Herbert Feigl

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Herbert Feigl

Austrian-born American philosopher of science Herbert Feigl (born 1902) is a major influence in the field of modern philosophy.

Herbert Feigl has achieved renown in the realm of modern twentieth-century philosophical currents, initially as a member of one well-regarded movement centered in Vienna in the 1920s; he would later be credited for transporting much of its ideology and spirit to American shores when he immigrated from Austria as a young academic at that decade's close. Feigl, whose main interests lie in the philosophy of science and epistemology—the branch of philosophy concerned with the origin and nature of knowledge—founded the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science in 1953. Since then the Center has become a distinguished nucleus for the discussion and development of new threads in the field of modern philosophy.

Feigl was born in Reichenberg, Austria, in December of 1902; though it would later become the Czech Republic, Reichenberg was situated in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the end of the first World War, this area became a part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Feigl's father, Otto, was an industrialist, and as a youth Feigl proved himself especially gifted in academics and planned to become a chemist. When he was 16, however, he discovered a treatise on Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, and, intrigued, set out to disprove it. Published in 1905, Einstein's famous theory posited a new view of space and time: the physicist argued that absolute motion did not exist, instead only relative motion between two systems or frames of reference was crucial. Space and time were seen as interconnected and making up a four-dimensional continuum Einstein named "Space-Time."

The University of Vienna

Inspired by such new ideas, Feigl took up the study math and physics with a vigor. He chose the renowned University of Munich for further study, and headed there in 1921 to spend a year as a student of professors who were either already well-established and influential in their fields, or would later gain such distinction. After reading a work by Edgar Zilsel, Feigl decided to pursue a degree in philosophy. One of his mentors during this first year was Moritz Schlick, and when Schlick took a teaching post at the University of Vienna, Feigl followed him there. He spent a good part of the 1920s at the Austrian university, where he studied math, psychology, and theoretical physics. He also penned his first significant paper while still a student: "The Philosophical Significance of Einstein's Theory of Relativity," which won a 1922 prize.

In 1924 Feigl joined a weekly discussion group with Schlick and others that became known as the "Vienna Circle." He would remain an integral member of the group until his immigration to the United States in 1930, and played a not unimportant role in the formulation of its ideology. Rudolf Carnap and the mathematician Kurt Goedel were, along with Schlick, the leading names of the Vienna Circle and the school of philosophy to which it would become closely linked, logical positivism. Another term for this concept is "scientific empiricism," and it arose out of the modern, early twentieth-century writings of philosophers Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and G.E. Moore.

Logical Positivism

At their weekly gatherings, Feigl and other members of the Vienna Circle gave form to logical positivism as a school of philosophy. It was an attempt to bring the methodology and precision of the mathematical sciences to the study of philosophy, much as the recently developed movement in philosophy known as "symbolic logic" had replaced ordinary language with mathematical terms. Logical positivism offered the idea that metaphysical speculation (in other words, the "unknowable," or to a religious believer, the "divine") was invalid and absurd as a philosophical concept. The group also argued that logical and mathematical propositions were tautological, or easily clarified in the most simplistic terms ("Either the sun will shine today, or it will not shine") and that any statements regarding morals or values were merely a reflection of human emotion. Finally, the Vienna Circle held that the function of philosophy was to interpret ideas and theories in both everyday and scientific language.

Feigl and the Vienna Circle were greatly influenced by the aforementioned Wittgenstein and his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus of 1921. This work argued that an intertwined relationship existed between language, thought, and the world. Wittgenstein wrote that in order to "understand" a sentence, the listener must first discern the reference of its various parts, both to one another and to what is real. The philosopher also posited that language could indeed testify to an area beyond itself, that it could express things that were not tangible or demonstrable, and furthermore, maintained that nonsensical statements could yield philosophical insight. These latter ideas allowed for the possibility of the metaphysical, and it was at this point that Wittgenstein and the logical positivists diverged.

Feigl, still a University of Vienna student, and the already established Wittgenstein were known to enter into spirited debates at Schlick's home during Vienna Circle meetings. In 1927, Feigl earned his Ph.D. with the dissertation "Chance and Law: An Epistemological Investigation of Induction and Probability in the Natural Sciences." His first teaching job was at Vienna's Volkshochschule ("People's Institute"), a select continuing education curriculum for adults, where his first class in 1927 was on the fundamentals of astronomy. Eventually he became an instructor in philosophy and his classes grew quite popular. The post allowed him to pursue the further development of his own ideas, and in 1929 his first book was published, Theorie und Erfahrung in der Physik ("Theory and Experience in Physics"). The work received a favorable mention from Einstein.

Feigl and Bauhaus

During the late 1920s Feigl became acquainted with the Bauhaus school of art and architecture in Germany, a controversial movement that was sometimes vilified in its day but later respected as an integral force in twentieth-century design. In classes at the Bauhaus, instructors such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Marcel Breuer taught students how to apply the machine-age concepts of the industrial revolution to craftsmanship. It was a spirit and way of thinking which fit naturally into the Vienna Circle's ethos, and Feigl cultivated particular ties with the painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.

Feigl arrived in the United States at the behest of the Rockefeller Foundation, which had made him a fellow for the academic year 1930-1931. He spent part of it at Harvard University, and the following year wed psychologist Maria Kasper. The couple would have one child, Eric Otto. Feigl was then hired by the University of Iowa, where he began as a lecturer in 1931, and was promoted to assistant professor the next year. He was made associate professor of philosophy in 1938, and spent the next two years in this capacity. He had already become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1937. Another Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1940 enabled him to work at Columbia and Harvard universities as part of his investigations into the methodology of scientific explanation. To accomplish this he held discussions with many great minds in philosophy at Harvard at the time, including Bertrand Russell. His growing reputation attracted the attention of the philosophy faculty at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, and he was hired as a professor of philosophy in 1940. He would spend the rest of his academic career there, and his and other well-known names in the field became virtually synonymous with the university's philosophy department and its outstanding reputation.

Founded Center

Part of that standing was the result of Feigl's founding of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science in 1953. This institute, for which he served as director for decades, invited distinguished international names in philosophy for seminars and discussions, and soon gained a reputation as an important nucleus in the study of philosophy. Moreover, the Center was known for its cordial ambiance, despite the serious and dissenting opinions argued there. Feigl's Center, it was noted, seemed to carry on the spirit of the Vienna Circle, which disintegrated with the rising threat of Nazism in Austria, Germany, and the rest of Europe. "The atmosphere at the Center," wrote Paul K. Feyerabend in the introduction to Mind, Matter, and Method: Essays in Philosophy and Science in Honor of Herbert Feigl, "and especially Feigl's own attitude, his humor, his eagerness to advance philosophy and to get at least a glimpse at the truth, and his quite incredible modesty, made impossible from the very beginning that subjective tension that occasionally accompanies debate and that is liable to turn individual contributions into proclamations of faith rather than into answers to the questions chosen."

Feyerabend also offered laudatory words about Feigl's oratorical talent: "His wit and his ability to put complex problems in simple language have convinced many doubters among scientists (who are often likely to frown upon what they think is useless mental gymnastics) and among laymen that philosophy cannot be such a monster after all, and he has also done a great deal to ally the fairly prevalent impression that an empiricist is bound to be a dry and unimaginative bore."

The University of Minnesota named Feigl a Regents Professor in 1967, and bestowed upon him the honor of professor emeritus in 1971. The numerous books published under his name include Readings in Philosophical Analysis, a 1949 tome written with Wilfrid Sellars; a treatise coauthored with Grover Maxwell in 1962, Scientific Explanation, Space, and Time; The "Mental" and the "Physical," published in 1967; and Inquiries and Provocations: Selected Writings, 1929-1974, published in 1981. During his long career Feigl has served as vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and president of the American Philosophical Association.

Further Reading

Contemporary Authors, Permanent Series, Volume 1, Gale, 1975.

Mind, Matter, and Method: Essays in Philosophy and Science in Honor of Herbert Feigl, edited by Paul K. Feyerabend and Grover Maxwell, University of Minnesota Press, 1966.

Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, second edition, edited by Roland Turner, St. James Press, 1987.

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