Karl Sigmund and Demented Thinking

Karl Sigmund

Mentioned Karl Sigmund’s “Exact Thinking in Demented Times” in the previous Reading List post. To be clear its sub-title is:

The Vienna Circle
and the Epic Quest for
the Foundations of Science

I’ve read 1/3 to 1/2 of it so far and it’s really very good. Interesting voice and turns of phrase, massively comprising quotes from the protagonists with invisible referencing to the text rather that in it. Works well. Obviously large parts of the story I already know, and for my own quest I’ve already formed strong views on the value of the many thinkers and thoughts involved. From the Hapsburg, Prussian, German, Austro-Hungarian thought from Mach and Boltzmann onwards in reaction to Kant and all those other continental foggie filosofers.

In many ways – unsurprisingly – it’s much more comprehensive than David Edmonds’ “Murder of Professor Schlick” but has lots of same Europe-in-crisis feel amidst the Viennese and Berliner, kafe-kultur and end-of-la-belle-epoch, crumbling-high-society atmosphere. (And Schlick’s wasn’t the only assassination!). It’s also organised in clear time order with individual headed sections on the back-stories and contemporary participation of the stellar list of names involved. Easy to navigate. A recommended reference work, even if I never complete and review the whole here.

Apart from, again, recognising the proper place of Mach and Boltzmann in our future scheme of things the main new aspect for me has become the need to read Schlick himself. He wasn’t just the manager of the Circle who misunderstood Wittgenstein – he had, and indeed published, a great deal of his own original thought of which I was unaware. In fact he appears, like Eddington in English, to be an important German interpreter of the 20thC upheaval in the foundations of physics. And again, the personal stories in that historical context always make for an engaging read, whatever the explicit subject matter. Hard to put down.

For now I’ll finish with a little of Doug Hofstadter’s preface, a hero of mine along with Dan Dennett. [And whilst we know from earlier that Hofstadter is a linguist and a translator, as well as a philosopher of knowledge, he is NOT actually the translator of this work. Interesting in itself.]

Demented thinking?

I guess it’s all relative. Thinking of exact science as the basis of truth – and a basis for planned economic activity – clearly looks like an attractive quest when your world is collapsing under authoritarian propaganda and violence – in the 1920’s not our 2020’s remember.

[Previously: Karl Sigmund “Exact Thinking in Demented Times – which might look topical in our 2021/22 demented Trump / Brexit / Boris / Covid / Woke-Identity-Politics times, but is in fact a 2017 reference to the 1920’s/30’s Vienna Circle. A reference I picked-up from earlier David Edmonds and Cheryl Misak reads.]

But it is merely a lesser evil, a fools errand:

Hofstadter and Wittgenstein

Hofstadter’s introduction scared me at first – very negative, even scornful – about those Germanic philosophers associated with, or who actually became, Nazis. Understandable prejudice.

“the Circle was a salient counterforce to those forces of evil, a noble dream”

And, in his own journey, he also rejected Wittgenstein as obscurant nonsense, “dropping him like a hot potato“. Especially relevant since a misunderstood Wittgenstein became the positive obsession of the Circle in its (main) second incarnation – not to mention the irony between the positions of mystical vs exact science involved in this story. You really couldn’t make it up.

But Hofstadter doesn’t let us down. The perils of pinning “lesser-evil” hopes on that misguided “noble dream”:

“I have come a long way since my teenage infatuation with the vision of mathematical logic as the crux of human thinking. […]

In [a] sense, my teenage addiction to the writings of the Vienna Circle members was not a bad thing at all for me – in fact it kick-started my fascination with the amazingly subtle nature of human thinking, which has lasted my entire life.

[The] Vienna Circle’s vision though idealistic was also quite naïve. The idea that pure logic is the core of human thought is certainly tempting, but it misses virtually all of the subtlety and depth of human thinking.

[The] Circle’s claim that the act of induction – moving from specific observations to broader generalisations – plays no role at all in science, is one of the silliest ideas I have ever heard. The way I see it, induction is the seeing of patterns, and science is the seeing of patterns par excellence. Science is nothing if not a grand inductive guessing game, where the guesses are [constantly tested by rigorous experiments.]

Science has everything to do with induction, and precious little to do with syllogistic reasoning or any other type of strict mathematical logic.”

As Hofstadter says, it’s essential we understand our intellectual heritage, but we mustn’t confuse the content with the lessons (that need to be) learned.

“Science has precious little to do
with any type of mathematical logic.”

Lovely book. Highly recommended.


[Popperians and logicians? Bring it on!]

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