The Lives and Ideas of the Vienna Circle

Sunday, October 15, 2023
First Aired: 
Sunday, May 23, 2021

What Is It

The Vienna Circle was a group of early twentieth-century philosophers, mathematicians, logicians, and scientists, best known for developing the theory of scientific knowledge called logical positivism. Although positivism as a project has been largely abandoned, the group's ideas continue to have profound influence on contemporary philosophy of science. So what philosophical theories were proposed by the Vienna Circle? How might the socio-political circumstances of their time have shaped their radical ideas? And how did their ideas aim to shape politics? Josh and Ray ask David Edmonds from the University of Oxford, author of The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle.

Listening Notes

Is it okay to believe something you could never prove? Could logic be a solution to the world’s problems? Ray explains how the philosophers in the Vienna Circle believed that science and logic were the best tools for understanding the world, and that meaningful claims must be able to be verified through experiments. Josh protests that a lack of proof doesn’t make certain positions meaningless, such as when considering the existence of God. He mentions that mathematical principles that are true by definition can’t be verified, but Ray argues that the philosophers in the Vienna Circle thought that truth could be relative. 

The philosophers welcome David Edmonds, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, to the show. In response to Ray’s question about why many members of the Vienna Circle left Europe to escape the Nazis, David explains how many of them were Jewish and opposed to the metaphysical positions held by the Nazis. Despite their similarities, the members ranged in their political positions. Josh thinks the Vienna Circle’s way of thinking might be helpful in our current age of fake news and post-truth, and David agrees that it would be helpful to have increased accountability and scrutiny of the claims that people make. 

In the last segment of the show, Josh, Ray, and David discuss laws of nature and the women in the Vienna Circle. Josh wonders if the circle would have developed political opinions had it continued longer, but David thinks they wouldn't have, given the controversy around one political manifesto they published. Ray asks for one lesson to carry forward from the Vienna Circle’s way of thinking, and David emphasizes the importance of clarity and expressing arguments in ways that people can understand.  

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 3:53) → Holly J. McDede provides a brief history on the conception of the Vienna Circle and the challenges they faced. 

  • From the Community (Seek to 43:59) → Dan grapples with whether his vegan friend is being inconsistent by feeding her dog animal-based food.



Josh Landy  
Is metaphysics just a bunch of nonsense?

Ray Briggs  
Is it okay to believe something you could never prove?

Josh Landy  
Could logic be a solution to the world's problems?

Comments (8)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, April 11, 2021 -- 1:26 PM

Well. There are sixteen

Well. There are sixteen figures in the photo. Schlink is not one of them. I don't know the back story, so, would have to look it up. The veiled implication seems to revolve around Schlink's death, one possible insinuation being that the Circle was instrumental or at least involved. Sounds like an after-the-fact interpretation, based on hearsay and speculation(s). If the fall of the Circle was due to its' role in Schlink's death, then shame on the Circle. Whether or not that role was active or passive. These ideas are only surmise because I have nothing but a circumstantial base. I guess your Mr.Edmonds will connect some dots; turn some knobs... Hopefully, he is trying harder, thinking better, cutting the crap.--doing the best he can, with what he has and what he knows...If not, shame on him. So, I'll search-engine the Vienna Circle. And Schlink. Drawing my own conclusions. Pragmatic skepticism. That is what I do...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, April 11, 2021 -- 1:41 PM

The name of the deceased is

The name of the deceased is misspelled in your text. Look it up. Still does not get to answers to my questions about who murdered the professor and why. Mysteries are so much fun, yes? Must have had something to do with his views as a philosopher? What a lame thing to be murdered over..

D'autrement, if that is why the Circle fell, i guess the professor's death was not in vain.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, April 13, 2021 -- 6:22 AM

The answer is in the book.

The answer is in the book. The murderer was a former student Johann Nelbock. I'm not sure the circle fell as much as the ideas. Nelbock's ideas, however, are still very much alive.

This show could be epic. A very interesting read at least.

Daniel's picture


Thursday, April 29, 2021 -- 7:38 PM

N's tactics, certainly, are

N's tactics, certainly, are alive and well. He ostensively committed the crime out of misplaced jealousy and tried to cover it up later in the course of a request for a pardon referencing patriotic sentiment as the real reason, so that it would appear forgivable if nevertheless supererogatory. But what are the ideas which are supposed to have fallen with the demise of the Circle? The foundations of mathematics, for example, don't appear (to me anyway) to be on any firmer ground today than they were when Russel had presented his famous paradox on set-theory which undermined Frege's attempt to derive them from laws of logic, resulting in the dichotomy between Hilbert (coherentist-conventionalism epistemically exhaustive) and Goedel (inherence-foundationalism for which some laws determining mathematical truth-value could in principle remain unknown). This seems to me to be still undecided, though in some ways it seems a false dichotomy, especially when neurological inscriptionism is taken into account, which creates the scenario whereby the frequency of a correct answer is itself the cause of its correct correspondence, not the correct correspondence the reason for the answer's correctness. Maybe someone could help me out on this. I don't see a decline.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, April 29, 2021 -- 9:46 PM



I read the book but am waiting for the show to form my opinions... but here's what I got so far.

Dave Edmonds is top notch. I thought the book was well researched, explained the philosophical issues, the characters and the times well. If the show sticks to the questions in the header above I will be sorely upset. They almost have no reflection of my own questions but here’s what I have for these...

What philosophical theories were proposed by the Vienna Circle? ==> Logical Positivism, analytic vs. synthetic language and verifiability in language and science.

How might the socio-political circumstances of their time have shaped their radical ideas? ==> The circle was formed in reaction to and to combat the nonsensical mysticism of Hegel and Heiddeger – which spawned/supported nationalist fascism. Besides the socio-political circumstances Mach and Einstein were a huge inspiration. These were heady times for philosophy and science. So much went on in Vienna in these years. Each of the circle had their own story.

And how did their ideas aim to shape politics? ==> Besides Neurath, it’s not clear to me that there were political aims. Even with Schlick’s murder, which is likely due to his own sexual impropriety and professional pettiness, as well as Nelbock’s mental issues, the circle’s influence persisted well into the 70s with Feigl, Carnap, Quine, Hempel, Reichenbach and others substantially molding American Pragmatism to logical empiricist thought. I don’t know if that shaped politics so much as WWII and the cold war did.

Logical empiricism has influence, if only through Popper, but the main project is dead - in my opinion. We may have to disagree on that.

Goedel is a spawn of the circle as much as anyone. That he forever removed solid ground from math seems antithetical to the goal of the circle. Logical deconstruction of language was the main idea I think to have fallen along with a failure to construct inductive logic arguments. These were mostly done in by circle members in real time or later while in the US. There are those who today would argue there is no accepted scientific method.

I have more to think on this. I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this show goes.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, May 2, 2021 -- 3:40 PM

Too deep for me. Never could

Too deep for me. Never could relate philosophy with math. Nor science..Other realms, mind; language, and so on, I can get. Minds like Wittgenstein, Russell, Kurt Godel , Allan Turing and Richard Feinman were brilliant. I just cannot get to the notion of their talents as 'philosophy'., in a classical sense. And no, I did not regard DesCartes or Newton in that way either. My bad, I guess. Found them better at marh and physics. We are, of course, better for all of that, philosophy notwithstanding. Still trying harder, thinking better, doing the best I can with I have and what I know
Regards to all..

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, May 30, 2021 -- 6:24 AM

This is a good documentary -

This is a good documentary - with some footage of Vienna and a sharp take on the intransigent Austrian psychology.

Not directly related to this book, show but telling nonetheless.

This was an interesting show. The caller's question re: the laws of nature was insightful. I hadn't thought of that transition and wonder now if the Vienna Circle is not the tipping point there. That explains quite a bit with regard to Austria and Shlick's murder. Maybe we haven't heard the last of that bomb.

uymeb's picture


Tuesday, November 21, 2023 -- 8:10 AM

Hi. I recently wondered what

Hi. I recently wondered what the world would be like now if there were no advanced science? And the answer to this question I found after reading the article on the site . In particular, this article explains how important physics is. You can also learn about the most popular discoveries of scientists in physics.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines