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Exact Thinking in Demented Times

Karl Sigmund
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
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[Reviewed by
Tom Schulte
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No less than Douglas Hofstadter authored the preface and helped prepare this English translation of a study of the Vienna Circle: “an assemblage of some of the most impressive human beings who have ever walked the planet.” Hofstadter summarizes in the preface: “Karl Sigmund's book tells its story, and their stories, in a gripping and eloquent fashion." Also, according to Sigmund, “Hofstadter did more than just add luster: quite a few pages are entirely due to him.”

The Vienna Circle (In the German, Wiener Kreis) was a significant group of diverse philosophers and scientists who met regularly from 1924 to 1936 at the University of Vienna. Chaired by Moritz Schlick, German philosopher, physicist, and founder of logical positivism, the Circle had no single philosophy. There existed a plurality of philosophical positions within and members often changed their views fundamentally over time. Its story is that of the philosophies of the Circle, as well as the significant influences on and reverberations of the Circle’s philosophical positions, generally categorizable as Logical Positivism or Neopositivism. Significant influencers outlined here include Ernst Mach, David Hilbert, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Albert Einstein. Mach, who “influenced physics, physiology, psychology, the philosophy of science, and pure (or speculative) philosophy” emerges in this telling as leading original thinker and inspiring focal point of much of the Circle’s advances, even when he disagreed.

Other inspiration came from Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and Bertrand Russell and David Hilbert's pursuits of the fundamental rules of mathematics. Further stimulation came from the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein (“studiously avoiding” direct contact) and Karl Popper (never invited; deemed rancorous). Popper in fact rivals physicist-cum-philosopher Mach for significance in shaping the direction of Circle discussions and consequently coverage here. Austrian philosopher Victor Kraft is quoted saying that “Popper stands in a close, inextricable with the development to the Circle, so the Circle was also of essential significance for his own development.” Outlining these stimuli that inspired the Vienna Circle to leave an indelible mark on science broadens this work. Telling their stories makes this a history of European pure science during and between the world wars. Threads touching upon the Circle bring writer Kafka, painter Klimt, French Conventionalists such as Poincaré and many more into this microhistory. Drawn in are not only individuals, but exterior subjects as well. Ideas of formal logic emerged from the Circle to affect areas as diverse as economics and the study of morality.

Born in the tumultuous emergence of World War I and dissipated by the disruption of World War II, the Circle has a story punctuated by violence. This includes physicist-cum-revolutionary Friedrich Adler’s assassination of Austrian minister-president Count Karl von Stürgkh, civil unrest even unto cremation riots, “the frantic 1920s”, and on to the cruelly ironic slaying of Schlick by a former student on the Philosophers’ Staircase at the University of Vienna.

Philosophical debate mirrored these physical battles. Simplified, the eventual neopositivism of the Circle rested on a central thesis of verificationism, asserting that only verifiable statements are cognitively meaningful. The main opponent was idealism. As the author observes in reviewing these important decades in the development of Western philosophy: “The crude ideology of the Nazis had always tended to side with the idealistic philosophers, all the way from Plato to Heidegger, and the blind obedience of Hitler’s troops could well have distant roots in Immanuel Kant’s ethics of duty.”

As an avid reader, I applaud the author for embracing the seldom-used technique of a summary epigraph for each chapter. It comes across as one part of the author’s obvious enthusiasm in the Circle. Author Karl Sigmund is a professor of mathematics at the University of Vienna and one of the pioneers of evolutionary game theory. As he says here, “the Vienna Circle has been with me for half a century.” This history is decades in the making and well worth the wait for anyone interested in the development of Western philosophy.

Tom Schulte is a software architect at Plex Systems in Michigan and as a cloud engineer is drawn to the intangible.

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