Book review: The Murder of Professor Schlick

An enjoyable journey on the Circle line


The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of 
the Vienna Circle by David Edmonds (Princeton University Press, £22)

Whenever given the opportunity, Jews have made an enormous contribution to the arts and sciences. And in no field has their contribution been greater than in philosophy. Above all, it was a group of 20th-century Viennese Jewish philosophers whose contribution to philosophy has been the greatest, at the core of which was the trio of Otto Neurath, Hans Hahn and Philipp Frank.

Their regular, informal discussions between 1907 and 1912 formed the nucleus of that group of Viennese philosophers and other scientifically minded intellectuals known as the Vienna Circle. While not formal members, the contribution of a further pair of closely associated Viennese Jewish philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, has been colossal.

What all these members and associates of the Vienna Circle shared by way of philosophical outlook, and what eventually became of them and it, forms the subject of David Edmonds’s engrossing and eminently readable history of the Circle. Common to them all, Edmonds explains, was a conviction that, ultimately, it is sensory experience alone that provides humans with knowledge. Hence, they held as a corollary that all attempts to go beyond experience to discern, by reason or intuition, some transcendent meaning, purpose or value in existence are doomed to fail. All such attempts can only end in meaningless assertions, whatever expressive emotional import these assertions might have. This outlook is known as Logical Positivism.

One notable feature of Logical Positivism was a studied secularity in which there was no room for God. Typically, but not invariably, Edmonds points out, this secularity was accompanied among members of the Circle by a left-leaning, humanistic stance in politics.

Combined with its predominantly Jewish membership, the political orientation of the Vienna Circle made it a ripe target for the Nazis, who indeed wound it up upon entering Austria in 1938. By then — through accident as much as design — all but one of the Circle (who somehow managed to remain in Vienna throughout the war unscathed) had placed themselves beyond Nazi reach. Thus, none was ever executed or interned by the Nazis. Most eventually ended up in the US or Britain, often in an academic position created for them.

Despite not being Jewish, the Circle’s leader, Moritz Schlick, failed to escape a violent end, albeit not at the hands of the Nazis. In June 1936, he was gunned down in Vienna on a university staircase en route to deliver a lecture. His assailant was a deranged former student with a grudge against his former professor. At his trial, Schlick’s assailant pleaded in mitigation the philosopher’s close links with Jews and the corrupting progressive philosophical outlook he shared with them. The killer thereby managed to avoid execution and was subsequently pardoned after the Nazis occupied Austria.

Edmonds clearly believes the contribution of the members of the Vienna Circle to philosophy has been benign. However, they never really offered any compelling grounds for dismissing all forms of metaphysical speculation as meaningless without any basis in fact or value. Unmentioned by Edmonds is the rigorously argued-for form of theism contemporaneously articulated in Vienna by Franz Brentano, whose arguments for God for a time convinced the otherwise studiedly atheistic Sigmund Freud when attending Brentano’s lectures as a student.

Brentano more permanently influenced a second eminent Viennese Jewish intellectual of the same period whose body of thought was equally at odds with Logical Positivism, but who receives only the most cursory of mentions in Edmonds’s book. This was the economist Ludwig von Mises. His small-government proclivities, shared coincidentally by Schlick, found favour with another Viennese economist, Friedrich Hayek, who in turn profoundly influenced the political thought of Karl Popper. As much as anyone, it is these three Viennese thinkers, of whom two were Jews, who have helped keep the economies of Britain and America as business-friendly as they still are.

David Conway is Visiting Professorial Research Fellow at Civitas

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