A Vienna Interlude

“Vienna Interlude” is a chapter title from Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey, which I’m reading slowly between diversions domestic and professional. Still a little less than half-way through the whole, it’s a wonderful sketch of Cambridge, Bloomsbury (and Vienna) circles of the 1920’s. As with the words of Rebecca Goldstein, Margaret Wertheim and Alice Dreger before, I am absolutely smitten with Misak’s voice around the history and humanity of thought. Without analysing what that might be … understated, sympathetic and intellectually knowing (obviously) … it just rings good and true.

Tucked up on a cold, wet and windy afternoon with the log fire for company, I simply paused to capture this longish quote regarding The Vienna Circle being enamoured with Wittgenstein and their initial understanding of his Tractatus:

“They consigned to the dustbin of meaninglessness all unverifiable, non-observable propositions. Metaphysics, ethics, religion and aesthetics were all either to be revised so as to be stated in scientific language, or else to be abandoned as nonsense.”

Seems my existing caricature of their scientism is thoroughly confirmed. Later she continues:

“That there was some tension between Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle is [] understandable. They shared a project – what Ramsey called in his Critical Notice the ‘non-mystical deductions’ in the Tractatus or ‘new theories of propositions and their relations to facts’. That was a source of mutual attraction. But Wittgenstein thought that indicating or gesturing at all the things that are, as Ramsey put it, ‘intrinsically impossible to discuss’ was his most important contribution. The members of the Circle tended to sweep under the rug Wittgenstein’s bookend remarks [] about the importance of [the] ineffable []. Like Russell, they didn’t know what to make of them.

Wittgenstein was unimpressed with the Circle’s disregard of what he took to be the main contention of his book. Nonetheless, Wittgenstein would meet with members of the Circle, on and off from 1927, until 1936 when Schlick, with whom he was especially friendly, was killed by a mentally unstable ex-student.”

[My emphases]

That “Schlickicide” is the topic of David Edmunds book I have lined-up to read next. A little earlier in this same chapter, Misak muses on Ramsey’s harbouring the entirely mental exercise of “Wittgensteinicide”.

Loving the fact that the core philosophical points shine through the dark-historical period-piece. Cabaret (Goodbye to Berlin) or The Sound of (Viennese) Music with added fashionable Freudian psychoanalysis? A little earlier Misak – in the understated  laconic Gibbonesque style I suggested – is introducing Irishman Adrian Bishop, “known for his infectious humour, literary puns and louche lifestyle [] from an aristocratic background, openly and promiscuously homosexual.” with the footnote:

“He would go on to be a spy in the Middle East and either fell or was pushed to his death from one of Tehran’s most expensive hotels.”

Would that all philosophical texts were such a marvellous read. I said in my initial review, it is also superb “academic research” in its comprehensive yet non-intrusive referencing and, for my own project, I really should be making more technical notes, but it is just such a good read. One to savour.

Detailed notes will have to wait for a later read. Reading on.


[PS – I notice Misak has an earlier (2016) book that fits my interests too: “Cambridge Pragmatism: From Peirce and James to Ramsey and Wittgenstein”.]

2 thoughts on “A Vienna Interlude”

  1. Such a fascinating period. So – bloody hell – yet another one in the ‘to read’ pile, which now towers over me like an unstable Alp. Or should I wait until you’ve read the Edmunds and pick the best (after picking the criteria on which to judge that)?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.