Saturday, December 24, 2022

Edmonds on the Vienna Circle

David Edmonds' "The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle" is the kind of history that can change one's views of philosophical research programs simply through biography. 

For all its historical significance, the Vienna Circle was financially threadbare and short-lived. When it started in 1923, Austria was experiencing the economic hardships of post-WW1 Europe (German wheelbarrows-of-cash hyperinflation was just before that.) Good philosophers were barely getting by and not eating well. But it was still a convivial and energetic environment for working out a new empiricist approach to philosophy together. My favorite character in the book was Otto Neurath, the big warmhearted social scientist / social organizer / socialist who signed his letters with a cartoon of an elephant drawn to express his mood. 

Politically, they were the left-wing philosophical movement of their time and place, sharing an ideology of cosmopolitan scientific empiricism with people like Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Living in bohemian Red Vienna, many (like Neurath) joined up with lefty movements against the rising fascism of the era. Nazi-aligned obscurantists like Heidegger were their right-wing opponents. This doesn't map on to the analytic-Continental divide as recently understood – Rudolf Carnap's essay attacking Heidegger ends with praise for Nietzsche, whom Carnap admires for his empiricism and for the poetry of Zarathustra. 

Hitler ended everything. In 1936, Moritz Schlick was shot by a former PhD student who told the court that the murder was important for fascist ideological reasons, and thus avoided serious punishment. As Nazi power rose, Jewish members mostly got out alive, thanks to connections with academics outside. But everyone had to scatter, and the Vienna Circle was broken. 

In 13 ill-funded years, the empiricists of Vienna created a lot. But their empiricist project had barely gotten started before the Nazis showed up and everybody had to run. Many philosophical movements that later criticized logical positivism had far more funding and far more time, and many of those have left us with less. 

Their empiricism barely had time to develop. Where might it go if developed further? Verification conditions don't provide a good criterion of meaning, but maybe understanding? Does a phenomenalist metaphysics have more life in it than currently believed? Do the stripped-down epistemology and metaphysics of logical positivism allow for moral realism? I think the answer to the last of these is yes, and I think Carnap and Schlick and Neurath would be excited to find out.