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The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle

David Edmonds
Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Frederic Morneau-Guérin
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The Vienna Circle, the group of philosophers believing in rationalism and empiricism that contributed to imbuing a new vigor to philosophy between the World Wars, counted within its ranks several larger-than-life characters. Not surprisingly, over time, many of them have been the subject of detailed biographies. Given the complexity of the philosophical positions supported by the members of this Circle, there are surprisingly very few accessible works for the general public addressing not only the life and work of one of the members of the group, but the life and work of all the members of the group. 
Driven by the intention of filling this void, philosopher and author David Edmonds has produced his book The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle. This work aims on one hand to offer a schematic description of the main philosophical positions of the Vienna Circle and its various philosophical disputes (both within itself and with its adversaries) in which its members were involved. On the other, it attempts to explain who its members were and how they got to where they were, as well as depicting the troubled era in which they worked. In so doing, the author manages to give an idea of the “revolutionary and evangelizing” nature (p. viii) of the philosophy of this group of intellectuals.
Mathematician Hans Hahn, political scientist Otto Neurath and physicist Philipp Frank can in some ways be acknowledged as the origin of this group of thinkers now known as the Vienna Circle. Between 1907 and 1912, they hosted informal meetings, generally held in a café, during which young Viennese intellectuals combining a vibrant interest in philosophy and scientific training shared their reflections about philosophical foundations of science. This informal group must be seen, according to David Edmonds, as the embryonic form of the Vienna Circle. 
However, it was only in November 1928 that the Vienna Circle was officially founded as the Ernst Mach Society. Berlin philosopher and physicist Moritz Schlick, who then held the chair in the philosophy of inductive sciences at the University of Vienna, decided to bring together around him a group of talented young mathematicians, logicians and philosophers who shared certain ideas (including such illustrious thinkers as Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel and Karl Popper). Schlick therefore became the figurehead of a movement that permanently transformed the world of philosophy.
The Vienna Circle was formed as a movement to promote logical empiricism or logical positivism. The second part of this nomenclature marks the influence of precursors such as David Hume from Scotland, Auguste Comte from France and Austrian Ernst Mach, while the first denotes the influence of Welshman Bertrand Russell. In short, the Circle espoused the ambitious goal of combining an older tradition of empiricism with the use of modern logic. Its members shared a passion for science, a belief in its transformative possibilities, and a fervent faith in the ability of philosophy to clarify scientific methods and reasoning. Edmonds explains that they wanted philosophy to be useful for science by clarifying the scientific enterprise. Above all, they loathed metaphysics and affirmations about the nature of reality based on intuition that go beyond what can be established by mathematics, logic and empirical science. 
The goal of the Vienna Circle, particularly its attack against speculative metaphysics, but also its opposition to the völkisch ideology, its critique of romanticism and its defense of individualism –, inevitably political in that it was opposed to certain ideological currents underlying the Austrofascist and Nazi ideology, placed the group on a collision course with powerful enemies. Forced to dissolve in 1934, the Ernst Mach Society saw its guru Moritz Schlick assassinated two years later. Ironically, even as the Vienna Circle was fading away in Austria, it saw its visibility and fame abroad, particularly in the English-speaking world, grow remarkably.
It goes without saying that the Vienna Circle did not spontaneously generate in the middle of a sterile field. The author also takes care to analyze the conditions that made possible such a spectacular intellectual proliferation as the one Vienna saw in the first decades of the 20th century. Edmonds also shows us that although the Austrian capital of the Dual Monarchy was a place where conversations and debates came fast and furious, these exchanges of ideas occurred mainly outside the university context. In fact, far from corresponding to the idealized image of a haven of tolerance, equality and openness, the university was at the time a bastion of reactionary conservatism.
It would not be possible to paint a general portrait of the history of the Vienna Circle while omitting the fact that most of its members were Jewish or of Jewish descent. Although he manages to report on how various members of the Vienna Circle were affected by the antisemitism and essentialism strongly present at the time in Vienna in their lives personally as well as in the development of their careers, it is more difficult for him to properly identify how discrimination and latent hostility influenced their thought.
Scattered to the four corners of the earth when the Second World War broke out, the members of the Vienna Circle also gradually grew apart from one another on a philosophical level. Then, the reputation of logical empiricism became tarnished, so much so that since the 1960s, it has become common to view the Vienna Circle as a sandcastle built at the edge of the sea: it dazzled and captured the imagination until the tide came in, but left no lasting traces. However, in the epilogue, Edmonds asserts that this judgment is reductive and unfair. He posits that an interpretation that is both more charitable and more accurate would mean attributing to the Circle credit for having been right in spirit, even though it is obvious upon examining the details that they were definitely wrong in many regards. The members of the Circle may not have had the answer to everything, according to Edmonds, but they undoubtedly asked the right questions. Although many philosophers today criticize the idea that everything can be reduced to logic, logic, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science nevertheless appear sustainably established as productive branches of philosophy. Vienna was therefore definitely the start of a conversation that is far from over.


Frederic Morneau-Guérin is a professor in the Department of Education at Université TELUQ. He holds a Ph.D. in abstract harmonic analysis.