Neurath, Otto (1882–1945)

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Otto Neurath, an Austrian sociologist and philosopher, was one of the originators of logical empiricism and an independent Marxist socialist. A man of great vitality, intelligence, and good humor, Neurath was a polymath and an energetic organizer of academic, educational, and economic affairs. His major work was in sociology, economic and social planning, scientific method, and visual education, this last especially by means of an international language of simplified pictures ("isotypes"), but he was also interested in the history of science, political and moral theory, economic history, and statistical theory and was engaged in recurrent efforts to create a new encyclopedism.

Economic and Comparative History

Neurath's first article, published in 1904, was "Geldzins im Altertum" (Commercial interest in antiquity), and in 1909 he published a popular history of the economic systems of classical Greece and Rome, Antike Wirtschaftsgeschichte (Leipzig, 1909), which he supplemented by shorter studies of ancient economic thought. His historical interests then turned to physical science. A little-known paper of 1915, "Prinzipielles zur Geschichte der Optik," compared the ideas on optics of Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Christian Huygens, Thomas Young, Augustin-Jean Fresnel, Jean-Baptiste Biot, and Étienne-Louis Malus with respect to their conceptual images of periodicity, polarization interference, and Huygens's principle of continuity of centers of force.

Neurath generalized the logic of this analysis to compare systems of hypotheses by a procedure that selects basic notions to be calculated and then enumerates all theories that may be constructed from permutations of these notions. The simple view that theories of light may be divided into wave theories and corpuscular theories is replaced by a more accurate, complex, and systematically clear historical development. To Neurath this use of basic explanatory notions, which are sometimes images and sometimes abstractions, illustrated the value of philosophical understanding for the historian of natural and social science. Neurath's own philosophical understanding anticipated later reliance on alternative sets of epistemologically basic sentences in the structural elucidation of scientific theories.

In 1916, Neurath wrote a general paper on classification, "Zur Klassifikation von Hypothesensystemen," and elaborated on this topic in his monographs Empirische Soziologie (1931) and Foundations of the Social Sciences (1944). Classification by hypotheses seemed to Neurath to be a principal method for comparative studies of theories and explanations and a crucial tool for rational understanding of cross-cultural phenomena.

Economic Planning, War, and Socialism

During 1919, Neurath served in the Central Planning Office of the Social Democratic government of Bavaria and of its successor, the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. Although he was a civil servant and not a party man, he was imprisoned when the Communist regime was overthrown; upon his release in 1920 he went to Vienna. He there took up again an earlier career as a publicist for socialist economics by efforts on behalf of a socialist conception of civic education, moral and religious reform, and individual responsibility. With Josef Popper-Lynkeus, Neurath was one of the first socialists to call for a centrally planned, rational economy based on Marxist concepts but deriving its policy recommendations from welfare goals and a statistical analysis of the production and distribution of goods and of standards of living.

Less clear to Neurath than equitable distribution of wealth was how a community spirit could be developed while the workers themselves were still overwhelmed by the established culture and the habits of the competitive capitalist order. Nevertheless, he fused his hypotheses about social-economic planning with a moral optimism about the acceptance by the workers of enlightened and rational attitudes toward all life's problems. Neurath's Lebensgestaltung und Klassenkampf poignantly tried to teach the reader about a transformed way of life in which he could realistically experience something of the peaceful and cooperative future at least in his private life, and at the same time come to sober realization of the obstacles placed by exploitative society in the way of a rich inner life and good personal relations as well as in the way of the transformation of society by rational socioeconomic planning.

Empirical Sociology

In the 1930s and early 1940s, between the publication of the two monographs on sociology (the Empirische Soziologie and the Foundations ), Neurath published several smaller papers on sociological topics. The most important were "Soziologie im Physikalismus," a physicalist restatement of sociological theories and problems, "Soziologische Prognosen," on social-historical predictions, and "Inventory of the Standard of Living," on the problem of making a rational calculation of the standard of living.

To make sociology scientific, Neurath urged the use of a physicalist language in which all the possible empirical statements would be descriptive of space-time things and properties; this was, roughly, a demand for behaviorism in social theory. He believed that this social behaviorism carried out Karl Marx's claim that historical materialism was empirical, starting from the factual situation of real men in objective circumstances and basing theories upon hypotheses which are free of wishful or evaluative assumptions. Human beings, streets, religious books, prisons, gestures can be so described, and they may be grouped in accord with physicalist theoretical systems. Happiness and suffering, too, may be described empirically, even in a manner similar to a mechanical description of space-time entities. But man, in some situations, dominates the lawlike mechanism of the natural environment. In Neurath's typical formulation: Formerly when there was a swamp and man, man disappeared; nowadays the swamp disappears.

But the language of mechanism is laden with myth and metaphysical presuppositions, and Neurath tried to eliminate all impure or careless terminology. Just as he would ban metaphysics as a misuse of unverifiable but grammatically correct word-signs, so he wished to forbid social theorists to use words that carry multiple meanings and assumptions; he himself never used the word capital. Sociological descriptions demand arguments over the entire range of environmental and causal science; biological, geological, ethnological, and chemical statements must join social, psychological, economic, legal, and other statements of purely human reference. Hence it would be useful to invent an empirical language suited to all the sciences, one that avoids descriptive distinctions that are the result of mere linguistic convention. Neurath hoped that empirical sociology might be formulated with clear and univocal physicalist predicates. However, we start with inexact "clots," with indistinct and unanalyzed evidence, and we must tolerate and even carefully devise a correspondingly rich vocabulary which is also amenable to analysis of regularities and at times to the creation of a calculus.

Neurath often wrote of an essential uncertainty in all scientific description and predication, of the probabilistic nature of learning from experience. Historians should explain the present from knowledge of portions of the past, but to predict the future with precision is beyond us. There are too many variables; at least some of these are unknown, and the greater the anticipated change, the less our scientific assurance about its realization. We may, in Neurath's view, strive to construct a future state of affairs, but whether we feel hesitant or confident, we have in sociological lawlike historical statements no rational ground for predictions that are certain. Moreover, some predictive statements, notably self-fulfilling or hortatory prophecies, are codeterminant; they carry causal weight which disturbs their subject matter. Other predictions seem impossible on their face. How should a nation that could not invent the wheel predict the invention of the wheel? Others are too complex. Will painters in misty regions paint misty pictures or, just because of the mistiness, sunny ones? Neurath carried out this analysis of pseudorational certainty throughout his work, using it with a moral force. Decisions cannot be replaced by calculation or by reasoningnot in practical life, and not in scientific work.

Scientific Method

Physicalism was developed mainly by Neurath and Rudolf Carnap. It may be seen as Neurath's attempt to express, in epistemological terms, the materialist (objective) foundation of knowledge, since the persistent recognition he gave to the natural fact of socially intersubjective agreement was a principal source of his antiphenomenalist role within the Vienna circle. Despite Neurath's insistence on a sharp distinction between scientific and metaphysical expressions by means of criteria for empirical meaning, it was his view that intersubjective agreement provides approximate unanimity about the grounds for judgments, not for meanings. By use of a physicalist language, skeptical inquirers display and share a common standard for confirmation. Physicalism had the further merit for Neurath that it was a linguistic doctrine which overcame any systematic mutual incomprehension of special disciplines not by reduction to the special discipline of physics but by a doctrine of reference to the generalized physics of public space-time states (in the human macroscale).

Neurath freely admitted that this doctrine was a hypothesis; the world was assumed to be unified, a causal network whose multiplicity of descriptions should tend toward a unified language that includes the social, biological, and physical sciences. Moreover, as an analysis of the process of scientific knowledge, physicalism programmatically explicated (for any special science) the relations among the physiology and social psychology of sensuous perception, the physics of experimental and measurement technology, and the known scientific or commonsense entities. Neurath saw physicalism as the further hypothesis that the world is knowable in principle everywhere and throughout. Finally, in "Protokollsätze" (1932) Neurath represented physicalism as providing a sophisticated revision of the doctrine of atomic bits of knowledge, conveyed by individual reports, or "basic sentences," also known at the time as "protocol sentences," by demanding that they, too, be intersubjective and, however psychologically certain, logically tentative and empirically testable. Indeed, the truth of protocol sentences was attributable to their cohering role in a theory (or system of theories) to which empirical evidence gave confirmatory evidence, and consequently the possibility existed that a conflict between a particular protocol statement and a theoretical statement of more complex form and function might, by choice and for convenience, be resolved by discarding the protocol. Neurath found his early analysis of alternative hypothesis systems and their fact-fitting auxiliary statements borne out within this empirical conventionalist interpretation of the physicalist basis.

Visual Education

Both the union of scholars and ordinary workers and the overcoming of national and linguistic divisions were in Neurath's mind when he began to develop his "Vienna method" of visual education. In rudiment, he used an invariant and self-explanatory pictorial sign for a given thing, so as to give quick information, unencumbered by irrelevancies and easily remembered. Neurath's maxims were simple: He who knows what best to omit is the best teacher; to remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate figures.

Unity of Science and Encyclopedism

Neurath was the principal organizer of several related philosophical enterprises. By 1929 the regular but informal Thursday meetings of philosophers and scientists who met for discussion with Moritz Schlick in Vienna had gathered sufficient force to produce a noted manifesto of a scientific world conception, signed by Neurath, Hans Hahn, and Carnap although it was largely Neurath's work. This led in the same year to the first of a series of international congresses for scientific philosophy. Neurath's stress upon the unification of the sciences by means of a unifying language, unity of method, and interdisciplinary dialogue led him to plan the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, edited by himself, Carnap, and Charles Morris as the principal effort of the new Institute for the Unity of Science (founded in the Hague in 1936 and later removed to Boston, Massachusetts), directed chiefly by Philipp Frank. The first two introductory volumes appeared in parts, but even these were still incomplete nearly two decades after Neurath's death. Only the Institute for Visual Education (Isotype) continued with vigor after 1945, directed by Neurath's colleague and third wife, Marie Reidemeister Neurath.

See also Basic Statements; Behaviorism; Carnap, Rudolf; Descartes, René; Historical Materialism; Logical Positivism; Malebranche, Nicolas; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Newton, Isaac; Physicalism; Popper-Lynkeus, Josef; Schlick, Moritz.


works by neurath

"Geldzins im Altertum." Plutus 29 (1904): 569573.

"Prinzipielles zur Geschichte der Optik." Archiv für die Geschichte der Naturwissenschaft und die Technik 5 (1915): 371389.

"Zur Klassifikation von Hypothesensystemen." Jahrbuch des Philosophischen Gesellschafts an der Universität Wien, 27ff. Liepzig, 1916.

Durch die Kriegswirtschaft zur Naturalwirtschaft. Munich: Callwey, 1919.

Lebensgestaltung und Klassenkampf. Berlin: Laub, 1928.

Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung: Der Wiener Kreis. Vienna: Arthur Wolf, 1929. Written jointly by Neurath, Carnap, and Hans Hahn.

"Wege der wissenschaftlichen Weltauffassung." Erkenntnis 1 (1930): 106125.

Empirische Soziologie: Der wissenschaftliche Gehalt der Geschichte und Nationalökonomie. Vienna: J. Springer, 1931.

"Soziologie im Physikalismus." Erkenntnis 2 (1931): 393431.

"Protokollsätze." Erkenntnis 3 (1932): 204214. Translated into English by Frederick Schick (who is credited as "George") in Logical Positivism, edited by A. J. Ayer. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959.

"Soziologische Prognosen." Erkenntnis 6 (5/6) (1936): 398405.

"Inventory of the Standard of Living." Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 6 (1937): 140151.

Foundations of the Social Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944. This is Vol. 2, No. 1, of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science.

Philosophical Papers, 19131946. Edited by Marie Neurath and R. S. Cohen. Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston: D. Riedel, 1983. With a bibliography.

other recommended works

Cartwright, Nancy. Otto Neurath: Philosophy between Science and Politics. New York:; Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hofmann-Grüneberg, Frank. Radikal-empiristische Wahrheitstheorie: Eine Studie über Otto Neurath, den Wiener Kreis und das Wahrheitsproblem. Wien: Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1988.

International Encyclopedia of Unified Science Vol. II, no. 1. Chicago, University of Chicago, 1970.

Koppelberg, Dirk. Die Aufhebung der analytischen Philosophie: Quine als Synthese von Carnap und Neurath. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1987.

Logical Empiricism at Its Peak: Schlick, Carnap, and Neurath. Edited by Sahotra Sarkar. New York: Garland, 1996.

Morris, Charles W. Otto Neurath and the Unity of Science Movement: A Collection of Material Commemorating Otto Neurath's Place in the Unity of Science Movement. Jerusalem, 1966.

Nemeth, Elisabeth. Otto Neurath und der Wiener Kreis: Revolutionäre Wissenschaftlichkeit als politischer Anspruch. Frankfurt am Main; New York: Campus, 1981.

Nemeth, Elisabeth, and Friedrich Stadler. Encyclopedia and Utopia: The Life and Work of Otto Neurath (18821945). Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer, 1996.

Neurath, Otto. Empiricism and Sociology. Edited by Marie Neurath and R. S. Cohen. Boston: Reidel, 1973.

Neurath, Otto. Gesammelte philosophische und methodologische Schriften. Wien: Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1981.

Neurath, Otto. Philosophical Papers, 19131946. Edited by Marie Neurath and R. S. Cohen. Dordrecht, Holland; Boston: D. Riedel; Hingham, MA: Kluwer, 1983.

Neurath, Otto, ed. Unified Science: The Vienna Circle Monograph Series Originally Edited by Otto Neurath, Now in an English Edition. Edited by Brian McGuinness. Dordrecht, Holland; Boston: D. Reidel; Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic, 1987.

Neurath, Paul, and Elisabeth Nemeth. Otto Neurath, oder, Die Einheit von Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft. Wien: Böhlau, 1994.

Neurath, Gramsci, Williams: Theorien der Arbeiterkultur und ihre Wirkung. Hamburg: Argument-Verlag, 1993.

Schlick und NeurathEin Symposion. Wien, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1982.

Uebel, Thomas E. Overcoming Logical Positivism from Within: The Emergence of Neurath's Naturalism in the Vienna Circle's Protocol Sentence Debate. Amsterdam; Atlanta: Rodopi, 1992.

Uebel, Thomas E., ed. Rediscovering the Forgotten Vienna Circle: Austrian Studies on Otto Neurath and the Vienna Circle. Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer, 1991.

Uebel, Thomas E. Vernunftkritik und Wissenschaft: Otto Neurath und der ersten Wiener Kreis. Wien: Springer, 2000

Zolo, Danilo. Reflexive Epistemology: The Philosophical Legacy of Otto Neurath. Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer, 1989.

Michael J. Farmer (2005)

Robert S. Cohen (1967)