traces the historical ties: “[f]rom Carl a squiggly line, through other Viennese economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, can be traced to the economic policies and political outlook of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan”. The name ‘Carl’ refers to the economist Carl Menger, whose so-called ‘marginal revolution’ would eventually come to dominate neoliberal economics; his son Karl was an active member of the Vienna Circle (as was Richard von Mises, Ludwig’s brother).
But contrary to Edmonds’ narrative, the idea of a ‘Right Vienna Circle’ does not just consist of family resemblances. Thatcher’s famous quote “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women” reads like a more or less accurate summary of the Vienna Circle’s views. (Edmonds claims that Thatcher misunderstood the Vienna Circle on this point, since of course they did not deny that society existed – just that it has no causal role over and above the individuals. But it’s not clear that this wasn’t precisely what Thatcher meant, too.) The circle’s individualism reverberated into their ethics, which were inspired by psychology and game theory in a way that is not too dissimilar from modern economist’s cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, one can recognise the latter’s obsession with the quantification of life in measures such as GDP and QALY as an extension of the positivist’s demand for logical clarity. Call it the ‘quantifiability criterion of meaning’. The failure to trace these connections in more detail is one of the very few omissions in Edmonds’ research.
Can we distil from these facts a fundamental characteristic of the Vienna Circle’s politics? Rather than left or right, the central opposition in terms of which to analyse their views is that between the individual and the collective. The Vienna Circle argued that ultimately the individual is central to politics. This lends itself to a right-libertarian interpretation – the individual’s freedom is maximised by the market – but also to a left-liberal one, in which the government acts for the individual’s own good by providing public services. The arch-enemy of this view is populism, which comes in both left- and right-wing forms. What unites these politics is that they place the collective first, whether the country’s native population, the proletariat or the rights of minorities.
And then the war breaks out, and philosophy is far from everyone in the circle’s minds. Edmonds lays out the stories of all the individual circle members: the depressed Waismann, forever in Wittgenstein’s shadow in Cambridge; Feigl and Carnap finding a new life in the US; the unlikeable Rose Rand getting by on anonymous support from Wittgenstein; and Neurath fleeing the Netherlands on a boat headed for England in the middle of the night, leaving his precious manuscripts right at home. Edmonds details how Neurath, on arrival in the UK, was interned in a camp at the Isle of Man. To add insult to injury, “the British made no distinction between Jew and Nazi: the ‘enemy aliens’ found themselves in the same camp.” It was only with the help of a letter from Einstein – by then a world-famous scientist – that Neurath was released. Remarkably, all members of the Vienna Circle survived the war, although many refused ever to return to Vienna.
It is often asserted that logical positivism was ‘killed’ by various individuals. It is true that there are hardly any positivists around these days. Popper’s attack on the verifiability criterion of meaning overthrew one pillar of logical positivism; Quine’s refutation of the division between statements that are true in virtue of their meaning (analytic) and those that have empirical content (synthetic) felled another. Published in 1962, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions featured a two-pronged criticism: firstly, observation itself is theory-laden and hence offers no foundation from which to objectively test scientific theories, and secondly, theories before and after revolutions are ‘incommensurable’, and so there exists no common logical framework in which to express their differences. Perhaps most damning is the admission of Ayer, one of positivism’s main champions, who told Brian Magee in an interview  on the BBC in 1976: “I suppose the greatest defect is that nearly all of it was false.” Since then, high-flying metaphysics has sprawled in contemporary analytic philosophy.
But while positivism was ultimately unsuccessful as an antidote against metaphysics, it remains valuable as an antidote against anti-scientific politics. Falling somewhere between the traditional left and right, the positivist position isn’t easily legible in the current landscape of views. This is not to say there is no way to map their views onto the familiar political spectrum. For instance, the blogger John Nerst has written about a ‘tilted’ political compass , on which the opposition between left and right is broken down into a dichotomy between economic left and right on the one hand, and the cultural left and right on the other. For the Vienna Circle the latter distinction was most salient, unifying both social-democratic and libertarian tendencies. In a world with an increasing distance between science and culture, this axis has is once more relevant. The rise of nationalism in the form of Brexit and MAGA are arguably the modern analogues of the Völkisch ideology of the 1920s, elevating a country’s history and tradition to something that at times seems more real than the actual individuals that live in it. Likewise, climate-scepticism and anti-vaxxers resemble those who objected to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity on political rather than scientific grounds. The ideas of the Vienna Circle – faith in science, a positive attitude towards central planning, a commitment to a common language – are perhaps a helpful counter-narrative to these dangerous new forms of politics.
Caspar Jacobs  is a DPhil student in Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford.