Logical Empiricism and Theoretical Biology: The context of Schlick’s patronage of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s Habilitation in Vienna 1934

Veronika Hofer

Medical University of Vienna

In order to look afresh at what impact the discussions of the Logical Empiricists had on the special sciences in their local contexts in Vienna, in Berlin and in Prague, this paper suggests taking Schlick’s support for a habilitation of the young and ambitious Ludwig von Bertalanffy seriously. Though Bertalanffy’s dissertation in Philosophy in 1926 at the University of Vienna did not impress Schlick who acted as his official supervisor, Schlick obviously changed his mind until 1934, when, as a member of the committee for Bertalanffy’s habilitation, he strongly supported and argued for the title of the venia in “Theoretical Biology”. With Schlick’s official endorsement for establishing a field like “Theoretical Biology” the question arises what such a field could or should contribute to the main issues of the agenda of the Logical Empiricists. In order to assess the particular appeal, as well as the particular critique, of Bertalanffy’s approach to Theoretical Biology within the circles of the Logical Empiricists, it is necessary not only to take a closer look at Bertalanffy’s work at this time and analyze it’s assessment by Philipp Frank, Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick and Hans Reichenbach, but also to dwell into the local context of the academic biology in Vienna, whose main protagonists also welcomed to establish “Theoretical Biology” in the department of biology. The most interesting question is – at least for the historian of science and of biology in particular – how Bertalanffy’s concept of Theoretical Biology could meet simultaneously the expectations of Othenio Abel, the spokesman of Darwinism in Vienna as well as of Ian Versluys, the professor of morphology, of Karl Bühler, the leading figure of the Vienna School of psychology and of Schlick. With respect to Bertalanffy’s German edition of his “Critical Theory of Development” we will see how he bridged opposing claims not only troubling a wider international cohort of biologists but also in a way relevant to his local context. Comparing the English version of this book we see to what extent Woodger, who not only helped Bertalanffy in the translation but also left his influence in some other crucial points, uplifted Bertalanffy’s theoretical positions for increased international attention. The further question for the historian of the Vienna Circle with respect of Bertalanffy’s emerging systems approach is in what terms the Berlin Circle and Reichenbach, who was the first of the Logical Empiricists to back Bertalanffy’s aspirations, led the way to deal with new epistemological and methodological concepts arising in biology and if this had an impact on Schlick’s opinion on debates about Ganzheit/holism.