Otto Neurath, 1882--1945

25 Jul 1997 12:48

Austrian sociologist, political economist and anti-philosopher; possibly the most unorthodox Marxist ever. Having developed some theories about a moneyless "economy in kind" before the war, he was assigned by the Austrian government to work in what was, effectively, the planning ministry during the Great War. This led to his working for the governments of Bavaria and Saxony towards socializing their economies after the war, a project he attacked with great enthusiasm, continuing through two coups that brought to power two different "Soviet Republics". (He had cleverly arranged to be hired as a civil servant...) Eventually the central German government restored order and arrested him as a collaborator in high treason, but they had to let him go when it became evident that he didn't care about anything except his work, and had barely noticed the changes in government. (The intervention of Max Weber and various Austrian officials helped.) When he got back to Vienna, we became involved in a project which evolved into the "Social and Economic Museum", which tried to convey complicated social and economic relations to the largely un-educated Viennese public. (The didn't call it Red Vienna for nothing.) This led to some very interesting work on graphic design, visual education and the visual display of quantitative information, indeed, a whole "Vienna Method" for such displays, also called Isotype. During this period he also became one of the most logically positive of the Logical Positivists, to the point of being main author of their manifesto and writing lots of philosophical papers about the principle of verification and "protocol statements". He was the driving force behind the "Unity of Science" movement and its Encyclopedia of Unified Science, which was explicitly conceived on the model of the French Encyclopedie. Visual education, physicalism, unified science, moral liberation and socialism were all inextricably linked in his mind, and while the results could be exceedingly curious, they were also sometimes very useful and even compelling, as in his book Modern Man in the Making.

On top of all this he wrote some good works on the history of science, and a line from one of those essays, made famous by Quine, will probably be his claim to posterity. As such, it can bear one more repetition (I quote the version given at Institute Vienna Circle --- Picture Base, since it's convenient):

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.
Despite this, and despite his (exceedingly harsh and sensible) polemics against Spengler, part of his dream for unified science was to put the social sciences on a causal, predictive footing, like physics or astronomy. Naturally, this failed (see Prophecy), and I suspect parts of Popper's The Poverty of Historicism of being directed against Neurath.

Austria after the Anschluss was no place for a man like Neurath, and he escaped, first to Holland, and then England (crossing the Channel with a number of other refugees in an open boat, on which he did not, so far as I know, make any repairs), where he came to work for a public housing authority with what us, under the circumstances, remarkable enthusiasm. He died in 1945 with none of his project come to fruition.

See also: The Socialist Calculation Debate