Otto Neurath

Otto Neurath (1882 - 1945) was an Austrian philosopher of science, sociologist, and political economist. Before he was forced to flee his native country for Great Britain in the wake of the Nazi occupation, Neurath was one of the leading figures of the Vienna Circle.


Neurath studied mathematics in Vienna and gained his D.Phil in Berlin. He married Anna Schapire in 1907. She died as a result of childbirth in 1911, and he married a close friend, the mathematician and philosopher Olga Hahn-Neurath. Perhaps because of Olga's blindness and then because of the outbreak of war, his son, the sociologist Paul Neurath was sent to a children's home outside Vienna, where Neurath's mother lived, and returned to live with his father and Olga when he was 9 years old.

Returning to Vienna in the 1920s, Neurath began working on a project that evolved into the "Social and Economic Museum", and led him to work on graphic design and visual education. With the illustrator Gerd Arntz and with Marie Reidemeister, who later married him and became Marie Neurath), Neurath created Isotype, a symbolic way of representing quantitative information via easily interpretable icons.

During the 1920s, Neurath also became an ardent Logical Positivist, and was the main author of the Vienna Circle manifesto. He was the driving force behind the Unity of Science movement and the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science

Austria after the Anschluss was no place for Marxists, and so he fled, first to Holland, where he set up the Mundaneum institute in the Hague. There Olga died and he fled with Marie Reidemeister to England, crossing the Channel with other refugees in an open boat. In England, he worked as planning advisor in Bilston, near Wolverhampton. After his death, Marie Neurath continued the work of the Isotype Institute, publishing Neurath's writings posthumously, completing projects he had started and writing many children's books using the Isotype system, until her death in the 1980s.


Most work by and about Neurath is still available only in German. However he also wrote in English, using Ogden's Basic English. His papers and notes are archived at the University of Reading in England.

Moneyless economy

Since Neurath had written about a moneyless "economy in kind" (or barter system) before World War I, the Austrian government of the time assigned him to the planning ministry during the war. After the war, the Marxist governments of Bavaria and Saxony employed him to help socialize their economies, projects he undertook with enthusiasm. When the central German government suppressed these postwar Marxist insurrections, Neurath was arrested and charged with treason, but was released when it became evident that he had no involvement in politics.

Graphic design and visual education

In the 1920s Neurath developed the "Social and Economic Museum" to convey complicated social and economic facts to a largely uneducated Viennese public. This led him to work on graphic design and visual education. With the illustrator Gerd Arntz and with Marie Reidemeister Neurath created Isotype, a striking symbolic way of representing quantitative information via easily interpretable icons.

Neurath and his colleagues designed proportional symbols to represent demographic and social statistics in different countries, and to illustrate changes in these statistics over the 19th and early 20th centuries, so as to help the nonliterate or nonspecialist understand social change and inequity. This work has had a strong influence on cartography and graphic design. His innovative work in museums and his concept of the 'transformer' who turned data and statistics into a visual form, Marie Reidemeister's role, has had an influence in museum and exhibition practice.

Isotype was also a visual system for displaying quantitative information of the sort later advocated by Edward Tufte. Related ideas can be found in the work of Buckminster Fuller and Howard T. Odum.

Unity of Science movement

During the 1920s, Neurath also became an ardent Logical Positivist, and was the main author of the Vienna Circle manifesto. He wrote on the verification principle and "protocol statements." As a member of the "left wing" of the Vienna Circle, Neurath rejected both metaphysics and epistemology. He viewed Marxism as a type of science, and science as a tool for social change.

He was the driving force behind the Unity of Science movement and the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, the latter consciously modeled on the French Encyclopedie. His collaborators on this included Rudolf Carnap, Bertrand Russell, Niels Bohr, John Dewey, and Charles W. Morris. The objective of the Encyclopedia was the systematic formulation of all intellectual inquiry along lines acceptable to the Vienna Circle and its allies. Only two volumes appeared. Part of his dream for unified science was to put the social sciences on a causal, predictive footing similar to that of physics and chemistry.

Philosophy of science and language

In one of his later and most important works, Physicalism, Neurath completely transformed the nature of the logical positivist discussion of the program of unifying the sciences. Neurath delineates and explains his points of agreement with the general principles of the positivist program and its conceptual bases:

  • the construction of a universal system which would comprehend all of the knowledge furnished by the various sciences, and
  • the absolute rejection of metaphysics, in the sense of all propositions not translatable into verifiable scientific sentences.

He then rejects the positivist treatment of language in general and, in particular, some of Wittgenstein's early fundamental ideas.

First Neurath rejects isomorphism between language and reality as useless metaphysical speculation, which would call for explaining how words and sentences could represent things in the external world. Instead, Neurath proposed that language and reality coincide -- that reality consists in simply the totality of previously verified sentences in the language, and "truth" of a sentence is about its relationship to the totality of already verified sentences. Either a sentence failing to "concord" (or cohere) with the totality of the sentences already verified, should be considered false, or that some of that totality's propositions must in some way be modified. He thus views truth as a question of internal coherence of linguistic assertions, rather than anything to do with facts or other entities in the world. Moreover, the criterion of verification is to applied to the system as a whole (see semantic holism) and not to single sentences. Such ideas exercised a profound influence over the holistic verificationism of W.V.O. Quine.

In fact, it was Quine, in Word and Object (p. 3f), who made famous Neurath's analogy which compares the holistic nature of language and consequently scientific verification with the construction of a boat which is already at sea:

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.

Neurath also went on to reject the notion that science should be reconstructed in terms of sense data, since perceptual experiences are too subjective to constitute a valid foundation for the formal reconstruction of science. The phenomenological language that most positivists were still emphasizing was to be replaced, in his view, with the language of mathematical physics. This would allow for the objective formulations required because it is based on spatio-temporal coordinates. Such a physicalistic approach to the sciences would facilitiate the elimination of every residual element of metaphysics because it would permit them to be reduced to a system of assertions relative to physical facts.

Finally, Neurath suggested that since language itself is a physical system, because it is made up of an ordered succession of sounds or symbols, it is capable of describing its own structure without contradiction.

These ideas helped form the foundation of the sort of physicalism which is still today the dominant position with regard to metaphysics and, especially, the philosophy of mind.


Otto Neurath has written several books and articles. Books, a selection:

  • 1913. Serbiens Erfolge im Balkankriege : eine wirtschaftliche und soziale Studie. Wien : Manz.
  • 1921. Anti-Spengler. München, G.D.W. Callwey.
  • 1926. Antike wirtschaftsgeschichte. Leipzig, Berlin : B. G. Teubner.
  • 1928. Lebensgestaltung und Klassenkampf. Berlin : E. Laub.
  • 1936. International picture language; the first rules of Isotype. London : K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co., ltd., 1936
  • 1937. Basic by Isotype. London, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co., ltd.
  • 1939. Modern Man in the Making. Alfred A. Knopf
  • 1944. Foundations of the social sciences. University of Chicago Press
  • 1944. International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. With Rudolf Carnap, and Charles W. Morris (eds.). University of Chicago Press.
  • 1946. Philosophical Papers, 1913–1946.Marie Neurath and Robert Cohen, with Carolyn R. Fawcett, eds.
  • 1973. Empiricism and Sociology. Marie Neurath and Robert Cohen, eds. With a selection of biographical and autobiographical sketches by Popper and Carnap. Includes abridged translation of Anti-Spengler.

Articles, a selection:

  • 1912. The problem of the pleasure maximum. In: Cohen and Neurath (eds.) 1983
  • 1913. The lost wanderers of Descartes and the auxiliary motive. In: Cohen and Neurath 1983
  • 1916. On the classification of systems of hypotheses. In: Cohen and Neurath 1983
  • 1919. Through war economy to economy in kind. In: Neurath 1973
  • 1920a. Total socialisation. In: Cohen and Uebel 2004
  • 1920b. A system of socialisation. In: Cohen and Uebel 2004
  • 1928. Personal life and class struggle. In: Neurath 1973
  • 1930. Ways of the scientific world-conception. In: Cohen and Neurath 1983
  • 1931a. The current growth in global productive capacity. In: Cohen and Uebel 2004
  • 1931b. Empirical sociology. In: Neurath 1973
  • 1932. Protocol statements. In: Cohen and Neurath 1983
  • 1935a. Pseudorationalism of falsification. In: Cohen and Neurath 1983
  • 1935b. The unity of science as a task. In: Cohen and Neurath 1983
  • 1940. Argumentation and action. The Otto Neurath Nachlass in Haarlem 198 K.41
  • 1941. The danger of careless terminology. In: The New Era 22: 145–50
  • 1942. International planning for freedom. In: Neurath 1973
  • 1943. Planning or managerial revolution. (Review of J. Burnham, The Managerial Revolution). The New Commonwealth 148–54
  • 1943–5. Neurath–Carnap correspondence, 1943–1945. The Otto Neurath Nachlass in Haarlem, 223
  • 1944b. Ways of life in a world community. The London Quarterly of World Affairs, 29–32
  • 1945a. Physicalism, planning and the social sciences: bricks prepared for a discussion v. Hayek. 26 July 1945. The Otto Neurath Nachlass in Haarlem 202 K.56
  • 1945b. Neurath–Hayek correspondence, 1945. The Otto Neurath Nachlass in Haarlem 243
  • 1945c. Alternatives to market competition. (Review of F. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom). The London Quarterly of World Affairs 121–2
  • 1946a. The orchestration of the sciences by the encyclopedism of logical empiricism. In: Cohen and. Neurath 1983
  • 1946b. After six years. In: Synthese 5:77–82
  • 1946c. The orchestration of the sciences by the encyclopedism of logical empiricism. In: Cohen and. Neurath 1983
  • 1946. From Hieroglyphics to Isotypes. Nicholson and Watson. Excerpts. Rotha (1946) claims that this is in part Neurath's autobiography.


Further reading

  • Cartwright Nancy, J. Cat, L. Fleck, and T. Uebel, 1996. Otto Neurath: philosophy between science and politics. Cambridge University Press
  • Cohen R. S. and M. Neurath (eds.) 1983. Otto Neurath: philosophical papers. Reidel
  • Cohen, R. S. and T. Uebel (eds.) 2004. Otto Neurath: economic writings 1904–1945. Kluwer
  • Nemeth, E., and Stadler, F., eds., "Encyclopedia and Utopia: The Life and Work of Otto Neurath (1882–1945)." Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook, vol. 4.
  • O'Neill, John, 2003, "Unified science as political philosophy: positivism, pluralism and liberalism," Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.
  • Rotha, Paul, 1946, " From Hieroglyphs to Isotypes".

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