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Otto Neurath (born December 10 1882 in Vienna, died December 22 1945 in Oxford) was an Austrian philosopher of science, sociologist, and political economist. Before he was forced to flee his native country for Great Britain in the wake of the Nazi occupation, Neurath was one of the leading figures of the Vienna Circle.


Since Neurath had written about a moneyless "economy in kind" (or barter system) before WWI, the Austrian government of the time assigned him to the planning ministry during the war. After the war, the Marxist governments of Bavaria and Saxony employed him to help socialize their economies, projects he undertook with enthusiasm. When the central German government suppressed these postwar Marxist insurrections, Neurath was arrested and charged with treason, but was released when it became evident that he had no involvement in politics.

Returning to Vienna, he began working on a project that evolved into the "Social and Economic Museum," intended to convey complicated social and economic facts to a largely uneducated Viennese public. This led him to work on graphic design and visual education. With the illustrator Gerd Arntz, Neurath created Isotype (pictograms)a striking symbolic way of representing quantitative information via easily interpretable icons. This was also a visual system for displaying quantitative information of the sort later advocated by Edward Tufte. (Related ideas can be found in the work of Buckminster Fuller and Howard T. Odum.) Neurath and Arntz designed proportional symbols to represent demographic and social statistics in different countries, and to illustrate changes in these statistics over the 19th and early 20th centuries, so as to help the nonliterate or nonspecialist understand social change and inequity. This work has had a strong influence on cartography and graphic design.

During the 1920s, Neurath also became an ardent Logical Positivist, and was the main author of its manifesto. He wrote on the verification principle and "protocol statements." As a member of the "left wing" of the Vienna Circle, Neurath rejected both metaphysics and epistemology. He viewed Marxism as a type of science, and science as a tool for social change.

He was the driving force behind the Unity of Science movement and the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, the latter consciously modeled on the French Encyclopedie. His collaborators included Rudolf Carnap, Bertrand Russell, Niels Bohr, John Dewey, and Charles W. Morris. The objective of the Encyclopedia was the systematic formulation of all intellectual inquiry along lines acceptable to the Vienna Circle and its allies. Only two volumes appeared. Part of his dream for unified science was to put the social sciences on a causal, predictive footing similar to that of physics and chemistry.

Austria after the Anschluss was no place for Marxist free spirits, and so he fled, first to Holland and then to England, crossing the Channel with other refugees in an open boat. In England, he happily worked for a public housing authority. He died in 1945.

Most work by and about Neurath is still available only in German. His papers and notes are archived at the University of Reading in England.

Philosophy of science and language

In one of his later and most important works, Physicalism, Neurath completely transformed the nature of the discussion within the logical positivist movement with regard to the program of the unification of the sciences. After delineating and explaining his points of agreement with the general principles of the positivist program and its conceptual bases (the construction of a universal system which would comprehend all of the knowledge furnished by the various sciences; the absolute rejection of metaphysics, in the sense of all propositions not translatable into verifiable scientific sentences), Neurath rejects the positivist treatment of language in general and, in particular, some of the fundamental ideas propounded by the early Wittgenstein.

First Neurath suggests that all discussion of an isomorphism between language and reality is nothing more than useless metaphysical speculation, since it brings up the problem of explaining how it is possible for words and sentences to represent things in the external world. To eliminate such dubious semantic considerations, Neurath proposed the idea that language and reality coincide, since the latter simply consists in the totality of previously verified sentences in the language. The truth value of any sentence is to be determined by confronting it with this totality of already verified sentences: if a sentence doesn't concord (or cohere) with the totality of the sentences already verified, it is to be considered false or the complex set of propositions which consistute the totality must be modified in some way. Truth is therefore a question of internal coherence of linguistic assertions and has nothing to do with the correspondence of sentences to facts or other entities in the world. Moreover, the criterion of verification is to applied to the system as a whole (see semantic holism) and not to single sentences. Such ideas exercised a profound influence over the holistic verificationism of W.V.O. Quine.

In fact, it was Quine, in Word and Object, who made famous Neurath's analogy which compares the holistic nature of language and consequently scientific verification with the construction of a boat which is already at sea:

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.

Neurath also went on to reject the notion that science should be reconstructed in term of sense data, since perceptual experinces are too subjective to constitute a valid foundation for the formal reconstruction of science. The phenomenological language that most positivists were still emphasizing was to be replaced, in his view, with the language of mathematical physics. This would allow for the objective formulations required because it is based on spatio-temporal coordinates. Such a physicalistic approach to the sciences would facilitiate the elimination of every residual element of metaphysics because it would permit them to be reduced to a system of assertions relative to physical facts.

Finally, Neurath suggested that since language itself is a physical system, because it is made up of an ordered succession of sounds or symbols, it is capable of describing its own structure without contradiction.

These ideas helped form the foundation of the sort of physicalism which is still today the dominant position with regard to metaphysics and, especially, the philosophy of mind.

See also

By Neurath

  • Neurath, Otto,1939. Modern Man in the Making. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • —, 1946. From Hieroglyphics to Isotypes. Nicholson and Watson. Excerpts. Rotha (1946) claims that this is in part Neurath's autobiography.
  • Neurath, Otto, Rudolf Carnap, and Charles W. Morris, eds. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. University of Chicago Press.
  • Marie Neurath and Robert Cohen, eds. Empiricism and Sociology. With a selection of biographical and autobiographical sketches by Popper and Carnap. Includes abridged translation of Anti-Spengler.
  • Marie Neurath and Robert Cohen, with Carolyn R. Fawcett, eds. Philosophical Papers, 1913–1946.

About Neurath

  • Cartwright, Nancy et al., "Otto Neurath: Philosophy between Science and Politics."
  • Nemeth, E., and Stadler, F., eds., "Encyclopedia and Utopia: The Life and Work of Otto Neurath (1882–1945)." Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook, vol. 4.
  • O'Neill, John, 2003, "Unified science as political philosophy: positivism, pluralism and liberalism," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.
  • Rotha, Paul, 1946, "From Hieroglyphs to Isotypes".

External links

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