Moritz Schlick

Moritz Schlick

Moritz Schlick around 1930
Born Friedrich Albert Moritz Schlick
April 14, 1882
Berlin, German Empire
Died June 22, 1936(1936-06-22) (aged 54)
Vienna, Austria
Alma mater University of Heidelberg
University of Lausanne
University of Berlin
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Analytic philosophy, Logical Positivism, Vienna Circle
Main interests
Logic, Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Mathematics, Ethics
Notable ideas
General theory of knowledge
Beobachtungssatz (observational statement)

Friedrich Albert Moritz Schlick (German: [ʃlɪk]; April 14, 1882 – June 22, 1936) was a German philosopher, physicist, and the founding father of logical positivism and the Vienna Circle.

Early life and works

Schlick was born in Berlin to a wealthy family, his father was Ernst Albert Schlick and his mother was Agnes Arndt. He studied physics at the University of Heidelberg, the University of Lausanne, and, ultimately, the University of Berlin under Max Planck. In 1904, he completed his dissertation essay, "Über die Reflexion des Lichts in einer inhomogenen Schicht" ("On the Reflection of Light in a Non-Homogeneous Medium"). After a year as Privatdozent at Göttingen, he turned to the study of Philosophy in Zurich. In 1907, he married Blanche Hardy[1] In 1908, he published Lebensweisheit ("The Wisdom of Life"), a slim volume about eudaemonism, the theory that happiness is the highest ethical pursuit. His habilitation essay, "Das Wesen der Wahrheit nach der modernen Logik" ("The Nature of Truth According to Modern Logic"), was published in 1910. Several essays about aesthetics followed, whereupon Schlick turned his attention to problems of epistemology, the philosophy of science, and more general questions about science. In this last category, Schlick distinguished himself by publishing a paper in 1915 about Einstein's special theory of relativity, a topic only ten years old. He also published Raum und Zeit in der gegenwärtigen Physik ("Space and Time in Contemporary Physics"), which extended his earlier results by applying Poincaré's geometric conventionalism to explain Einstein's adoption of a non-Euclidean geometry in the General Theory of Relativity.

The Vienna Circle and Wittgenstein

After early appointments at Rostock and Kiel, in 1922 Schlick assumed the chair of Naturphilosophie at the University of Vienna which had previously been held by Ludwig Boltzmann and Ernst Mach. Schlick displayed an unusual success in organizing talented individuals in the philosophical and scientific spheres. When Schlick arrived in Vienna, he was invited to lead a group of scientists and philosophers who met regularly (on Thursday evenings in the Chemistry Building) to discuss philosophical topics in the sciences. Early members included the mathematician Hans Hahn and, within a few years, they were joined by Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Kurt Gödel, Otto Neurath, Friedrich Waismann and others. They initially called themselves the Ernst Mach Association, but forever after they have been known as the Vienna Circle. In the years 1925-1926, the Thursday night group discussed recent work in the foundations of mathematics by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was a work that advanced, among other things, a logical theory of symbolism and a "picture" or "model" theory of language. Schlick and his group were impressed by the work, devoting considerable time to its study and, even when it was no longer the principal focus of their discussion, it was mentioned in discussion. Eventually Wittgenstein agreed to meet with Schlick and other Circle members to discuss the Tractatus and other ideas but he later found it necessary to restrict the visitors to sympathetic interlocutors. Through Schlick's influence, Wittgenstein was encouraged to consider a return to philosophy after some ten years away from the field. Schlick and Waismann's discussions with Wittgenstein continued until the latter felt that germinal ideas had been used without permission in an essay by Carnap, a charge of dubious merit. But he continued discussions in letters to Schlick after he no longer met with other Circle members.

General Theory of Knowledge and later works

Schlick had worked on his Allgemeine Erkenntnislehre (General Theory of Knowledge) between 1918 and 1925, and, though later developments in his philosophy were to make various contentions of his epistemology untenable, the General Theory is perhaps his greatest work in its acute reasoning against synthetic a priori knowledge. This critique of synthetic a priori knowledge argues that the only truths which are self-evident to reason are statements which are true as a matter of definition, such as the statements of formal logic and mathematics. The truth of all other statements must be evaluated with reference to empirical evidence. If a statement is proposed which is not a matter of definition, and not capable of being confirmed or falsified by evidence, that statement is "metaphysical", which is synonymous with "meaningless", or "nonsense". This is the principle upon which members of the Vienna Circle were most clearly in agreement — with each other, as well as with Wittgenstein.

Problems of Ethics

Between 1926 and 1930, Schlick labored to finish Fragen der Ethik (Problems of Ethics'), in which he surprised some of his fellow Circlists by including ethics as a viable branch of philosophy. In his 1932-33 contribution to Erkenntnis, "Positivism and Realism",[2] Schlick offered one of the most illuminating definitions of positivism as every view "which denies the possibility of metaphysics" (Schlick [1932-1933], p. 260). Accordingly he defined metaphysics as the doctrine of “true being”, “thing in itself” or “transcendental being”, a doctrine which obviously "presupposes that a non-true, lesser or apparent being stands opposed to it" (Ibid). Therefore in this work he bases the positivism on a kind of epistemology which holds that the only true beings are givens or constituents of experience. Also during this time, the Vienna Circle published The Scientific View of the World: The Vienna Circle as a homage to Schlick. Its strong anti-metaphysical stance crystallized the viewpoint of the group.

Comment on Wittgenstein's Tractatus

Carnap, in his book Logical Syntax of Language, included a comment by Schlick on Wittgenstein 's Tractatus.

Schlick ( [Wende] p.8 ) interprets Wittgenstein's position as follows: philosophy "is that activity by which the meaning of propositions is established or discovered" ; it is a question of "what the propositions actually mean. The content, soul, and spirit of science naturally consist in what is ultimately meant by its sentences; the philosophical activity of rendering significant is thus the alpha and omega of all scientific knowledge".
Carnap, p.284, Logical Syntax of Language

Schlick's murder

With the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Austrofascism in Austria, many of the Vienna Circle's members left for America and the United Kingdom. Schlick, however, stayed on at the University of Vienna. When visited by Herbert Feigl in 1935, he expressed dismay at events in Germany. On June 22, 1936, Schlick was ascending the steps of the University for a class when he was confronted by a former student, Johann Nelböck, who killed Schlick with a pistol. The court declared Nelböck to be fully compos mentis, he confessed to the act, was detained without any resistance, but was unrepentant. The delinquent used the judicial proceedings as a chance to present himself and his ideology in the public. He claimed that Schlick's anti-metaphysical philosophy had "interfered with his moral restraint". In another version of the events, the murderer covered up all political causes and claimed that he was motivated by jealousy over his failed attachment to the female student Sylvia Borowicka, leading to a paranoid delusion about Schlick as his rival and persecutor. Nelböck was tried and sentenced, but the event became a distorted cause célèbre around which crystallized the growing nationalist and anti-Jewish sentiments in the city. (The fact that Schlick was not Jewish did not seem to matter to propagandists capitalizing on the crime.) After the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938 the assassin was released on license after serving two years of a 10-year sentence.[3][4][5][6][7][8]


Schlick's enduring contribution to the world of philosophy is as the fount of logical positivism. His humanity, good will, gentleness, and especially his encouragement have been documented by many of his peers. Herbert Feigl and Albert Blumberg, in their introduction to "General Theory of Knowledge," wrote,

No other thinker was so well prepared to give new impetus to the philosophical questings of the younger generation. Though many of his students and successors have attained a higher degree of exactitude and adequacy in their logical analyses of problems in the theory of knowledge, Schlick had an unsurpassed sense for what is essential in philosophical issues.
Feigl and Blumberg, Introduction, General Theory of Knowledge, p. xxi



  1. Biography at Vienna University
  2. "''Erkenntnis'' vol. 3, 1932/33. English: translated by David Rynin" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-03-11.
  3. Stadler, Friedrich (2001). Documentation: The Murder of Moritz Schlick, in: Friedrich Stadler (ed.). The Vienna Circle. Studies in the Origins, Development, and Influence of Logical Empiricism. Vienna, New York: Springer. pp. 866–909. ISBN 978-3-211-83243-1.
  4. Silverman, Lisa (2012). Becoming Austrians: Jews and culture between the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 60–65. ISBN 978-0-19-979484-3.
  5. Lotz-Rimbach, Renata (2009). Mord verjaehrt nicht: Psychogramm eines politischen Mordes, in: Friedrich Stadler, Fynn Ole Engler (eds.). Stationen: dem Philosophen und Physiker Moritz Schlick zum 125. Geburtstag. Vienna, New York: Springer. pp. 81–104. ISBN 978-3-211-71580-2.
  6. Csendes, Peter (2006). Wien: Von 1790 bis zur Gegenwart. Vol. 3. Vienna: Boehlau. pp. 499f. ISBN 978-3-205-99268-4.
  7. Stadler, Friedrich (1997). Die andere Kulturgeschichte am Beispiel von Emigration und Exil der oesterreichischen Intellektuellen 1930-1940, in: Rolf Steininger, Michael Gehler (eds.). Oesterreich im 20. Jahrhundert. Ein Studienbuch in zwei Baenden. Von der Monarchie bis zum Zweiten Weltkrieg. Wien, Köln, Weimar: Boehlau. pp. 535–553. ISBN 978-3-205-98310-1.
  8. Malina, Peter (1988). Tatort: Philosophenstiege, in: Michael Benedikt, Rudolf Burger (eds.). Bewusstsein, Sprache und Kunst. Vienna: Boehlau. pp. 231–253.
  9. Reprinted in Vol. I/3 of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe
  10. Editors' preface reprinted in Vol. I/5 of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe, p.255-264
  11. Reprinted as Vol. I/1 of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe
  12. Reprinted in Vol. I/5 of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe, p.223-250
  13. Contribution to a competition of Scientific American; for background information see p.31ff in: Fynn Ole Engler, Moritz Schlick und Albert Einstein, MPI for the History of Science, 2006
  14. Reprinted in Vol. I/5 of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe, p.157-178
  15. Reprinted in Vol. I/6 of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe, p.33-56
  16. Reprinted in Vol. I/6 of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe, p.99-128
  17. Reprinted in Vol. I/3 of the Moritz Schlick Gesamtausgabe


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