From Vienna to Minneapolis: The Ideal of Intellectual Community
By Alan C. Love, Professor and Director, Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science
A version of this article was published by the Center for Philosophy of Science in Spring 2022.
In 1923, Herbert Feigl began his doctoral studies under the supervision of Moritz Schlick, a philosopher studying how early 20th century developments in mathematics and physical science were transforming our understanding of what knowledge is (Edmonds 2020). Schlick had secured a position at the University of Vienna in the previous year (the “Chair in the Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences”) and quickly became a nucleus of intellectual activity in a city bustling with cross-disciplinary conversations among mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists (Sigmund 2017). Within twelve months, partly at the prompting of Feigl and other students, a regular discussion group led by Schlick, along with the mathematician Hans Hahn and the economist Otto Neurath, coalesced on Thursday evenings; it became known as the Wiener Kreis or Vienna Circle . Subsequently, the group was tightly associated with the philosophical approach labeled “Logical Positivism” or (as many affiliates later preferred) “Logical Empiricism.” Feigl was largely responsible for solidifying this identity and appending the labels (Blumberg and Feigl 1931, Feigl 1943). As he noted later in life, “the aim of this reflective enterprise was the clarification of the basic assumptions, concepts, and methods of the sciences” (Feigl 1969, 633).
The Vienna Circle and Logical Empiricism had a major impact on intellectual trends in both philosophy and science in the 20th century (Stadler 2015), which was unnaturally facilitated by the rise of Nazism that spurred Vienna Circle members to emigrate . Many of them eventually landed in the United States; the recentering of much cutting-edge scholarship after WWII to the Anglophone world was just one of the consequences. Herbert Feigl was the first to leave in 1931 (after having spent the previous academic year at Harvard on an International Rockefeller Research Fellowship), taking a position at the University of Iowa where he stayed for nine years before accepting a faculty position at the University of Minnesota in 1940. In 1953, thirty years after initiating his graduate work, Feigl founded the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, which is still in existence and active today in a similar enterprise of clarifying the basic assumptions, concepts, and methods of the sciences (https://cla.umn.edu/mcps). A central reason for its longevity is its commitment to the ideal of intellectual community, which is arguably one of the most enduring imports from Vienna to Minneapolis.
What is intellectual community? Perhaps it is easier to say what it is not. Intellectual community is not a shared commitment to a set of ideas or a school of thought. Despite common impressions, members of the Vienna Circle disagreed vehemently about many substantive claims: “it teemed with vociferous controversies and silent misgivings” (Sigmund 2017, 7); “discussion was often heated but mostly civil …what was demanded in any discussion was clarity” (Edmonds 2020, 21) . In a self-proclaimed manifesto (Stadler and Uebel 2012), members noted that their group “is characterized not so much by theses of its own, but rather by its basic attitude, its points of view, its direction of research .” Intellectual community is not simply a gathering of academics at a local university or college who interact on a regular basis because of their shared place of work. The Vienna Circle served as a center of gravity such that only some members were fulltime denizens of the city, and many were not formally associated with the university. It also is not a professional society that one can have formal membership in through paid dues and receive an associated peer-reviewed journal or attend annual conferences. Informal networking, whether in the form of supporting job applications or traveling to connect with like-minded individuals elsewhere—with lots of disciplinary boundary crossing (and criticism)—was a hallmark of the Vienna Circle.
One defining feature of the Vienna Circle’s intellectual community was a shared orientation: take seriously the latest developments in logic, mathematics, and the sciences, while avoiding numinous claims that appeared erudite but ultimately lacked meaning. Suspect claims were usually labeled “metaphysics” and included heterogeneous ideas ranging from the existence of God to Platonic Forms, from Hegel’s world spirit (Weltgeist) to Heidegger’s Dasein. These were exposed as “devoid of factual meaning” or inherently confused through a systematic, logical analysis of language (Feigl 1943) . However, Vienna Circle members reserved much of their most strident criticism for each other’s work . Another defining feature was regularity in timing and format. Although not everyone was in attendance each time the group met, 10-20 met routinely every other Thursday night. They followed a predictable schedule that included an opening presentation or reading (sometimes by a guest) followed by intense general discussion .
A third feature of the Vienna Circle was its relatively flat social structure, which contained diverse participants from graduate students to full professors without an overly hierarchical deference characterizing their interactions. Although faculty were more likely to talk than graduate students, there were no formal rules against anyone participating in the conversation. Fourth, the Vienna Circle grew out of earlier initiatives and was not established by fiat overnight. An initial attempt at formulating a similar discussion group took place more than two decades earlier and included both Hahn and Neurath, though it did not hold together. Intellectual community does not arise instantaneously and typically accumulates momentum over time (and can be thwarted by external factors, such as a world war). This organic growth often involves several anchor members working together to draw others in (e.g., some referred to the group as the “Schlick-Zirkel” early on) and the existence of cognate groups that nurture a similar ethos in a different geographic location (e.g., the Society for Empirical Philosophy in Berlin, which began in 1927 and was organized by Hans Reichenbach and Richard von Mises) . Finally, intellectual community is interdisciplinary in that its composition is not confined to those sharing a similar training or methodology. The precise composition can be quite variable and change over time, but it does not become a center of gravity for curious scholars if narrowly circumscribed by disciplinary boundaries .
Why should we care about the ideal of intellectual community at this moment in history? What is so important about the model of scholarly interaction that Feigl imported from Vienna to Minneapolis? As we approach the centenary of the Vienna Circle’s origins, there are some interesting parallels between the political upheaval of the 1920s and our current situation . A recent book claims that one hundred years ago was a “time of magicians,” a time when seminal thinkers reshaped philosophical investigation in distinct ways (Eilenberger 2020), including those directly relevant to the Vienna Circle (e.g., Ludwig Wittgenstein). But it was also a transitory moment that segued into unparalleled instability due to the rise of Nazism. The University of Vienna was embroiled with political infighting and anti-Semitism was increasingly on display, marking daily life and manifesting as riots at the university and elsewhere (Sigmund 2017, ch. 7) . Economic turmoil came and went repeatedly in Vienna during this period. Since several of the Circle’s members were Jewish, its leaders became targets. “The so-called German Students’ Union published blacklists of objectionable professors. These lists included Moritz Schlick … [and] anyone who was suspected of Marxist leanings or of having a Jewish background. Neither criterion applied to Moritz Schlick, but by association, he was seen as guilty” (Sigmund 2017, 173) . In 1936, Schlick was murdered by one of his former students (Johann Nelböck) and the individual was subsequently exonerated by the new political regime (Edmonds 2020) . The Vienna Circle had already begun disintegrating under these socio-political pressures, as well as the death of Hahn in 1934. In fact, the situation continued to be difficult (though not nearly as strident) for those emigres with left-leaning politics during the McCarthy period that swept over the United States in the decade after the end of World War II and left an enduring mark on philosophy of science (Reisch 2005).
Although our current situation has many differences, some will recognize eerie parallels of blacklists, open challenges about the nature, scope, and significance of philosophical (and other forms of) investigation, and universities experiencing drastic financial circumstances, especially during the COVID pandemic (an economic analogue to war). The ideal of intellectual community is important to keep in view because it provides the circumstances whereby some of the deepest wrestling with ideas that matter can occur and be propagated. Genuine intellectual community is fecund. For example, a common outcome of intellectual community is publication; the Vienna Circle left its mark everywhere, and not simply by advancing the scholarship of its members. Karl Popper was kept at arm’s length by Schlick, while Feigl and other Vienna Circle members engaged Popper outside of their regular discussions, but Schlick supported the publication of his now famous Logik der Forschung (The Logic of [Scientific] Research) in 1934, with the English version appearing twenty-five years later (Popper 1959). The International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, an unfinished initiative of the Vienna Circle consisting of nineteen monographs published from 1938 to 1969, generated Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn 1962), arguably the most influential historical-sociological study of the sciences in the 20th century (selling a million copies and cited more than 130,000 times over the past fifty years). Feigl also was involved in the birth of two peer reviewed journals that remain central organs of cutting-edge inquiry on the contemporary landscape of philosophy: Philosophical Studies and Philosophy of Science.
To many outside observers, the stereotypical image of the scholar is a lone individual toiling away in the archives or in isolation to achieve maximal concentration, to channel mental exertion toward new ways of looking at the world. The parallel in the sciences is the lone genius who makes fundamental theoretical breakthroughs in sudden moments of insight or through strategic experiments that uncover nature’s inner workings. Few are enamored with this picture for contemporary science where journal articles in astronomy and genomics now have hundreds of contributing authors and historians have shown that the image was false of the past as well. However, humanistic scholarship and philosophy (in particular) have retained an individualistic image of lone thinkers accomplishing heroic feats of cognitive strength in isolation. Keeping intellectual community in focus suggests otherwise, as Feigl recognized in contemplating his career. “As I reflect on my motivations in connection with the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, it seems fairly clear to me that my formative experiences in the Vienna circle … encouraged me to endeavor collaborative teamwork in philosophical research” (Feigl 1969, 669). This kind of collaboration requires intentional effort to build and maintain, something that Feigl was famous for and something current resident fellows and affiliates of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science strive to achieve .
However, it is important to recognize that historical moments can be pregnant with possibility, sometimes due to a confluence of cultural, economic, political, and social factors. That this applied to the Vienna Circle is undeniable: “For several decades Vienna was the stage for remarkable development in literature, journalism, the visual arts, music, and architecture, as well as philosophy” (Edmonds 2020, 64) . Patronage was crucial, as was the intersection of heterogeneous cultural communities (e.g., Feigl was not only of Jewish descent but also a Czech citizen) in shared social spaces (Vienna had more than a thousand coffeehouses), though not without constant friction arising from pervasive race-consciousness. Despite a full recognition of this unique historical juncture, we have enough detail about the relevant academic and social practices involved in the genuine intellectual community observed in the Vienna Circle and elsewhere, alongside a deep appreciation for the associated ramifications in culture and thought, to pursue the ideal ourselves—to go and do likewise—and encourage others to do the same. Although there is no guarantee of an outcome and no necessary return on the investment of time and energy involved, it seems hard to deny that the existence of vigorous intellectual communities where one can sincerely advance a claim, defend and discuss it vigorously, modify it accordingly, and sometimes relinquish it reluctantly would be a positive benefit to contemporary society, at least in small part.
1. “It was Feigl’s and Waismann’s suggestion that the coffeehouse proceedings be placed on a more official footing, as it had become impractical for the enlarged group to hold a sensible dialogue amid the hubbub of the coffeehouse. Schlick was prevailed upon to be the leader of this group, as well as its gatekeeper” (Edmonds 2020, 18).
2. “[The Vienna Circle] was able to find shelter in Anglo-Saxon countries, and from there it exerted a seminal influence on the intellectual and scientific history of the twentieth century” (Sigmund 2017, 7). “Remarkably, not a single member of the Circle was a direct victim of the genocide” (Edmonds 2020, 228).
3. “To give the impression that the Circle had ever been a cozy and united alliance of like-minded individuals would be misleading. There were both profound disputes and marked personality clashes” (Edmonds 2020, 148).
4. Importantly, this 1929 manifesto was highly controversial among Vienna Circle members, especially its leader Schlick, and proves this point indirectly: “we should see the manifesto as marking less the Circle’s public establishment and more the beginning of its end” (Edmonds 2020, 93).
5. Heidegger’s writings were often singled out as egregious violations. “Concrete instances of the meaningless assertion are those concerning a Ding-an-sich …The purpose of philosophy is the clarification of the meaning of propositions and the elimination of just such meaningless pseudo-propositions” (Blumberg and Feigl 1931, 296).
6. Neurath captured it pithily: “we are all far better at pointing out residual traces of metaphysics in our neighbors than in ourselves” (Sigmund 2017, 301).
7. “Schlick would bring the meeting to order at 6:00 p.m. by clapping his hands” (Edmonds 2020, 20).
8. “Strong connections between the two groups existed from the very beginning” (Feigl 1969, 636).
9. “It was a truly unique circumstance that the disciplines mathematics, physics, law, medicine, and sociology—and of course philosophy—were all equally well represented in the Circle’s weekly gatherings” (Sigmund 2017, 297). Although it is not as widely known, this arose in part out of an appreciation of the significance of different kinds of scholarly work. Einstein gave Schlick’s book on relativity theory high praise: “from the philosophical side nothing has been written about the subject with anything like the same degree of clarity” (Edmonds 2020, 27). Feigl’s 1929 book Theory and Experience in Physics also was commended by Einstein.
10. “On 15 July 1927 …three right-wing paramilitary men were acquitted of the murder, six months earlier, of a half-blind World War I veteran and his eight-year-old nephew, who had been on a Social Democratic march. Enraged protestors set the Justice Palace alight. The police opened fire, and in the ensuing pandemonium eighty-nine people were killed and hundreds more injured. The socialists called for a general strike and demanded that the chief of police step down” (Edmonds 2020, 59).
11. “At its yearly meeting in 1923 in Vienna, the German Students’ Union demanded that all books by Jewish authors be marked with a Star of David” (Sigmund 2017, 173).
12. The words of University of Vienna philosopher and Nazi Johann Sauter, writing under the pseudonym “Prof. Dr. Austriacus,” are chilling: “It is to be hoped that the terrible murder at the University of Vienna will quicken efforts to find a truly satisfactory solution of the Jewish Question” (Edmonds 2020, 177).
13. This exoneration was not so surprising as articles written in the wake of Schlick’s murder suggested that Nelböck had been upsent by what Schlick taught in class. This was quickly generalized over Schlick’s entire career: “For a full fourteen years, young, tender flowers of humanity were forced to drink from the poisonous vial of positivism as if it were the very water of life. The effect must have been horrible” (Sigmund 2017, 319).
14. “Perhaps the most important successor to the Circle [abroad] was the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, which Feigl founded” (Edmonds 2020, 250).
15. “It cannot be understood in isolation. It arose in a city in which art and music and literature and architecture also flourished. …A birthplace of modernism, [Vienna] was home to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and composer Arnold Schoenberg, journalist Karl Kraus and architect Adolf Loos, novelist Robert Musil and playwright Arthur Schnitzler. The Circle’s ideas complemented or competed with others circulating around Vienna. …The backdrop to the Circle was economic catastrophe and the rising political extremism to which the Circle itself would eventually fall victim” (Edmonds 2020, viii).
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