Friday, September 25, 2009

The Vienna Circle

In September of 1929, while a gathering storm was hovering in Europe and a worldwide economic crisis was closing in fast, an inlet of intellectual debate based on logic and facts was uniting in Vienna.

The group became known as the Vienna Circle and was made up of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists. A substantial number of its members and those who participated in its discussions were Jewish including; Otto Neurath, Gustav Bergmann, Karl Popper, Hans Hahn, Felix Kaufmann, Friedrich Waismann and, perhaps its most famous, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was raised Catholic but was of Jewish heritage.

It was indeed, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus that had enormous influence over the group with its emphasis on a verifiability principle, (i.e., the meaning of a proposition is identical with the method of verifying it.) The Circle’s overall aim was to infuse a scientific approach into philosophy with the help of modern logic.

As would be expected, there was widespread disagreement on many issues among the vast array of thinkers. Yet their manifesto, largely authored by Neurath and presented exactly 80-years ago, had two essential features. First, its stated world-conception was empiricist (knowledge came from experience). Second, logical analysis, and mainly symbolic logic, was the method to determine clarity of assertions.

This kind of attention to fact-based thinking is sorely needed today.

Over the summer, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented debasement of both logic and empirical fact-based knowledge in the form of Town-meetings where speakers are shouted down, paranoid arguments claiming President Obama is a Fascist or a Communist or just simply not American along with an overall lack of civil discourse culminated in congressmen Joe Wilson’s crescendo “You Lie!” during a Presidential address to the United States Congress.

Writing in the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg laments, “This sort of lunatic paranoia—touched with populism, nativism, racism, and anti-intellectualism—has long been a feature of the fringe, especially during times of economic bewilderment.”

But what’s frightening today is that it no longer rests on the fringe. What we’re seeing is the injection of the rabble’s style into mainstream politics.

More concerning still is Hertzberg’s description could have been made of Europe in 1929. And yes, while 1929 was a long time ago, human nature’s remarkable ability to forget the past is timeless.

To our credit, we put enormous emphasis on teaching facts as evidenced by the propagation of museums dedicated to learning.

But just as important as learning facts are, and they are vital, teaching the principles of logic are just as critical.

How is civil discourse to be instilled without the framework from which to build it? It’s often not until college that a student is introduced to the word “syllogism”. How many school children today are actually taught the fundamental rules of logic?

While holding fast to their thinking, the VC’s ultimate disbandment came with the crush of indisputable fascism. When the Nazi party took power in Germany and irrationalism dominated public discourse, many of its members immigrated to America, where they taught in several universities.

Unfortunately its founder, Moritz Schlick, who was not Jewish, remained in Austria only to be killed in 1936 by a Nazi sympathizer and a student in the University of Vienna. It is said the killer thought he was a Jew.

Far from being snuffed, debate has become a cacophony of shouts emanating from ever growing numbers. In turn, weeding through what is fact and deciphering it from falsehood, has become a full time profession for organizations like CAMERA and Factcheck.org who have dedicated themselves to providing analysis within the Babel-like world of mangled verbiage.

Though the lost world of the Vienna Circle is another remnant of the shattered past, their writings, their influence and the need for their precision and clarity are essential and crucial today.

While their circle may seem like a distant orb, their impact can still resonate.