The Berlin Group in the Making: Politics and Philosophy in the Early Works of Hans Reichenbach and Kurt Grelling

Günther Sandner

University of Vienna

In interwar Germany, the Berlin Group centered around Hans Reichenbach, Walter Dubislav and Kurt Grelling was a decisive factor in continental logical empiricism (LE). At the same time that the Ernst Mach Society started to popularize the Vienna Circle’s philosophical program with public lectures and debates in Vienna of the late 1920s, the Berlin Society for Empirical/Scientific Philosophy functioned as a philosophical forum in the German capital. Additionally, these two associations edited the journal “Erkenntnis,” which was a cornerstone in the history of LE. Nevertheless, the Berlin Group’s independence and autonomy within the LE movement has been repeatedly stressed—not only by Reichenbach himself but also by current historical research. With respect to the Vienna Circle, it has repeatedly been discussed how the strong left-wing profiles of some of its proponents (such as Neurath, Hahn, Frank and Carnap) fit into the group’s scientific and philosophical program as it was outlined, for instance, in the manifesto “Scientific Conception of the World” (1929). In contrast to the Vienna Circle and the Ernst Mach Society, the other side of the LE coin—the Berlin Group including the Berlin Society for Empirical/Scientific Philosophy—is usually not seen in the context of politics. A closer look into the intellectual biographies of two of the Berlin Group’s core members, however, demonstrates that an alliance between early logical empiricism/neo-positivism and socialism—similar to Vienna—had been formed. During World War I and in the time around the November Revolution, both Hans Reichenbach and Kurt Grelling were not only young scholars but also strong political writers, debaters and activists. Hans Reichenbach was a committed and eloquent opponent of the German politics of war – a minor position even (or especially?) among academics and intellectuals. He became one of the leading left-wing representatives of the independent German Free Student Movement (Freistudentenschaft). Shortly after the November Revolution, he was the founder and first chairman of the Berlin Socialist Student Party and the author of its program. Like Reichenbach, Kurt Grelling was also active in the Free Student Movement. He participated in the debates on war guilt, and was a contributor to the Socialist Monthly Review (Sozialistische Monatshefte). Additionally he worked for a socialist trade union and became an activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in the Weimar Republic. In this period he explained his approach towards politics and philosophy. The presentation analyzes and compares the early philosophical and political activities of Hans Reichenbach and Kurt Grelling, and puts them in their historical context. Then it raises the question of how these early reflections influenced their later writings in philosophy and philosophy of science. Some general remarks on the relation between politics and philosophical program conclude the reflections.