I completed Karl Sigmund – “Exact Thinking in Demented Times – The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science” over the weekend. I’ve mentioned the read a few times already, here for example:
The final line of the Afterword – a lesson attributed by Sigmund to Hofstadter – is “Now I feel that I understand a wee bit better what Ludwig Wittgenstein meant by the phrase “the inexpressible“. In many ways my read of Sigmund is the latest in my own quest to understand not so much the Vienna Circle itself but the confusion of science with philosophy which the 21stC has inherited from the early 20thC.
This has more to do with thinkers associated (positively & negatively) with the activities of the Circle than those that were actually members. Russell, James, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Gödel, Ramsay and Popper. Not to mention the actual physicists of course, who were busy undermining the foundations of science as fast as the more misguided philosophers were trying codify life according to its received wisdom. In fact a lot of my reading of modern historians of science & philosophy in the last decade has been part of this: Ray Monk, Dave Edmonds, Graham Farmelo, Cheryl Misak and Rebecca Goldstein for example. Karl Sigmund is an extension to this – a tremendously sympathetic human story of these imperfect – even occasionally demented -humans living through two world wars. From Mach and Boltzmann in the late 1800’s to Viktor Kraft the last chair of the Circle in the late-1940’s & early-50’s and the last of them – Einstein, Gödel & Popper – passing in the later 20thC.
With Hofstadter’s acknowledged help, Sigmund’s is the most comprehensive and readable history of the whole, with each of the other modern authors choosing to hang their stories around one or other of the star players. Highly recommended.
That closing line is key. What the quest of the Circle and its legacy miss is that it denies that part of the natural world which is beyond science is not supernatural even though it is intuitively mystical, spiritual, metaphysical, sacred or divine, but never definitively expressible, let alone objectively provable either way. The quest of getting close to this balanced – pragmatic – understanding, in a world more generally in denial, has driven many close to actual madness, some fatally so.
[Post Note – I mentioned once or twice before that it was theologian “Sam” – a practicing minister in the Anglican church – first suggested that this atheist take Wittgenstein’s “mysticism” seriously whilst we were both readers of Robert Pirsig. Coincidentally this Twitter thread arose this morning:
Agreed. You might find this of interest (a 20 year old MA thesis of mine!) https://t.co/qR0Dqi0SaV
— Sam Charles Norton (@Elizaphanian) February 21, 2022
Several branches in that thread too, mentioning James as well as Misak / Ramsay and more. Small world.]