Otto Neurath: Physicalism, Socialism, and the Foundations of economics

In this talk, I consider the work of Otto Neurath (1882-1945). Over the last 15 years or so, Neurath has received considerable attention by historians of philosophy of science as a member of the previously-neglected “Left Vienna Circle,” as a precursor to certain contemporary positions in the debate over the influence of ethical and political values in science, and as a pivotal figure in a certain narrative of the history of twentieth-century philosophy of science. (See, for example, Cartwright et al. 1996; Howard 2003; Okruhlik 2004; Reisch 2005; Howard 2006; O’Neill and Uebel 2008; Biddle 2013.) In the main part of the talk, I examine Neurath’s work on the foundations of economics in the 1910s and 1920s, roughly the period of time between the end of World War I and the first formation of the Vienna Circle. Neurath understands the aim of economics, as a domain of inquiry, to be fundamentally practical: improving “quality of life,” the material conditions for happiness. I show how he developed an economic methodology called “economics in kind” and argued that it is more directly relevant to improving quality of life than “monetary economics.” I go on to show how Neurath explicitly connected economics in kind to socialist economic planning and the political values of a general, pluralist kind of socialism, taking socialism in this sense to be the best way to improve quality of life. This narrative shows that three characteristic features of Neurath’s life and thought were brought together in his economics: his work as an economic planner, his empiricist epistemology-methodology, and his commitment to socialism and socialist values. Time permitting, I also take up a recent criticism by historian of science Sarah Richardson of historical scholarship on Neurath (Richardson 2009a, 2009b). Richardson argues that, while Neurath was a Marxist, he was a “Neutral Marxist,” who treated Marxism as an academic theory or a framework for politically-disengaged social science, rather than as a social movement, and that socialist values did not influence his work as a social scientist. Thus, in contrast with the above, Richardson claims that Neurath did have a “political philosophy of science.” I offer a tempered response to Richardson’s argument. This argument relies on unclear terminology that is not clearly relevant to contemporary debates over science and values, and when clarified it seems she is simply wrong to deny that Neurath had a “political philosophy of science.” However, I suggest that her critique is better understood as the claim that Neurath was committed to a kind of value neutrality that limits his relevance to contemporary problems of values in science. I conclude with some reflections on the relevance of Neurath to contemporary philosophy of science.