The Mur­der of Pro­fes­sor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vien­na Circle

  • Review
By – December 27, 2020

David Edmonds’s The Mur­der of Pro­fes­sor Schlick cen­ters around 1930s Vien­na, a cos­mopoli­tan hub of great intel­lec­tu­al, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal activ­i­ty, with new ideas in all areas influ­enc­ing dai­ly life. At the same time, how­ev­er, it was a place of ubiq­ui­tous anti-Semi­tism,” as Edmonds terms it. Since Jews were a vital part of the city’s fab­ric, what­ev­er went wrong or was deemed dis­agree­able, the Jews were blamed.

And so it came about that in 1936, Pro­fes­sor Moritz Schlick, a Ger­man-born gen­tile who abhorred con­flict” and believed in civ­i­lized, urbane con­ver­sa­tion,” was shot and killed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na by a for­mer stu­dent. The motive behind the crime was that the shoot­er believed the phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor was Jew­ish. At his tri­al, the mur­der­er, seek­ing a lenient sen­tence, claimed that Schlick, although not, in fact, Jew­ish, had pro­mot­ed a treach­er­ous Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy.” The ploy worked; he was found guilty, but sen­tenced to just 10 years in prison, and two years lat­er, when the Nazis occu­pied Aus­tria, he was par­doned and released.

Pri­or to his mur­der, Schlick had chaired the Vien­na Cir­cle, a group of philoso­phers who met reg­u­lar­ly to dis­cuss and ana­lyze trends in their fields. The group was a tru­ly remark­able col­lec­tion of bril­liant minds,” and while out­ward­ly sec­u­lar, the major­i­ty were Jew­ish, or had some Jew­ish background.

Although most were major intel­lec­tu­al fig­ures of the time, includ­ing Karl Menger, Kurt Gödel, and Hans Hahn, non-spe­cial­ist read­ers today are unlike­ly to rec­og­nize the names of those who com­prised the Vien­na Cir­cle, nor be famil­iar with the philo­soph­i­cal ideas they pio­neered, such as log­i­cal empiri­cism, the the­o­ry that knowl­edge is based sole­ly on empir­i­cal evi­dence, link­ing phi­los­o­phy with the sci­en­tif­ic method and leav­ing no room for meta­physics. This move­ment was, and con­tin­ues to be, huge­ly impact­ful in many fields of study.

Edmonds Iden­ti­fies Schlick’s mur­der as the begin­ning of the end for the Vien­na Cir­cle, and by the time war broke out, most of mem­bers had fled the city, main­ly for the U.S. and Britain, tak­ing their ideas with them and con­tin­u­ing their influ­ence on the study of phi­los­o­phy. They were the for­tu­nate ones. By war’s end, most of Austria’s Jews had been murdered.

While The Vien­na Cir­cle mem­bers and oth­er asso­ciates remained in con­tact, the vital­i­ty and cre­ativ­i­ty of the few years they had togeth­er could not be revived in exile. As for the city itself after the war, it was, Edmonds writes – con­clud­ing this beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry – no more than a medi­um-size cap­i­tal of a minor coun­try on a bat­tered continent.”

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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