Otto Neurath (December 10, 1882 – December 22, 1945) was an Austrian sociologist and philosopher of science and one of the founders of logical positivism. He was a Marxist socialist and a person of great intelligence, humor, and vitality. He was also an organizer of academic, educational, and economic affairs. His works dealt with sociology, economic and social planning, scientific method, and visual education. He was interested in the history of science, political theory, ethics, economic theory, and statistical theory. He also attempted to create a new encyclopedia. Before he was forced to flee his native country for Great Britain in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Austria, 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 World War I, the Austrian government assigned him to the planning ministry during the war. In 1919, 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, Neurath 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 what they called 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 nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so as to help the illiterate or uneducated 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 became a founding member of the Vienna Circle. He was also the main author of the group’s manifesto. He wrote on the verifiability theory of meaning 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.
Neurath 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 their encyclopedia was the systematic formulation of all intellectual inquiry along the lines acceptable to the Vienna Circle and its allies. Unfortunately, only two volumes actually appeared. Part of Neurath’s dream for unified science was to put the social sciences on a causal, predictive footing similar to that of physics and chemistry.
After the Anschluss, Austria was no place for Marxists. Neurath first fled to Holland and then to England, crossing the English Channel with other refugees in an open boat. In England, he happily worked for a public housing authority. He died in England in 1945. His papers and notes are archived at the University of Reading in England.
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 agreement with the general principles of the positivist program and its conceptual bases (the construction of a universal system that would comprehend all of the knowledge furnished by the various sciences as well as absolutely reject metaphysics), Neurath rejeced the positivist treatment of language in general and, in particular, some of the fundamental ideas put forward by the early Wittgenstein.
First, Neurath suggested that all discussion of an isomorphism between language and reality is nothing more than useless metaphysical speculation, since it brings up the task of trying to explain 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 of 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 does not cohere with the totality of the sentences already verified, it is to be considered false, otherwise the complex set of propositions that constitute 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. Essentially, Neurath adopted a coherence theory of truth. Moreover, the criterion of verification is to be applied to the system as a whole and not to single sentences. Such ideas exercised a profound influence over the holistic verificationism of W. V. O. Quine.
In Word and Object (p. 3f), Quine 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 experiences 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 facilitate 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 a dominant position with regard to metaphysics and, especially, the philosophy of mind.
Neurath was especially concerned with making sociology scientific, and to that end he urged the use of physicalist language in that field, and advocated behaviorism in social theory, believing that this would carry out Marx’s claim that historical materialism was empirical. He thought that “human beings, streets, religious books, prisons, [and] gestures” could be described through this empirical method, and that “they may be grouped in accord with physicalist theoretical systems” (Cohen, 477). However, the language in which these have been described is “laden with myth and metaphysical presuppositions, and Neurath tried to eliminate all impure or careless terminology” (Ibid.).
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