The Murder of Professor Schlick

David Edmonds, The Murder of Professor Schlick. The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, Princeton Univerity Press 2020, xiv + 313 pp, $ 27.95.

It was the morning of June 22, 1936. Shortly after 9 am Moritz Schlick, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, was on the way to his lecture when one of his former students intercepted him on the university staircase. “Now, you damned bastard, there you have it,” the man was heard shouting as he unloaded a pistol into his victim. Schlick was instantly dead. The student, Nelböck by name, remained on the scene, waiting to be arrested. When he was questioned, he gave a variety of confused reasons for his attack. It became quickly clear that he was mentally unstable.  At his trial, Nelböck settled on saying that Schlick’s anti-metaphysical philosophy had undermined him morally. Two years later, after Hitler had marched into Austria, he changed his story and declared that he had acted on the conviction that Schlick was Jewish. He was duly released by the new Nazi authorities and he eventually died twenty years later, still a free man, in post-Second-World-War Austria.

After the murder, Austria’s increasingly strident right-wing press found all kinds of justifications for Nelböck’s deed. Schlick’s philosophy had been damaging “the fine porcelain of the national character” according to one newspaper. Others wrote that the professor had perhaps not been Jewish (he was so neither by religious affiliation nor by family background), but he had promoted a Jewish kind of thinking: anti-metaphysical, anti-religious, and given to “logicality, mathematicality, formalism, and positivism” whereas philosophical chairs in “Christian-German Austria should be held by Christian philosophers.”

David Edmonds puts the harrowing story of Schlick’s murder into the broader context of the emergence of a new kind of philosophy that had been gestating in Vienna since the first decade of the century. It had all begun with a group of young mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers who had met for informal discussions in a Vienna coffeehouse. Later, the group had become consolidated under the leadership of Schlick, a German philosopher known for his book on Einstein’s theory of relativity, who had arrived in Vienna in 1922.  The group now held regular meetings to which not everybody was invited. It began to call itself “The Vienna Circle,” proclaimed its scientific world-view in a 1929 Manifesto, published a journal, organized international conferences, and planned for a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Unified Science.  Its declared heroes were Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself a native of Vienna and the author of the stunning Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus that had been published in 1921. His book came soon to be a center piece for discussion at meetings of the group. Schlick himself and his assistant Friedrich Waismann succumbed most strongly to its beguiling influence. “What would Wittgenstein say?” became Schlick’s standard question when discussions ran into the ground.  Not that the members of the Circle agreed on a single philosophy. Otto Neurath, Schlick’s voluble counterpart in the Circle, was prone to dismiss Wittgenstein’s pronouncements as badly “metaphysical.”  The members of the Circle were united most by their desire to break with old ways of doing philosophy that still flourished at the university of Vienna and elsewhere. Their slogan was that they rejected metaphysics in whatever for it might come; their commitment was to take the empirical sciences seriously and to use the new, mathematized logic that Russell and Gottlob Frege before him had developed as an alternative to the old-fashioned Aristotelian syllogistic still being taught in philosophy departments.

The members of the Vienna Circle were not the only ones looking for new ways to do philosophy. There were also, for instance, Hans Reichenbach and Carl Gustav Hempel in Berlin with their Society for Empirical Philosophy. Others were looking for a renewal in other directions. Edmund Husserl at Freiburg sought a phenomenological way back “to the things themselves” from abstract philosophical theorizing. His way of doing philosophy spawned, in turn, Heidegger’s existential ontology with its distinctively anthropological dimension. During the same period, Horkheimer and Adorno in Frankfurt were seeking to recast philosophy in the form of a critical social theory. At Cambridge, Wittgenstein was abandoning the assumptions of his Tractatus. Philosophical problems were now to be treated by attending to the features of ordinary language. And in this he was followed by a generation of younger Oxford philosophers. After 1945, Sartre’s existentialism took off from Paris along yet another trajectory and in reaction to it there arose eventually a whole line of ever more radical challenges to the tradition, from Foucault’s archaeology and genealogy of knowledge, to postmodernism and Derrida’s deconstruction. All of those thinkers and movements were set on redefining philosophy, what it was, how it should be conducted, on what sources it was to draw, what domains of knowledge or of human experience it should build on. And they fought bitter battles over these questions. The members of the Vienna Circle gleefully denounced Heidegger’s “metaphysical nonsense.” Heidegger, in turn, laughed off Sartre’s existentialism. Russell complained that the later Wittgenstein and his followers had given up on serious thinking. Foucault and Derrida poked each other with their verbal stilettos. The panoramic story of this great revolt against the tradition is still to be told. What set it off? Why did it take such different forms? We are still far from a full account of this multi-fronted rupture of the tradition. We don’t even know yet whether it has run its course.

The new movements in philosophy did certainly not emerge organically from the tradition. That is, presumably, one reason why the traditionalists proved so hostile to the upstarts. Outside forces were pushing the subject in new and unexpected directions. While the Circle’s Manifesto listed a long line of philosophical forerunners, its way of thinking was the product, rather, of the explosive growth of the sciences (the hard sciences like physics, first of all, but also of newer ones like psychology and sociology), of changes in the prevailing social values, and shifts in the institutional environment in which philosophy operated.  New developments in physics and the other empirical sciences were stripping philosophy of some of its old problems. (Could it really tell us something about the causal, spacio-temporal structure of the universe?). Its way of dealing with those problems came to be dismissed now as “metaphysical.” New  problems concerning the meaning of the scientific theories and their epistemic status were, instead, coming into view. Mathematics had been undergoing its own revolution since Gauss, turning more abstract and formalized in the process. This induced the mathematicians in the Circle to turn to Frege’s and Russell’s new logic. Meanwhile social changes encouraged more sober, “utilitarian” forms of thinking and with that a devaluation of “belief” of the religious kind and of the “speculative” forms of thinking practiced by the traditional philosophers. The encasing of philosophy in the university and the appearance of a welter of new academic disciplines, were undermining its customary self-understanding as the ultimate, foundational science. Philosophy, it seemed obvious to the member of the Vienna Circle, was being pushed off its old pedestal.

To find a new way of doing philosophy became thus their prime objective. But they came to project in different ways. While many of them were born in Vienna, others came from Bohemia, Hungary, and Germany and later on there would be visitors from England and the United States, from Poland and from as far away as China. Two of its most influential members (Schlick and Rudolf Carnap) were Germans. A substantial number were Jewish – at least by family background – but Schlick and Carnap were, once again, not. Most of them veered to the political left (Otto Neurath, above all, as well as Carnap) but others were neutral. They came also from different disciplines (physics and mathematics but also biology, medicine, economics, and jurisprudence) and thus different perspectives into their discussions. What they shared was an attitude, an ethos, a commitment to science, to critical argument, to reason, to the pursuit of truth. They represented, in other words, a new, up-dated Enlightenment.

If this was one thing that distinguished them from others who were looking for a philosophical renewal, the second was that they engaged in their project as a group, reading, discussing, arguing with each other, seeking to refine their ideas in interaction with each other. Since the beginning of the modern period philosophers have pursued their calling for the most part individually, each seeking to develop their own distinctive way of thinking. This is how it has been with Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz and others. With Kant, the creative philosophers had begun to work within the framework of the university. Even so they continued to develop their philosophies largely on their own. That pronounced individualism is, indeed, still alive in philosophy today. The Vienna Circle represented a very different way of doing philosophy. It pursued a collaborative form of philosophizing, reaching out to each other in pursuit of what they called “the unity of science.”

There is yet another thing that set the Vienna Circle apart. Unlike the other movements that aimed at a reformulation of the task of philosophy, the members of the Circle were keen to disseminate their thinking not only into the academy but also beyond it and beyond even the educated elite. In its Manifesto the Circle declared it one of its goals “to fashion intellectual tools for the everyday life of the scholar but also for the daily life of all those who in some way join in working at the conscious re-shaping of life.” Given the political leanings of its membership, it came natural to them to engage in leftist causes. Neurath, half a Marxist and half a Benthamite utilitarian and the most politically engaged in the Circle, sought to pursue the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people by socialist means. Austria’s Social Democratic Party was their natural home. The Circle also associated itself with the Ernst-Mach-Society founded in Vienna in 1927. Named after the philosopher-physicist the Mach Society was dedicated to spreading the new insights of the natural sciences into all social groups. Members of the Vienna the Circle soon began to dominate the Mach Society and provided much of its programming. They also served as lecturers in Vienna’s adult education program which addressed itself primarily to a working-class constituency. That kind of teaching also provided them with an income since university positions were almost impossible to obtain for the Jewish members of the Circle.  All this activism did not mean, however, that the Vienna Circle itself was a political forum. Its internal discussions were limited strictly to scientific and philosophical matters. Schlick, in particular, strongly insisted on the separation of philosophy and politics. Their empiricism made them, in any case, antipathic to doctrinaire forms of politics. But the links between their philosophical and their political commitments were nevertheless strong and visible enough to make the Vienna Circle a target for the rising forces of Austrofascism in the 1920s and of Nazism in the 1930s.

Edmonds places his account of the rise and fall of the Vienna Circle into this historical context. His book provides in this way a valuable contribution to social history as well as to the history of  a philosophical movement.  He tells his story persuasively by focusing on individual personalities in and around the Circle.  His goal is thus not give a detailed exposition of the ideas and problems that motivated their discussion. But he tells us just enough about those idea and problems to keep the story together.  More would have produced a less readable and less useful book to the general reader. Edmond’s account of the members of the Circle ranges from the patrician Moritz Schlick, an accomplished philosopher who had come to Vienna with a recommendation from Einstein, to the oversized figure of Otto Neurath, loud, boisterous, full of irrepressible energy, a political agitator and born organizer. Another central figure was the kindly, scholarly, somewhat austere Rudolf Carnap who had been one of Frege’s students and maintained close links with Russell in the Circle. Other members were typically introverted academics; others had careers in business and law that kept them somewhat apart fro the others. Kurt Gödel, the mathematician, managed to attend the meetings without ever saying anything and then stunned the group (and the mathematical world) with his incompleteness results.

The two most remarkable figures associated with the Circle were, however, not members of it. One was Ludwig Wittgenstein and the other Karl Popper, both powerful and disturbing personalities. Wittgenstein had been living in Austria during the 1920s and he returned frequently enough from Cambridge in the years after that. But all attempts to bring him to the meetings of the Circle failed. He finally agreed only to meet a select few in Schlick’s house or on his own ground. Later, in 1938, when the members of the Vienna Circle were congregating at Cambridge for their fourth Unity of Science Congress, Wittgenstein was seen demonstratively leaving the town. In contrast to Wittgenstein, Popper was never invited into the Circle and he began to consider himself the group’s appointed opposition. His interests certainly overlapped with theirs. Like them, he was interested in the physical sciences and in the question of the relation between theory and observation. He also saw his work as close to that of Alfred Tarski, the Polish logician, who came frequently to attend Circle meetings. But his abrasive and self-aggrandizing personality kept the two sides apart.  In retrospect we see, however, that those two outsiders actually produced work that had the widest philosophical impact. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and his Philosophical Investigations and Poppers Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Open Society and Its Enemies became classics of 20th century philosophy. The writings of the members of the Vienna Circle, on the other hand, are read today only by specialists. Schlick’s and Neurath’s publications are barely remembered and Carnap’s have proved too technical to attract wide attention.

The murder of Schlick occupies just one chapter in Edmonds’ narrative. But he treats it as a pivotal moment in the history of the Vienna Circle. In the years heading up to that moment, the Circle had grown and flourished but it had also become the target of right-wing agitators. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, the ever more tenuous political situation in Austria, and the increasingly vociferous attacks on the Circle was already making evident that the future of the Vienna Circle might be uncertain. Schlick’s murder had thus a devastating effect.  In 1937, Waismann left for the UK, the physicist Philipp Frank, one of the senior members of the Circle, went to Harvard, the mathematician Karl Menger to Notre Dame University in the US, and Karl Popper took a job in New Zealand. Most of the others were to follow soon. By good luck all of them survived. But none of them ever went back to live in Vienna after 1945. Many of them never even visited their old haunts. The loss, they felt, was too great. The magic that had created the Circle and so much else of Vienna’s cultural life was gone.

During its life, the Vienna Circle attracted many philosophical visitors from abroad. Among those who came was a 23-year-old Englishman, A. J. Ayer, who afterwards condensed what he had learned in the months he had spent attending the Circle into a brashly provocative book entitled Language, Truth, and Logic. It was the first work to acquaint English-speaking readers with the outlook of the logical empiricists. In later years, after he had recanted his attachment to the ideas of the Vienna Circle, Ayer said with cruel wit that its greatest defect was that nearly all of what it believed had proved false. But he added at once that Circle’s way of thinking had nevertheless been “true in spirit.” Contemporary philosophers do, indeed, not worry much any longer about “the verification principle” that had occupied the Vienna Circle so intensively or many of other issues that kept its discussions going. But when we look closely, we can see that the Vienna Circle has still made a permanent contribution to the way philosophy is now being done. The contest between the various schools and movements seeking to renew philosophy has, of course, not been resolved. They go on living side by side, only occasionally making contact but more usually at growling distance from each other. Traditional ways of doing philosophy are also persisting. Still, the Circle lives on today in some strands of that motley we call “analytic philosophy.” There is a new respect for the empirical sciences in almost all philosophy. Modern, mathematical logic has become a standard part of the syllabus. Philosophers speak more with each other. None of this might have happened without the efforts of the Vienna Circle. What has disappeared, however, is their exciting sense that philosophy is embarking on a new path. We are no longer living in a revolutionary age of philosophy. Analytic philosophy insofar as it is an heir of the Vienna Circle has become a professional, disciplinary, and often self-contained enterprise. It has little ambition to change its surrounding society. Immanuel Kant, who was one of the thinkers the Vienna Circle most sought to oppose, has been anointed a forerunner of the analytic tradition. The Vienna Circle is history; all of its members are gone. The one to live longest was Karl Popper who died in 1994 after a long career at the London School of Economics. There he had ruled like a king, always alert to anyone seeking to challenge him. Attending his seminars in the 1960s. I don’t recall that he ever mentioned the Vienna Circle.

Edmonds tells his story in vivid terms. Like his earlier bestselling Wittgenstein’s Poker his book is meant for a broadly educated public with a taste for philosophy but for personalities and social environments. His story of the rise and fall of the Circle is at the same time one of the rise and fall of Vienna as a vibrant center of creative and intellectual life. Since so many members of the Circle had Jewish roots, it is a story also of the destruction of a unique moment in Jewish and European culture. Hitler and his Austrian allies destroyed It all: the Vienna Circle, Vienna as a cultural capital, and that miraculous union of Jewish Viennese sensibility.  Vienna would eventually regain its wealth, but never its energies, Edmonds writes in a voice of regret. He himself, it turns out, has roots in the Vienna that is gone. “My family like many in the Circle was middle class, assimilated Jewish,” he writes, “and, like many in the Circle, blind for the extreme turn that politics would take.”



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