The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   17

Encyclopedia and Utopia

The Life and Work of Otto Neurath (1882--1945)

edited by Elisabeth Nemeth and Friedrich Stadler

Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook [1996], vol. 4

Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers: 1996
This book is a collection of articles on the Austrian social scientist Otto Neurath. An exceedingly unorthodox Marxist and democratic socialist (clearly, his heart was in the right place), by turns he developed schemes for moneyless ``economies in kind,'' was employed to socialize the economy of Bavaria after the First World War, was arrested by the Weimar government during the suppression of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, established a ``museum of social and economic relationships'' back in Red Vienna, joined the Logical Positivists, helped write the manifesto of the Vienna Circle, wrote extensively on and against philosophy, developed a system for the visual display of quantitative information known as the Vienna Method or Isotype, conceived and edited (with Carnap) the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science and fled Austria for Holland and then Holland for England, where he died very suddenly in 1945, at work on a public housing project. Simply as a remarkable and admirable character, he deserves to be better known and his renaissance welcomed, but he also has more intellectual claims to our attention. In addition to his historical importance as a key figure in the Vienna Circle and a pioneer in data visualization, he has a certain relevance as a philosopher as well. Like many other Logical Positivists, he was an anti-foundationalist and linguistic-cultural relativist, long before such views became common in low and distorted forms; special interest attaches to arguments on behalf of these ideas coming from someone who, in fact, knew how to argue, and what a valid argument looked like.

The book opens with two overviews, one contributed by each editor, followed by a biographical sketch by Otto's son Paul, and two very general surveys of his ideas and career, by Haller and by Cartwright and Uebel. Both these last two are broadly favorable, though Haller does point out some obvious difficulties with Neurath's ideas on the relation between language and reality (namely, that there is none, that ``we can't get behind language''). This is followed by a section of seven essays on Neurath's encyclopedism (explicitly modelled on the great Encyclopédie of Diderot), and related issues concerning his philosophy of science, such as his support for non-reductive physicalism, conventionalism, and a coherence-consensus theory of truth. The best of these papers are Uebel's ``Normativity and Convention,'' which supports Neurath's views, and indeed reconstructs him as an exceedingly contemporary naturalized epistemologist, and Grundmann's ``Can Science Be Likened to a Well-Written Fairy Tale?'' (one of the few papers in this volume to actually give weight to objections to Neurath's ideas, it concludes that his coherentism makes far better theory of justification than of truth.) None of the contributors points out the link between Neurath's reliance on coherence, consensus and convention and his encyclopedism, though Russell did at the time.

The weakest section is the third, ``Pictorial Statistics --- Isotype --- Museology''. None of the contributors adequately explains the rules of Isotype or how it was supposed to work, and none of them really examines how well it did work, or just what impact it had. Jansen says some true things about the mis-leading use of graphs and visual statistics, and produces some rectified versions along Isotype lines. She does not say anything unfamiliar to readers of Huff's How to Lie with Statistics (1954), and doesn't even show that the Isotype rules make it harder to produce misleading pictures if you want to. The burden of Skopec's piece is that the resolution of digital media is too low for Isotype, and that anyway it's outdated because no one can say what the ``typical worker'' looks like nowadays --- strangely implying that it was easier in Neurath's day, and largely missing the point. Miles has some interesting things to say about how the British Natural History Museum re-organized itself, but the connection to Neurath is tenuous in the extreme. Müller's performs an invaluable service for those who teach informal logic and critical reading by packing a truly remarkable quantity of dubious assumptions and bad reasoning into six pages; those who want to know to how and to what extent Neurath actually influenced ``contemporary knowledge and information societies'' will have to look elsewhere. The interesting story of Neurath's failed collaboration with the CIAM, the trade organization of architectural modernism, is the subject of Chapel's essay, but the the briefer version in Faludi's ``Otto Neurath and Planning Theory'' is rather easier to follow.

The final section of essays concerns itself with ``economy, sociology and planning.'' None of them gives much, if any, consideration to the great, possibly insuperable obstacles facing Neurath's ideas about moneyless, marketless planned economies (cf. my review of Roemer's A Future for Socialism). After this comes Neurath's ninety page ``Visual Education'' (published here for the first time, and much superior to most of the rest of the volume) and a catalogue of his Nachlass. Finally, in Encyclopedia and Utopia's character as the yearbook of the Vienna Circle Institute, there are fifty pages of material related to the Institute, mostly reviews of books about the Circle and its kith and kin.

The common failings in collections of this sort are mangled English, contributors more concerned with riding their own hobby-horses than the ostensible subject of the volume, and redundancy between the various authors. None of these are missing from this book, but at no more than a tolerable level; the copy-editing is another story.

Encyclopedia and Utopia will be of considerable interest to fans of Neurath or of the Logical Positivists generally (I count myself among both groups), and even their scholars; rather less to those following the current debates on anti-foundationalism and relativism; and, alas, very little to those interested in data visualization, visual education, or social science.

xii + 401 pp., index of names, separate bibliograhpies for each article.
Philosophy ./ Politics and Political Thought / Socialism, Marxism, Communism / Sociology
Currently in print as a hardback, US$215, ISBN 0-7923-4161-9, LoC B3309 N394 E53 1996
1 August 1997