At the interface between epistemology and ethics: Edgar Zilsel’s concepts of “rationalism”, “rational” and “rationalization”

Donata Romizi

University of Vienna

Before becoming, as it were, an English-writing sociologist of science, Edgar Zilsel (1891-1944) had been for quite a long time a versatile Viennese philosopher whose work developed to some extent in connection with the rise of Logical Empiricism: not only had Zilsel a close contact with the Vienna Circle, but his early work on probability and statistics developed in parallel with Hans Reichenbach’s and Richard von Mises’ early philosophies of probability. Still, Zilsel apparently did not want to be considered as a member of the Vienna Circle, and a gap between his philosophical standpoint and those of the Logical Empiricists becomes evident for example in the context of the debate on the issue of probability published in Erkenntnis in 1929. One of the traits of Zilsel’s philosophy which seems to have been most responsible for his distance from Logical Empiricism is the permanent influence of a rationalist standpoint all over in Zilsel’s Viennese works. Indeed, in his first book, Das Anwendungsproblem (1916), Zilsel even declares that every philosopher, qua philosopher, must be a rationalist. Zilsel’s concepts of “rationalism”, “rational” and “rationalization” can be shown to have been a fil rouge through all his work, from the beginning (1916) until his exile (1938). These concepts do not have a mere epistemological meaning, though: Zilsel attached to them clearly also a positive ethical value. A fundamental ambiguity between ethical and epistemological meaning of “rationalism” may have been the reason why Zilsel could not help sticking to rationalism in spite of his concomitant, evident empiricist attitude. In my paper I would argue for this hypothesis by following the already mentioned fil rouge through Zilsel’s Viennese works and by showing how his concepts of “rationalism”, “rational” and “rationalization” oscillate between an epistemological and an ethical meaning, thus generating that fundamental ambiguity which may have had unforeseen consequences for Zilsel’s epistemological standpoint.