*Exact Thinking in Demented Times*

Where?, I hear you asking.  No, that is the title of a new book by Karl Sigmund and the subtitle is The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science.  I enjoyed this book very much, though I don’t recommend it as a balanced introduction to its chosen topic.  I liked it best for its whims and interstices:

1. The mathematician Richard von Mises (brother of economist Ludwig) was a patron of Rilke, and he established a foundation for the sole purpose of supporting Robert Musil.

2. Carl Menger was planning on writing a philosophical treatise, and one which would have had a “Vienna Circle” anti-metaphysical slant.

3. Arguably Karl Popper learned the most from a polymathic cabinetmaker he was apprenticed to in his youth.

4. Friedrich Wieser had supported Mussolini, but a young Oskar Morgenstern, in his diary, complained that Wieser was too liberal.

5. Morgenstern later became a confirmed liberal, and he also remarked a few times that game theory was for the social sciences completing the research program of Kurt Gödel.

6. Karl Popper complained that Wittgenstein threatened him, in a lecture, with a poker.  It is not obvious this was the case.

7. I came away from my read wanting to sample more Ernst Mach, more Moritz Schlick, and thinking Otto Neurath was perhaps badly underrated.

Note that most of the book is more serious than this, and less concerned with economists, much more with math and science and some psychoanalysis and positivism too.


On Amazon - the look inside feature - the cabinetmaker is quoted twice on the first page of the kindle version of the translated Popper autobiography (the translator helpfully and humbly transliterates the Viennese originals of the two quotes). The second quote is very amusing - "there, you can ask me anything you like, I know everything!" ( I don't have the patience to write out the dialectical original) - reminds me of an intel officer I once knew, who would ask people who argued with him about just about anything regarding aircraft to tell him exactly what the wingspan of the (Soviet airplane name redacted) was - and when they did not answer correctly he would supply the wingspan data in feet and in meters and say something like - "there, you can ask me anything you like, I know everything!" Humor, not philosophy.

That being said, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand what Popper was getting out all those years. Mach - that, I get, having spent a few hours reading Julian Barbour on Mach and buckets (precursor to the pictorial - not the vector calculus - conceptions of relativity)... or reading Gerald Holton, who spent a lot of time describing how some scientists think in pictures (vision) and think in touch (carrying sloshing buckets while walking in galactic circles) almost as much as they think in numbers (back to vector calculus and similar approaches) - Mach was the real deal. Popper may be too smart for me to understand but probably he isn't. He seems more like a poet who really really likes to describe honest science in the world of advanced theory (sort of like Jane Austen liked to describe honest young men in the elite marriage market) rather than like a scientist.

Popper should be remembered for (at least) three things.

One, that he accurately described Thomas Kuhn's philosophy of science as mob rule.

Two, that conjecturing and refuting is probably pretty close to the practice of real world scientists.

Three, that he wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies, a great two volumes about which one of my best University teachers once said: "everyone undergrad should read them." But even to write his words is to become aware of just how far we currently are from a world in which that will happen.

6: This incident has already been the subject of a best-selling book, "Wittgenstein's Poker".

I'm afraid I bought that book and, well, let's just say I won't re-read it.

I must re-read it to see why you might think that.

Wow, what a book!
Will definitely be reading this one!

"Otto Neurath was perhaps badly underrated": by whom?

"By whom?"
Maybe by people who use bathrooms with little men and women figures on them and don't know that Neurath invented those? (See, for example Probably others, too.

Oh oh.


I've long thought Neurath was underrated. Have you read the biography of him by Cartwright and a couple of others, Otto Neurath, Philosophy between Science and Politics?

There is an entire book devoted to probing the veracity of the poker incident between Popper and Wittgenstein: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittgenstein's_Poker

At most eight comments, and still you didn't bother looking at them.

Thanks to Quine, many know this single sentence of Neurath: "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."

Great sentence.

So great that it's actually three. How trinitarian.

Indeed. And I wasn’t clear. I believed myself to be referring to the third sentence. And it’s still magnificent.

Now that I have the book in hand (Word and Object, Technology Press/Wiley, 1960) I see Quine has a simpler quotation, in German only, and indeed one sentence:

Wie Schiffer sind wir, die ihr Schiff auf offener See umbauen müssen, ohne es jemals in einem Dock zerlegen und aus besten Bestandteilen neu errichten zu können.

Neurath returned to the boat metaphor more than once in his writings, and didn't always word it exactly the same.

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