Books  Sociology and economics 

Círculos de café

Learning from Vienna

Luis Fernández-Galiano 

In the cafés of fin-de-siècle Vienna brewed a hundred intellectual circles. Two recent books document the history of the Austrian School and the Vienna Circle, two illustrious representatives of a sparkling crucible of ideas whose expansive waves reach our times. The city of Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, or Sigmund Freud was also that of the economists of the Austrian School, from Carl Menger to Ludwig von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, or Friedrich Hayek, and of the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, founded by Moritz Schlick and including Rudolf Carnap, Otto Neurath, or Kurt Gödel. If the economists upheld a subjective theory of value over the Marxist concept that associated value with the labor required to produce a good, the philosophers laid the bases of logical empiricism, defending the scientific thought that also underlay the approach of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper against the metaphysics that permeated the secular tradition of their discipline, and which found its quintessence in Martin Heidegger.

The book by Janek Wasserman starts with Menger’s Principles of Economics, an 1871 work that shifted the emphasis of studies on states and national economies to individuals and their subjective demands. With its introduction of marginal utility, a revolution in economic thought coinciding with the simultaneous theories of Jevons and Walras, this incipient Austrian School would reach its heyday in the gilded Vienna of the turn of the century, but the Great War ended the “world of yesterday” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the political polarization that followed had little room for the advocates of liberal democracy and free enterprise, many of whom eventually gravitated toward the Anglo-Saxon world, including Mises, Schumpeter, and Hayek, who received the Nobel Prize in 1974.

For his part, David Edmonds traces the rise and fall of the Vienna Circle under the omen of the 1936 murder of Schlick by a student who had lost his mind, an event which marked the decline of a philosophical movement that defended scientific objectivity in a political and social environment increasingly degraded by economic catastrophe, fascism, and antisemitism. A key protagonist of the story is Wittgenstein, author of the Tractatus that inspired the circle, and architect also of a mythical house in the Vienna of his birth. This was a group of thinkers bent on clarity and reason whose lot it was to live confused, demented times. Many years later, again amid troubles and fractures, these stories of economists and philosophers prove that we can still learn from Vienna.

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