Saturday, May 28, 2011

Voices from Vienna

When I was a student in Sydney, already fascinated by symbolic logic (as I still am), two of my intellectual heroes were the eccentric British lord Bertrand Russell and the equally exotic Viennese philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

An English translation of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus can be downloaded today from the Gutenberg website [access]. The philosopher's father, in the industrial context of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was a wealthy iron-and-steel baron—of the Krupp or Rothschild kind. When the dreamy melancholic 24-year-old Ludwig inherited this fortune, he gave some of it away, anonymously, to struggling compatriots such as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, often mentioned in this blog [display].

At a philosophical level, Russell and Wittgenstein represented the great British tradition of empiricism, based upon the common-sense notion that we learn the truth about the world by looking at events that happen and employing the time-honored technique of inductive reasoning. Now, another Viennese philosopher would soon throw a spanner into the works by demonstrating convincingly that scientific knowledge is certainly not acquired by such an illusory empiricist approach.

Karl Popper proposed that an exceptional scientist succeeds in explaining the universe, not by studying data of a laboratory kind, but through his/her intellect and imagination, maybe while seated alone at a desk in the middle of the night. Subsequently, experimental observations enable the inventor of a scientific theory to determination whether the latter might have flaws in it, in which case the theory would need to be corrected, improved or maybe abandoned, to be replaced one day by a better theory.

Today, there is no doubt not a single serious scientist in the world who wouldn't agree entirely with Popper, who is now considered by many intellectuals as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Popper is lauded particularly by the Oxford quantum physicist David Deutsch, author of The Fabric of Reality, mentioned in my blog post of July 2007 entitled Brilliant book [display].

A third Viennese intellectual who would achieve fame in the English-speaking world was Ernst Gombrich, regarded by many as the greatest art historian of the 20th century. Settled in London from 1936, he went on to become a distinguished member of the art establishment. His opus The Story of Art (1950) was the first of a rich series of publications that won him acclaim in academic circles, and led to his being knighted. Gombrich had always been a close friend of his compatriot Popper, and actually played a major role in drawing the attention of the English-speaking world to the Viennese philosopher and helping him to publish The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).

Back in 1976, I wrote to Ernst Gombrich asking for his advice concerning a writing project on which I was working. In a nutshell, I was wondering whether I might be able to put together a history of the use of the arrow symbol in both science and society. Here are the two pages [click to enlarge] of his friendly reply, in which he alludes to his compatriot Popper:

Let me conclude by a couple of trivial anecdotes concerning Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Some people (but not me) imagine that the education meted out by a fine old school can be a guarantee that students will evolve naturally into fine citizens with noble characters. That's what is meant by nurture. Well, around 1903, 14-year-old Wittgenstein went to a reputed establishment in Linz known as the Realschule. And we have no reasons to deny that the spirit of this school played a part in transforming young Ludwig into the outstanding philosopher that he was to become. But there's a hitch in this thinking. At the same school, Ludwig had a mate, just six days older than himself, named Adolf Hitler.

An Australian author, Kimberley Cornish, has even suggested that the future Fuhrer hated the Jewish boy to such an extent that Wittgenstein symbolized the entire race that would soon enrage the mad dictator, as expressed in his Mein Kampf. Cornish's book is nevertheless controversial, in that there is no firm proof that Wittgenstein and Hitler were aware of one another's identity in that high school of 300 students. There is a school photo in which Hitler certainly appears:

But it has never been confirmed—except, curiously, by the photographic services of the Victorian police in Australia—that the boy whom Cornish has labeled as Wittgenstein is correctly identified. And some critics point out that Wittgenstein and Hitler, although they attended the Realschule at the same time, were never in the same class.

My final anecdote, of a personal nature, was related already in my blog post of July 2008 entitled Danger scale [display], in which I announced with excitement my discovery of the writings of Steven Pinker. Since the Harvard psychologist's book deals with children's acquisition of language, I mentioned a story that had amazed me when I heard it, from an English lady named Elizabeth Anscombe, who happened to be a Catholic friend of my wife's parents in Brittany. Well, I learned later on from my mother-in-law (after the lady's departure, much to my regret) that Elizabeth Anscombe, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge, was in fact one of the world's leading authorities on Wittgenstein. I was terribly frustrated to realize that I had missed out on an opportunity of chatting with Elizabeth Anscombe about Ludwig Wittgenstein (whom she had encountered personally)… but Christine's mother could never have suspected that her Australian son-in-law might be interested in an obscure Viennese philosopher.


  1. Thank you very much, William, for this interesting article. I didn't know that Wittgenstein and Hitler attended the same school. It is quite fascinating to imagine that they had the same teachers, received the same education...

    But you forgot to mention Sigmund Freud, the "inventor" of the unconscious.

  2. The thinker who concerns me primarily today is, of course, Karl Popper. In refuting the hallowed notion of induction as a creative process in science, he turned contemporary philosophy upside-down. As for Ludwig Wittgenstein, his interest today is solely historical, as one of the last of the great empiricists.

    There is indeed a gigantic Austrian thinker whom I did not mention in my short blog post. Besides, he happens to be the only member of the prestigious Vienna Circle with whom I had the privilege of having a brief conversation (on the telephone, from Manhattan, in 1972). I'm talking of Kurt Gödel [1906-1978], whose celebrated incompleteness theorems are literally mind-boggling, because they define the necessary limits of our knowledge of any imaginable computing system.

    Sigmund Freud is a totally different kettle of fish. Although he spent a lot of time in Vienna, he was at no stage a member of the Vienna Circle, for an obvious reason: Freud simply wasn't a philosopher! Today, some people might like to know how Freudianism fits in—if indeed it does—to the modern framework of "gene-oriented thinking" instigated by Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. A rapid glance at several fundamental books by these two authors reveals that, while they make numerous allusions to Freud and psychoanalytic theory, they never get around to any kind of explicit systematic criticism. On the theme of Freud's "invention" of the unconscious, Pinker [How the Mind Works, p 133] appeals to Woody Allen's comical description of a college course that introduces students to psychology:

    "The theory of human behavior… Is there a split between mind and body, and, if so, which is better to have? Special consideration is given to a study of consciousness as opposed to unconsciousness, with many helpful hints on how to remain conscious."

    Plainly, they don't seem to retain a lot of serious respect for Freud's work. I think it's simply our awareness of everyday computing paradigms such as software, main memory and digital storage devices, along with the astronomical coding potential of DNA and storage possibilities of neurons, that make Freud's "invention" look a bit old-fashioned.

  3. Skyvington: I don't intend to sound arrogant by correcting you, but Wittgenstein is CERTAINLY not understood today as "the last of the great empiricists". His later post-tractatus (as presented in "philosophical investigations" (1953)) philosophy departed from Russell and his own earlier work considerably. Just correcting possible misinterpretations for possible readers.