Wrongful Life

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Wrongful Life” – Logico-Empiricism’s Philosophy of Biology (Prague 1934 - Paris 1935 - Copenhagen 1936): With Historico-Political Intermezzos

by Gereon Wolters (University of Konstanz)

  1. Introduction

« J’estime que nous avons plus que personne des raisons d’être reconnaissants à nos amis français d’avoir organisé ce congrès. » - With these words Philipp Frank begins his Allocution Inaugurale to the Congrès International de Philosophie Scientifique on September 15, 1935 in the Palais Royale in Paris.1 I think they fit also 80 years later for the commemorative event here at Cerisy, and I would like to thank the organizers for all the work they have done, not least for gently coping with the high bureaucratic standards of this marvelous place.

My paper today is a revised edition of one published 16 years ago.2 Many things have changed in the meantime. Its central thesis, however, has essentially remained the same: Logico-empiricist philosophy of biology is not exactly a success story. In my earlier paper, I called it a case of “wrongful life”. “Wrongful life” is one of the peculiarities of the American legal system that are digestible with difficulties for somebody who grew up in Europe. Here is what Wiki tells us: “Wrongful life is the name given to a legal action in which someone is sued by a severely disabled child (through the child's legal guardian) for failing to prevent the child's birth.”3

Notwithstanding my great sympathies I do not regard myself as the legal guardian of logical empiricism. I would rather like to stick to philosophical and historical analysis. My thesis is that early logical empiricism – as it presented itself at the conferences at Prague (1934), Paris (1935), and Copenhagen (1936) - failed to develop a healthy philosophy of biology, understood as philosophical analysis of the presuppositions, structure, and consequences of biological science. There is, however, a proviso with respect to this negative assessment. Logical empiricists showed plenty of goodwill, and one notices even in the course of these three years between “Prague” and “Copenhagen” important improvements. In my view the major congenital defects of logical empiricism's philosophy of biology are:

(1) wrong people dealt with it;

(2) wrong ('ideological') framework was presupposed, which

(3) prevented actual problems of biological sciene.

Intermezzo I – “Paris 1935” - An Outstanding Conference

At this point, I would like to insert into my argument the first of a few intermezzos, in order to digress a bit from the sad topic of “wrongful life”. The Paris congress of 1935 was in my view the greatest congress ever in philosophy of science. Two factors make “Paris” stick out: The first is that it took a whole preliminary conference to prepare, the “Vorkonferenz des Ersten Internationalen Kongresses für die Einheit der Wissenschaft4 in Prague from August 31 to September 2, 1934. The second factor that makes “Paris” stick out is the extraordinary scientific quality of the participants. It somehow reminds me of the Solvey Conferences in theoretical physics.5 A quick look at the program of the Vorkonferenz already is awesome.6 I guess that quite a few people here at Cerisy know those people on the program at Prague: Ajdukiewicz, Carnap, Frank, Jörgensen, Morris, Neurath, Reichenbach, Łukasiewicz, Tarski, Zilsel. We, furthermore, know that there were others around, but not on the program, among them Maria Kokoszyńska, Janina Hosiasson-Lindenbaum, Ernest Nagel, Moritz Schlick, and Karl Popper.7 In addition to preparing “Paris” there was a second motive for organizing the Prague Vorkonferenz, namely, as (probably) Neurath put it: “to acquaint the representatives of the various tendencies” of what he called “anti-metaphysical empiricism”.8 This seems to have worked out nicely: Carnap, who taught at Prague University at that time, notes in his diary with a great sigh of relief at the end of the International Philosophy Congress, which followed the Vorkonferenz:

“Finally, day of rest. […] On occasion of the congress, we had invited and came: Łukasiewicz and his wife, Neurath, Hempel and Eva, Jörgensen and his wife, Ajdukiewicz, Tarski, Hosiasson, Frau Kokoschinska, Kaila, Schlick, Kaufmann and his wife, Grelling. Invited but not come: the Franks, Rougier, Reichenbach Jacobson.”

Nicely enough Carnap also notes, whom he had not invited:

“Petzäll and his wife, Menger, Neider, Ms Fraenkel, Hertz, Nagel, Dürr, Morris (but he was invited earlier), Smith, Zilsel, Popper (met him for lunch), Strauß, Hollitscher (met him before briefly in an afternoon), Meiner, Naess)”.9

Unfortunately, Carnap does not tell what his invitation criteria were. - We meet almost all of the Prague people and many more a year later in Paris. Have a look at the participant list (in alphabetic order):10

Kasimir Ajdukiewicz

Alfred Ayer

Bernfeld (Siegfried?)

Friedrich Bachmann

Albrecht Becker

A. Cornelius Benjamin

Hugo Bergmann

Albert Bollengier

Georges Bouligand

Richard Braithwaite

Egon Brunswik*

Rudolf Carnap

Claude Chevalley

Leon Chwistek

Dimitri Cuclin

André Darbon

Jean-Louis Destouches

Federigo Enriques

Herbert Feigl

Bruno de Finetti

Philipp Frank

Robert Gibrat

Ferdinand Gonseth

Thomas Greenwood

Kurt Grelling

Charles-Eugène Guye

Eduard Habermann

Olaf Helmer

Carl Gustav Hempel

Fritz Heinemann

Walter Hollitscher

A. Honnelaître

Janina Hosiasson-Lindenbaum


Stanisław Jaśkowski

Jørgen Jørgensen

Gustave Juvet


Marja Kokoszyńska

Tadeusz Kotarbiński

Albert Lautman

Pierre Lecomte du Noüy

Adolf Lindenbaum

Jan Łukasiewicz

G. Malfitano

Basilio Mania

Jean Mariani

Louis Massignon

Paul Masson-Oursel

George Matisse

Jacques Métadier

Charles Morris

Otto Neurath

Paul Oppenheim

Julien Pacotte

Alessandro Padoa

Gérard Pétiau

Karl R. Popper

Edward Poznański

Hans Reichenbach

Paul Renaud

Antoinette Reymond

Jules Richard

Louis Rougier


Bertrand Russell

Moritz Schlick*

Heinrich Scholz

Paul Schrecker

(Pawel?) Siwek

Eugeniu Sperantia

Alfred Tarski

Einar Tegen

Edgar Tranekjaer Rasmussen

Jean Ullmo

Général Voullemin

Emil J. Walter

Joseph Henry Woodger

Adam Wiegner

Aleksander Wundheiler

Zygmund Zawirski

P. Zervos

Edgar Zilsel

(The papers of Brunswik and Schlick were read, but the authors “were unable to appear personally”11).

Have you heard of any big conference in the philosophy of science with some 80 speakers, and so many first-rate people among them? Or, to put it differently, can you imagine that 80 years from now, in 2095, there would be a meeting commemorating our congress here at Cerisy, and people then would know from their own work one quarter to half of us here? - This is the end of Intermezzo I. - Back to wrongful life and the first congenital defect of logico-empiricism’s philosophy of biology:

  1. Wrong People

Checking the programs of the Prague, Paris and Copenhagen conferences confirms the impression of readers of the 1929 Manifesto of the Vienna Circle. The leading figures of early logical empiricism had their scientific background in mathematics or physics, or – in the case of Neurath - in economics. Nobody had studied, or seems to have been particularly interested in biology. Nobody of the inner circle of logical empiricism12 was to any extent aware of the epistemological and methodological problems that had arisen e.g. in the context of genetics or evolutionary theory. While logical empiricists in physics and mathematics were the philosophical avant-garde, they knew next to nothing about biology. What they actually talked about in a sort of biological context (vitalism, and reductionism) was rather irrelevant for understanding actual biological research.

I would like to emphasize, however, that early logical empiricists were aware of their shortcomings with respect to biology and soon started to search for help outside their circle. At the Prague Vorkonferenz, philosophy of biology is practically still inexistent. Not even one of the 12 or so talks deals with it.13 For the main event in Paris, however, the Vorkonferenz gives the programmatic promise that there “the logical foundations of the Wissenschaften in their entirety (emphasis mine) should be treated, and not only those of mathematics and physics”.14 This promise seems to have been taken seriously, indeed. First of all, hard core empiricists of the mathematical-physical persuasion started dealing with the topic of biology: In the summer semester 1935, Carnap, together with Frank, launched at the University of Prague a Colloquium on “Philosophical Foundations of Natural Science” (Grundlagenfragen der Naturwissenschaften), the first part of which should deal with "Physics and Biology". –

Second, Carnap and Neurath, and others tried to involve biologists for “Paris”. Here are a few quotes:

Neurath to the organizing committee for “Paris” (“The Five”15) on March 6, 1935: “It would be important to get biologists and so on, Woodger and so on.”16 Carnap to Neurath on May 10, 1935: “Please, get into contact with Dr. J. H. Woodger […] because of his talk on biology. He has declared his readiness.”17 Neurath to “The Five” on May 28, 1935: “Morris thinks that more biologists and sociologists would be desirable on the big committee. He proposes J.H. Woodger (he will give a talk!!!), J.B.S. Haldane, Joseph Needham.”18 Finally, Neurath to Carnap on July 15, 1935: “On the whole we must strive to give priority to concrete problems. Frank complains much that there is so little about special sciences. Not even physics. Therefore, Woodger should be at the very front and give a plenary talk. If Woodger is good, this is, finally, something new. Biology in logistic packaging. That must not be sunk in a special session.”19 – Neurath’s program mentions also a talk by the Swiss physicist Charles-Eugène Guye (1866-1942), one of Einstein’s teachers at the Swiss Polytechnic Institute at Zurich, entitled “On the transition of physico-chemistry to biology”. However, most probably this talk was never given.

A look at the actual program20 shows that of the about 80 talks and comments of the congress exactly three deal with biology. It is Philipp Frank’s „The Divide between physical and biological sciences, seen in the light of modern physical theories.”21 Pierre Lecomte du Noüy (1883-1947), a mathematician and biophysicist, talks on “On the Unity of Method in the Comparison of Physical and Biological Sciences”22 , and, finally Joseph Henri Woodger’s “An Axiom System for Biology”. As is well known, Philipp Frank had become professor of physics at Prague in 1912 on the recommendation of Einstein as his successor. To the best of my knowledge, this is Frank’s first dealing with biology.

Off to Copenhagen! Between June 21 and 26, 1936, there took place “The Second International Congress for the Unity of Science”. Its topic was “The Problem of Causality – With Special Consideration of Physics and Biology”.23 That “biology” appears in the title of the congress is a step forward, of course. In addition, the personnel has clearly improved. The first speaker was the most colorful English biologist J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964), who is inter alia one of the pioneers of the mathematical theory of evolution and of population genetics. Second, the Russian-American scholar Nicolas Rashevsky (1899-1972), one of the founders of mathematical biology, and third Georges Matisse (1874-1961), a more encyclopedic mind with a background in physics, who in Paris had still given a talk on philosophical pseudo-problems,24 and whom we will encounter shortly.

Intermezzo II – Philosophers at War

In 1915, twenty years before “Paris”, several participants lay in the trenches of World War I and tried to kill each other. Carnap, for example, enlisted already in the first days of the Great War and proudly notes in his diary on August 10, 1914: “medical examination […] accepted with the artillery”.25 A year later and 100 years ago, In September 1915, we find Carnap on drill in the Riesengebirge, a mountainous area, now part of the Czech Republic. On September 1, he notes: “I strongly feel like joining a machine gun course”.26 His enthusiasm, however, is marred by the fact that he had messed up a course for becoming a lieutenant, and had still to serve as a sergeant (Oberjäger): “In the evening in the “Brown Stag” again all lieutenants; feel very well among them, cordially grant them their good fortune, are nice to me. But I cannot get rid of the secondary object that I, too, could be where they are.”27 A few days later he writes: “The ill feeling about the other lieutenants has gone, but I feel very unsatisfied. […] It’s high time that I get to the battlefield.”28

A year later, in September 1916, Carnap, finally lieutenant, has got to the trenches of Verdun, and might have shot at French philosophers.29 At latest in early 1918, however, Carnap had become a pacifist. He was ordered by his commander30 not to send any more circulars to his friends like the one entitled “German Defeat – Senseless Fate or Guilt”. There one reads among other things:

“That state of mind in Europe, which rendered the Great War inevitable and until now its termination impossible had its principle breeding ground in Germany. […] I can here only briefly point to Germany’s position at the Hague Conventions [of 1899 and 1907] and the hatred of the other peoples as a consequence of this attitude; to the indifference and the ridicule, compared to other peoples, of our public opinion with respect to what happened at the Hague; to the weeks prior to the outbreak of the war; to the beginning of the year 1917, when the submarine war foiled the initial approaches to peace; to January 1918 with Wilson’s peace program and the military rule in Berlin. At latest now, in the context of constitutional reforms in these days, everyone must recognize how much in our country martial points of view were superior to political ones.”31

For Carnap it took a war to make him an anti-militarist. Reichenbach, in contrast, was an anti-militarist already prior to the war. In March 1914, the 23 year old student publishes a remarkable article, entitled “Militarism and Youth”:

“What people with a healthy sense puts off with respect to the effects of this educational system, is the inner untruthfulness that it nurses in young people, the dishonesty of the judgment about the problems of modern politics and the social life, the self-conceit of true national feeling that does not consist in crying hurrahs and in the glorification of militarism. Rather it tries to express itself in going to the bottom and in deepening the culture that is characteristic of one’s own people. […] Poor youth that throws away for playing soldier the most beautiful right of young people, i.e. having the possibility to live in a completely human way!” 32

It would be very interesting to have reports about philosophers of science particularly on the French and British fronts. Unfortunately, I do not know any.

Overall, I have found that the young philosophers of science in Germany showed little enthusiasm for the Great War.33 During the war, we find no war propagandist among them. Twenty years later, in Paris, one notorious German propagandist was among the speakers, a convert to scientific philosophy. In 1915, however, when the later logician Heinrich Scholz published three propaganda brochures, he was still a protestant theologian. Moreover, in 1917, when a fourth such pamphlet followed, he received a chair in systematic theology at Breslau, now the Polish Wrocław. – Incidentally, I found that also at least one of the French participants at Copenhagen, Georges Matisse, given the titles of his brochures seems to be a propagandist – but only at first glance. In 1915, he published Les Allemands – destructeurs des cathédrales et des trésors du passé, a title that invites comparisons to the Islamic State these days. The other brochure was explicitly addressed to the Germans: Aux Allemands : pourquoi n'êtes-vous pas aimés dans le monde?To the Germans: Why the World does not like you? Unfortunately, both brochures remained untranslated and, thus, reached only few of its addressees.34 This is the more regrettable because truthful Allied reports about German, Islamic-State like, activities in Belgium and Northern France were denounced in Germany as enemy propaganda. The other brochure is an analysis of the self-confessed Germanophile Matisse35 of the rise of a feeling of superiority among German elites that sounds fitting for somebody like me, who has read dozens of war talks and manifestos of German professors. Matisse qualifies this unrealistic German feeling of superiority those papers exhibit correctly as a prejudice (préjugé) and rightly summarizes “Nothing deforms judgment more than patriotism. Patriotism is a religion. As every religion, it makes unsympathetic, intolerant and excludes people.”36 – These days we see, by the way, a similar disproportion between hyperbolic self-assessments and sad reality, for example, in large parts of the Islamic world or in Russia.

I know only two confessing pacifists among European philosophers. Both were close to scientific philosophy: Bertrand Russell and Louis Couturat. Russell, who at Paris was arguably the most prominent participant, went to jail for his fight against compulsory military service, while Couturat was on August 3, 1914 among the first civilian victims of war. The French Wikipedia notes: « his vehicle was hit, indeed, by a vehicle that carried the mobilazation orders of the French army”.37 Russell, by the way, already in 1915 gave a short evaluation of the Great War that I find the best I have ever seen: „This war is trivial, for all its vastness. No great principle is at stake, no great human purpose is involved on either side.“38

  1. Wrong (“Ideological”) Framework

There is an interesting terminological insecurity with logical empiricists as to a generally accepted label for what they were doing. This insecurity, which I am going to document here from the Prague Vorkonferenz, is an indication of divergent ideas of what the whole movement was about. Neurath, the tireless organizer of unity, regards “anti-metaphysical empiricism” the mantra that should keep together the “various tendencies”. Charles Morris speaks of “scientific empiricism” and later of “scientific philosophy”, which Hempel, in his German summary, translates as “wissenschaftliche Philosophie” (p. 149). Neurath, is happy to adopt “scientism” (Szientismus), and two lines later uses “logicizing empiricism” (logisierender Emprismus). Ajdukiewicz speaks of “scientific world perspective” (wissenschaftliche Weltperspektive) and in another paper of “logistic anti-irrationalism”; Carnap distinguishes the wider Wissenschaftslehre, i.e. something like present day science studies, from the narrower, discipline-related logical analysis of science (Wissenschaftslogik).39 – In the correspondence, however, that Neurath conducts in preparing “Paris”, “Unity of Science” seems to become the concept that ought to unite the movement. In fact, the German title of “Paris” is “Erster Internationaler Kongress für Einheit der Wissenschaft”, while the addition to that title in French is “Congrès International de Philosophie Scientifique”.40 In Copenhagen, Erkenntnis gives only the German “Einheit der Wissenschaft”.41 At later congresses, the English „Unity of Science“ becomes the label.

Unfortunately, Morris and Carnap could not establish their terminological ideas. It seems fair to regard in the thirties “antimetaphysics” and “unified science” as the key labels for most logical empiricists. For the Berlin branch, however, and as it seems in Poland, too, antimetaphysics was not of primary concern, while it was a philosophical cornerstone for many in “Vienna”. In “Berlin”, antimetaphysics resulted, as it were, from well-conducted philosophy science, while in Vienna things worked the other way round.42 However, the difference in rank and emphasis that the battle against metaphysics took in “Berlin” and “Vienna”, respectively, does not seem to have been discussed explicitly between the two centers. “Berlin” had nothing to object to antimetaphysics, and “Vienna” was not disappointed about that, as long as Berlin delivered intellectual arms and contributed with its infrastructure in the dissemination of the scientific world-conception as an antidote to metaphysics. Antimetaphysics in the context of biology meant excluding from living nature every possibility of teleology or action of non-mechanical, and therefore possibly divine forces. This means, antimetaphysics in the context of philosophy of biology, relates to nothing else than the good old mechanism vs. vitalism controversy.

Unified science, in turn, meant nothing else than reduction of biology to physics. Physics is the model of empirical science. I think that this backward looking job description of philosophy of biology, i.e. antimetaphysics and reduction, is responsible for more than three decades of stagnation in this important philosophical field. In other words, problems alien to biological science, determined the agenda for philosophy of biology. One notices, nonetheless, in the three years between “Prague” and “Copenhagen” a growing dissatisfaction among the protagonists and the demand to approach biology in a different way.
Intermezzo III: Cruel Fates

“Paris 1935” was not only a congress that united people of unusual excellence. Unusual was also the cruel fate that expected a large number of the participants. To talk only about those, whose biographies I sufficiently know, 10 years after “Paris”, in 1945 at the end of World War II, the following people had fled the occupied parts of Europe: Brunswik, Carnap, Chwistek, Frank, Heinemann, Hollitscher, Lecomte du Noüy, Oppenheim, Popper, Tarski, Zilsel or had to hide as Enriques. Heinemann, Hempel, Neurath and Reichenbach in 1935 were already refugees from Germany and Austria, respectively.

The first to be murdered was Schlick, who in 1936 was shot by a psychologically disturbed student, whose crime was certainly favored by the Viennese clerico-fascist environment, hostile to the enlightenment-oriented logical empiricism.43 Grelling, Lautman, Janina Hossiasson-Lindenbaum and her husband Adolf Lindenbaum were murdered in German concentration camps or directly by the Gestapo.

Imagine again ten years from now about 20% of us emigrants and quite a few of us murdered.

  1. No Actual Problems of Biological Science

I mentioned earlier that the “Paris” organizers had identified biology as a field to be specifically considered. The first step in this direction was the colloquium “Physics and Biology”, organized by Carnap and Frank at Prague University in the summer semester 1935. It started on March 18, 1935 with Frank, who talked about “What do the new theories of physics mean for boundary questions between physics and biology?”44 Unfortunately, we do not know anything about the content of the talk. Probably, it did not differ very much, from what Frank said in Paris a few months later.

On May 27, 1935 Carnap himself gave a talk on “The relations between biology and physics: from the point of view of the logic of science” (“Die Beziehungen zwischen Biologie und Physik, vom Standpunkt der Wissenschaftslogik”) in the context of his lecture series “System der Wissenschaft”. According to Carnap’s notes for this lecture, it is the “task of biology: explanation of processes in living bodies through compilation of biological laws […] that have to be added to the physical laws in order to explain the processes in living bodies.”45 The relationship between the entire disciplines of physics and biology is hence reduced to the “relationship between biological and physical laws”.46 He sees two possibilities to formulate this thesis: First, “all biological concepts are via definition reducible to physical concepts […] Thus: all concrete statements and all laws of biology can be formulated in a physicalist language.”47 Second, “Possibility of deduction”. Whether biology may be deduced from physics, is for Carnap an “open question”. In any case, he is convinced: “Today not possible: particular biological laws. Whether possible later we do not know.”48 After some polemics against Driesch’s neo-vitalism, Carnap takes a clearly physicalist position: “I do not attach importance to the terminological question (“biology is branch of physics”) […] My thesis is simply: the relationship of biology to physics of the non-living analogous to the relationship of the theory of electricity to the physics of the non-electrical.”49 In short, Carnap’s talk gives less a philosophical analysis of biological science; he rather presents the usual anti-vitalism and reductionism business that characterizes early logical empiricism, as we have seen already. Carnap and the others could simply not do better, because they did not know sufficiently what contemporary biology was about. – Perhaps Carnap did not even understand what his biology colleagues said. In his diary Carnap writes: „Mo, 27.05.1935. dentist – 5 lecture. 71/4-91/2 colloquium. My talk „The relations between biology and physics, from the point of view of the logic of science”. [the plant physiologist Ernst] Pringsheim and [the botanist Adolf Alois] Pascher agree on the whole. [The plant physiologist and historian of science Josef] Gicklhorn has reservations against “too much physics”, but formulates them very unclear.”50 – I have once checked the entire volumes of Erkenntnis, in order to see, whether evolution is dealt with. I have only found one article by the botanist Walter Zimmermann (1892-1980), who writes about evolution on a couple of pages, contrasting it with idealist morphology.51

In the biology section in “Paris” there were talks by Philipp Frank (1884-1966), Pierre Lecomte du Noüy (1883-1947), a biophysicist who acted at the time of the conference as head of biophysics division of the Institut Pasteur52 and J. H. Woodger (1894-1981).

It would be exaggerated to say that the three talks were contributions to the philosophy of biology on a par with those to the philosophy of physics or mathematics. Frank rejects positions, which invoke Bohr’s interpretation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, in order to claim “that there exist in biological science laws of a spiritualist, holist or organizist sort instead of the laws that are used in physical science to determine observed phenomena.”53 Rather, the task is “to explain life in a mechanistic way”.54 Lecomte du Noüy’s talk “On the Unity of Method in Physical and Biological Sciences Compared to Each Other” is in my view the most interesting. Different from Frank, he warns against adopting physicalism in biology, and hints at what was later called “supervenience”. He summarizes:

“I hope to have shown […] one of the essential differences between problems posed by living matter, by organized beings and by raw matter. The ultimate elements are identical. One might imagine that the analytical method pushed to the extreme would be necessary and sufficient to deliver answers to all our questions. […] It seems, to the contrary, however, that the biological problems superposes itself [supervenes?, G.W.] at a certain level of complexity on the physical and chemical problem. It seems that the analysis is incapable to connect the teachings obtained beyond a certain threshold with those the biological methods disclose on this side.“55

Woodger, the great hope of the organizers, turns out to be a failure. He presents his unworldly idea of axiomatizing biology. Carnap, who promoted his invitation, notes disappointedly in his diary: “far too difficult, he speaks without the slightest empathy for the poor audience”.56 Poor Woodger’s talk was, by the way, for whatever reason not published, and not even summarized in the proceedings of the Paris Congress.57

Overall, in Paris was the promise to deal with “the logical foundations” also of biology, given in Prague, far from being fully kept

Off to Copenhagen again! Were things there better for philosophy of biology? The short answer is, yes a bit. As mentioned already, there were three talks in the biology section at Copenhagen: J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), Nicolas Rashevsky (1899-1972) and George Matisse (1874-1961). Let us start with Matisse. He could not come to the congress, but his talk was read. It aimed at rejecting finalistic approaches in biology by pointing to the fact that in inorganic systems we find already what Matisse calls “structures orientées”. Here is one of his examples: “When an electric current passes through a solution, all metallic ions of a mineral salt in solution direct themselves towards the cathode, and the radicals toward the anode.”58 Similarly, living systems should be seen in the context of a theory of structurally ordered systems that display regular order of their material components, often combined with a special direction of their elementary processes.59

Haldane’s and Rashevski’s talks are just reports of what is going on in their respective fields. In the case of Haldane this is population genetics, while Rashevski explores the possibility of using physic-mathematical methods in biology, in particular on the level of single cells and functional groups of cells. While Haldane hardly mentions any philosophical problem, Rashevsky makes at least clear that the use of mathematical methods in Biology requires idealization.60 In my view, Frank gives in his closing remarks to “Copenhagen” a fair résumé: “At the congress, Haldane has talked about genetics and Rashevski about the application of mathematico-physical methods in biology. We have invited those two researchers, in order to receive new suggestions for the search for the logical structure of science that can be found in every purely scientific theory that is free of metaphysics.”61 In Frank’s view the talks, thus, were rather biological raw material for philosophical analysis.

Briefly, from “Prague”, via “Paris” to “Copenhagen” we see a sort of positive gradient as to special problems in the philosophy of biology: It goes from zero in Prague via old questions in Paris to information about actual biological science, inviting philosophical analysis in Copenhagen. In a sense, the ground is now prepared to start philosophy of biology. It might well be due to political developments that one had to wait another twenty to thirty years for this.

Intermezzo IV – Languages

About “Paris” we read in the report in Erkenntnis, probably written by Neurath:

“Congress languages were German, English, and French. Single speakers used here one congress language, there another. Others appeared as translators of their own talks. Bertrand Russell gave his warm obituary on Frege in German. For the rest, the talks were translated in excerpt as necessary, only occasionally also parts of the discussion.”62

Eighty years later, at our commemorative event here at Cerisy, two of the “Paris” languages have remained, while German has gone. At most other international conferences nowadays, English is the only language. This is certainly a positive development. Having a lingua franca is a great asset, and there can be no doubt that English is the chosen language. In 1935, things were different. On the European continent, at least in Germany, more people had a certain knowledge of French than of English. After “Prague”, in late September/early October, 1934 Carnap made his first trip to England. His short notes in the diary often relate to language: September 27, 1934: “Things go very well, linguistically, I speak quite slowly, however”: - October 2, 1934 about a lunch with the Woodgers and Russell: “Russell, occasionally, speaks very good German. He proposes that I speak German and he English.” A bit later: “Partially very vivid conversation [of Russell] with Ms Woodger, too fast, so that I cannot quite follow.” – October 8, 1934: “My first talk 5:15 to 6:15. […] In the beginning I read very slowly, look in between at the audience. Only at the blackboard, I speak briefly without notes. I make an effort to pronounce distinctly; but it was possibly too slow.”63 – People at “Paris”, “Prague”, and “Copenhagen” were almost certainly in Carnap’s linguistic position with respect to one or two of the congress languages.

The problems Carnap describes here, are just one of the disadvantages that English as lingua franca carries with it for most people that do not have English as mother tongue. My talk here is just another proof of this. Many more asymmetries result from the fact that, different from Latin in the Middle Ages, the academic lingua franca of our days is the first language in a series of countries.64 I would like to make a counterfactual hypothesis: if a philosophical movement like logical empiricism would arise today outside the Anglophone world, it would not surface on the international level, because Anglophone, particularly American colleagues determine the topics of the international agenda. Thanks to the tireless international organizational efforts of Neurath, and thanks, sadly, to the emigration of the leading minds to the U.S., logical empiricism could flourish internationally, and not the least in the U.S.

  1. Conclusion

“Prague”, “Paris” and “Copenhagen” show the achievement or better non-achievement of logico-empiricist philosophy of biology. In Erkenntnis, for example, one finds a great number of outstanding and by now classical papers. The only outstanding contribution to the philosophy of biology, however, is in my view Kurt Lewin's classic "The Transition of the Aristotelian to the Galilean Mode of Thinking in Biology and Psychology" (Der Übergang von der aristotelischen zur galileischen Denkweise in Biologie und Psychologie). Ironically, this paper right at the outset takes exception to one of the pillars of logico-empiricist philosophy of biology:

"I do not have the intention, to infer deductively from the history of physics, in which way biology 'should' proceed. For, I am not of the opinion that there, finally, is only one empirical science, namely physics, to which all others are reduced".65

In a footnote Lewin talks about "a thesis with respect to 'unified science'", put forward by Carnap, twhich Lewin attests "an absolutely speculative character similar to older conceptions. It satisfies as little the requirements of considering the factual development of science as it does the requirements of mathematics".

To sum up: logical empiricists themselves in Erkenntnis did not contribute any remarkable work to the philosophy of biology. In addition, there does not seem to be any positive influence on the work related to philosophy of biology of those biologists, physicians, and philosophers to whom logical empiricism provided a platform. The only exception, Lewin, dissociates himself from a central logico-empiricist tenet. So, it took two to three decades after “Paris”, before the great ideas about logical analysis of science that logical empiricism had inaugurated could become fruitful for biology.


Actes (1936): Actes du Congrès International de Philosophie Scientifique. Sorbonne, Paris 1935, 8 vols., Paris (Hermann)

Frank, Philipp (1936): “Allocution Inaugurale”, in: Actes du Congrès Internationale de Philosophie Scientifiques : Sorbonne, Paris 1935, Vol 1 (Philosophie Scientifique et Empirisme Logique), Paris (Hermann & Cie), 13-15

Frank, Philipp (1936b) : « L’abîme entre les sciences physiques et biologiques vu à la lumière des théories physiques modernes », in: Actes du Congrès Internationale de Philosophie Scientifiques : Sorbonne, Paris 1935, Vol. 2 (Unité de la science), Paris (Hermann & Cie), 1-3

Frank, Philipp (1936c) : „Schlusswort“, in: Erkenntnis 6 (1936), 443-450

Haldane, John Burdon Sanderson (1936) : “Some Principles of Causal Analysis in Genetics”, Erkenntnis 6 (1936), 346-356

Lecomte du Noüy, Pierre (1936) : « Sur l’unité de la méthode dans les Sciences physiques e biologiques comparées »,in : Actes du Congrès Internationale de Philosophie Scientifiques : Sorbonne, Paris 1935, Vol. 2 (Unité de la science), Paris (Hermann & Cie), 4-14

Lewin, Kurt (1930/31): "Der Übergang von der aristotelischen zur galileischen Denkweise in Biologie und Psychologie", Erkenntnis 1 (1930/31), 421-466

Matisse, Georges (1915): Aux Allemands : pourquoi n'êtes-vous pas aimés dans le monde?, Lausanne (Ruedi)

Matisse, George (1915a): Les Allemands – destructeurs des cathédrales et des trésors du passé, nouvelle édition, Paris (Hachette)

Matisse, Georges (1936): « Les systèmes orientés et les êtres vivants », in : Erkenntnis 6 (1936), 367-373

Popper, Karl R. (1992): Unended Quest: an Intellectual Autobiography, London (Routledge)

Rashevsky, Nicolas (1936): „Physico-Mathematical Methods in Biological and Social Sciences“, in: Erkenntnis 6 (1936), 357-365

Reichenbach, Hans (1914): „Militarismus und Jugend“, in: Die Tat, Bd. 5, 1234-1238

Rougier, Louis (1936): “Allocution d’ouverture du congrès”, in: Actes du Congrès Internationale de Philosophie Scientifiques : Sorbonne, Paris 1935, Vol 1 (Philosophie Scientifique et Empirisme Logique), Paris (Hermann & Cie), 7-9

Stadler (2015): The Vienna Circle: Studies in the Origins, Development, and Influence of Logical Empiricism, Cham (CH) (Springer), 2nd rev. ed. (= Vienna Circle Institute Library, Vol. 4) (German original: Studien zum Wiener Kreis. Ursprung, Entwicklung und Wirkung des Logischen Empirismus im Kontext, Frankfurt (Suhrkamp) 1997)

Wolters, Gereon (1999): ”Wrongful Life: Logico-Empiricism´s Philosophy of Biology”, in: Maria Carla Galavotti/Alessandro Pagnini (eds.), Experience, Reality, and Scientific Explanation. Essays in Honor of Merrilee and Wesley Salmon, Dordrecht (Kluwer), 187-208

Wolters, Gereon (2013): „European Humanities in Times of Globalized Parochialism”, Bollettino della Società Filosofica Italiana No. 208 (2013), 3-18

Wolters, Gereon (2015): “Wissenschaftsphilosophen im Krieg – Impromptus“ (in print)

Woodger, Joseph H. (1937): The Axiomatic Method in Biology, Cambridge (University Press)

Zimmermann, Walter (1937/38): *, Erkenntnis * (1937/38), *

1 Frank (1936), 13.

2 Wolters (1999).

3 Seen May 30, 2015.

4 Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 1. – “Preparatory Congress for the first International Congress for the Unity of Science”.

5 A good overview at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvay_Conference (seen June 2015).

6 Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 2. There we find also the other names mentioned here, with the exception of Popper.

7 Popper (1992) reports that he took the page proof of the Logik der Forschung with him to Prague and discussed about his rejection of induction particularly with Janina Hosiasson who “could not believe that anybody could seriously argue against induction” (*) – The contributions of Hosiasson, Nagel and Schlick at the International Congress of Philosophy that followed the Vorkonferenz were published in Erkenntnis 5 (1935) among the papers of the Vorkonferenz.

8 Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 1.

9 „Endlich Ruhetag […] Bei Gelegenheit des Kongresses waren bei uns eingeladen und gekommen: Łukasiewicz und Frau, Neurath, Hempel und Eva, Jörgensen und Frau, Ajdukiewicz, Tarski, Hosiasson, Frau Kokoschinska, Kaila, Schlick, Kaufmann und Frau, Grelling. – eingeladen, aber nicht gekommen: Franks, Rougier, Reichenbach, Jacobsoson. – nicht eingeladen: Petzäll und Frau, Menger, Neider, Frau Fraenkel, Hertz, Nagel, Dürr, Morris (aber früher), Smith, Zilsel, Popper (aber vorher mittags), Strauß, Hollitscher (vorher einen Nachmittag kurz), Meiner, Naess.“ (PAUK RC *)

10 Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 295-296, and Stadler (2015), 366-371

11 Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 379)

12 To the hard core I count from Vienna Carnap, Feigl, Frank, Neurath, Schlick, and Zilsel, from Berlin Hempel and Reichenbach, and several of the Polish allies, among them Ajdukiewicz, Hossiasson, and Tarski. – One should note, however that the Berliners had remarkably opened up to people from medicine and psychology (cf. Stadler (2015), xxvii).

13 Strangely enough, there was a section „Physics, Probability, Biology“ (cf. Stadler (2015), 357). Probably Zilsels “Jordan’s Attempt to Save Vitalism through Quantum Mechanics” was regarded as belonging to “Biology”.

14 Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 1: „Die logischen Grundlagen des Gesamtgebietes der Wissenschaften sollten behandelt werden, nicht nur die der Mathematik und Physik.“.

15 „The Five“ were: Carnap, Frank, Neurath, Reichenbach, and Rougier (cf. Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 299).

16 „Es wäre wichtig, Biologen usw. zu bekommen, Woodger usw.“ (PAUK: RC 029-11-75).

17 „Bitte setze Dich mit Dr. J. H. Woodger […] wegen seines Biologievortrags in Verbindung. Er hat sich dazu bereit erklärt.“ (PAUK: RC-029-09-56)

18 „Morris meint, mehr Biologen und Soziologen erwünscht im großen Komitee. Er schlägt vor J.H. Woodger (Er wird einen Vortrag halten!!!!). J.B.S. Haldane, Joseph Needham,“ (PAUK: RC 029-09-51).

19 „Im Ganzen müssen wir uns bemühen, die konkreteren Probleme in den Vordergrund zu schieben. Frank klagt sehr, dass so wenig Einzelwissenschaftliches kommt usw. Nicht einmal Physik. Daher soll Woodger vorn sein und gemeinsam. Das ist- wenn Woodger tüchtig ist – endlich mal was Neues. Biologie in logistischer Aufmachung. Das darf noch [doch?] nicht in einer Sektion untergehn.“ (PAUK: RC029-09-24).

20 Cf. Stadler (1997), 406-412. - Stadler reproduces the program as given in the Actes (1936). Strangely enough, the important talk of Woodger is missing there. It is, however, mentioned both in the program that Neurath published before the congress as well as in his report about it in Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 295 and 385.

21 Read in French : « L’abîme entre les sciences physiques e biologiques, vu à la lumière des théories physiques modernes ».

22 Also read in French: « Sur l’unité de la méthode dans les sciences physiques et biologiques comparées ».

23 Cf. Stadler (2015), 372ff. – A collection of talks and summaries is in Erkenntnis 6 (1936), 275-450.

24 Published in Actes (1936), vol. III (Language et pseudo-problèmes), 41-49.

25 „Untersuchung […] bei der Artillerie angenommen“ (PAUK: RC 025-71-06).

26 PAUK: RC 025-71-08 – „Ich bekomme große Lust zum MG Kursus“ (Sept. 1, 1915).

27 PAUK: RC 025-71-08 – „Abends im Braunen Hirsch wieder alle Leutnants; fühle mich sehr wohl unter ihnen, gönne ihnen das Glück herzlich, sind nett zu mir. Ich kann aber den ständigen Nebengedanken nicht loswerden: so weit könnte ich jetzt auch sein.“ (Sept. 5, 1915).

28 PAUK: RC 025-71-08 – „Die Missstimmung über die anderen Leutnants bin ich los, aber fühle mich doch sehr unbefriedigt. […] Es wird höchste Zeit, dass ich bald ins Feld komme.“ (Sept. 12, 1915).

29 PAUK: RC 025-71-12:1.

30 PAUK RC 089-72-03 (September 11, 1918)

31 PAUK: RC 089-72-04 (page 15): „Die Geistesverfassung Europas, die den Weltkrieg unvermeidbar und dann seine Beendigung bisher unmöglich machte, hat ihren Hauptnährboden in Deutschland. […] Ich kann hier nur kurz hinweisen auf Deutschlands Haltung bei den Haager Conferenzen und den Hass der anderen Völker als Folge davon; auf die Gleichgültigkeit und den Spott unserer öffentlichen Meinung gegenüber dem, was im Haag geschah, im Vergleich zu den anderen Völkern; auf die Wochen vor Ausbruch des Krieges, auf den Anfang des Jahres 1917, als eine schon begonnene Anbahnung zum Frieden durch den U-Bootkrieg zunichte gemacht wurde; auf den Januar 1918 mit den Ereignissen des Wilson’schen Friedensprogramms und der Berliner Militärherrschaft. Spätestens jetzt bei den Verfassungsreformen dieser Tage müssen doch jedem die Augen darüber aufgehen, wie sehr bei uns der kriegerische Gesichtspunkt dem politischen übergeordnet war.“

32 Reichenbach (1914), 1237f.: „Was den gesund Empfindenden an der Wirkung dieses Erziehungssystems abschrecken muss, das ist die innere Unwahrhaftigkeit, die hier in der Jugend großgezogen wird, die Unehrlichkeit des Urteils über die Probleme der modernen Politik und des sozialen Lebens, die Verblendung des wahren Nationalgefühls, das nicht in Hurrageschrei und Verherrlichung des Militarismus besteht, sondern in der Ergründung und Vertiefung der dem Volke eigenartigen Kultur seinen Ausdruck sucht. […] Arme Jugend! Die das schönste Recht der Jugend, ganz Mensch sein zu dürfen, hergibt, um Soldat zu spielen!“

33 Cf. Wolters (2015).

34 In German Public Libraries, I could not trace a single copy of the first, only two of the second.

35 Cf. Matisse (1915), p. 1f. : « Lorsque je viens, il y a une vingtaine d’années, en Allemagne, je fus séduit par le charme des petites villages du centre de la Thuringe, qu’entourent des collines boisées d’une beauté sobre et intime. La vie qu’on y menait alors, l’accueil bienveillant des habitants, leur amabilité souriante, leur bonne grâce familiale m’inspirent une sympathie profonde pour le peuple allemand, et pour son caractère dans ce qu’il a de foncier. Elle n’est pas éteinte depuis. Quelques amis ne me le pardonnent guère aujourd’hui. »

36 « Rien ne déforme plus le jugement que le patriotisme. Le patriotisme est une religion. Comme toute religion il rend incompréhensif, intolérant, exclusif. » (Matisse (1915), 18).

37  »sa voiture fut en effet heurtée par la voiture portant les ordres de mobilisation de l'armée française », seen October 10, 2014.

38 Zitiert nach Hoeres (2004), 185

39 Erkenntnis 5(1935), 1 (Neurath I); p. 6 (Morris I), p. 142 (Morris II); p. 16 (Neurath II); p. 16 (Neurath III); p. 22 (Ajdukiewicz I), p. 151 (Ajdukiewicz II); p. 30 (Carnap)

40 Erkenntnis 5(1935), 300.

41 Erkenntnis 6 (1936), VI, 137.

42 Cf. the self-presentation of the two groups in Erkenntnis 1 (1930/31), 72-74.

43 Stadler (2015), 869-909 gives a fascinating documentation of the case. – The murderer received a ten years sentence, and was already released from jail in 1938.

44 Carnap notes: „“Heute Referat von Frank: „Was bedeuten die neueren Theorien der Physik für die Grenzfragen zwischen Physik und Biologie? Frank trägt gut vor.“ (PAUK: RC 025-75-13)

45 „Aufgabe der Biologie: Erklärung der Vorgänge an lebenden Körpern durch Aufstellung der biologischen Gesetze […d.h.] Gesetze, die zu den physikalischen hinzukommen werden müssen.“(PAUK: RC 110-07-07)

46 “Beziehung zwischen Biologie und Physik = Beziehung zwischen biologischen und physikalischen Gesetzen.“ (PAUK: RC 110-07-07)

47 „alle biologischen Begriffe sind durch Definitionen zurückführbar auf physikalische Begriffe. […] also: alle konkreten Sätze der Biologie sind formulierbar in einer physikalistischen Sprache“ (PAUK: RC 110-07-07).

48 “Heute nicht möglich: eigene biologische Gesetze. Ob später einmal möglich, wissen wir nicht.“ (PAUK: RC 110-07-07).

49 „Auf die terminologische Frage („Biologie ist Zweig der Physik“) will ich nicht Wert legen […] Meine These ist nur: Verhältnis der Biologie zur Physik des Nicht-Belebten analog dem Verhältnis der Elektrizitätslehre zur Physik des Nicht-Elektrischen.

50 „Mo, 27.05.1935 Zahnarzt. 5 Vorlesung. 71/4 – 91/2 Colloquium. Mein Vortrag “Die Beziehungen zwischen Biologie und Physik, vom Standpunkt der Wissenschaftslogik”. Pringsheim und Pascher sind im ganzen einverstanden. Gicklhorn hat Bedenken wegen „zu viel Physik“, formuliert sie aber sehr unklar. (*)

51 Zimmermann (1937/38), p. 25f

52 The English Wikipedia entry (different from the French one) is very informative (accessed June 2015).

53 « qu’il y ait dans les sciences biologiques des lois de caractère spiritualiste, totalitaire ou organiciste au lieu des lois qui interviennent pour régir les phénomènes observés dans les sciences physiques » (Frank (1936b), 3).

54 « expliquer la vie de façon mécanique » (Frank (1936b), 1).

55 « J’espère avoir montré […] une des différences essentielles entre les problèmes posés par la matière vivante, par des êtres organisées et par la matière brute. Les éléments ultimes étant identiques, on pouvait imaginer que la méthode analytique poussée à l’extrême était nécessaire et suffisante pour fournir les réponses à toutes nos questions. […] Il semble bien, au contraire, que le problème biologique se superpose, à un certain degré de complexité, au problème physique et chimique, et que l’analyse soit incapable de relier les renseignements obtenus au-delà d’un certain seuil, à ceux que les méthodes biologiques leu révèlent en deçà.» (Lecomte du Noüy (1936), 13.

56 “”viel zu schwierig, spricht ganz ohne Einfühlung in das arme Publikum“ – Carnap, Diaries, Philosophisches Archiv der Universität Konstanz (PAUK) (RC 025-75-13)

57 Woodger (1937) gives arguably an idea of what he said in Paris.

58  »Quand un courant électrique traverse unse solution, tous les ions métalliques d’un sel minéral dissous se dirigent vers la cathode et les radicaux vers l’anode. » (Matisse (1936), 370)

59 This is almost a translation fo C. G. Hempels summary in Erkenntnis 6 (1936), 374: “Der Verf. selbst vertritt die Auffassung, dass die Lebenserscheinungen auf Grund einer Theorie der Systeme mit struktureller Organisation (d.h. mit regelmäßiger Ordnung ihrer materiellen Bestandteile und häufig mit besonderer Gerichtetheit der in ihnen stattfindenden Elementarprozesse) zu erklären seien“.

60 Cf. Haldane (1936), Rashevsky (1936).

61 Frank (1936c), 448.

62 „Kongresssprachen waren Deutsch, Englisch, Französisch, einzelne Redner bedienten sich bald der einen bald der anderen Kongresssprache, einzelne traten als Übersetzer ihrer eigenen Reden auf. Bertrand Russell hielt seinen warm empfundenen Nachruf auf Frege in deutscher Sprache. Im übrigen wurden sie Vorträge nach Bedarf auszugsweise übersetzt, nur gelegentlich auch Teile der Diskussion.“ (Erkenntnis 5 (1935), 379.).

63 „Es geht sprachlich sehr gut, aber ich spreche ganz langsam.“ – „Russell spricht zwischendurch sehr gutes Deutsch. Er schlägt vor, dass ich deutsch und er englisch spreche. […] Teilweise lebhaftes, zu schnelles Gespräch mit Frau Woodger, dem ich nicht ganz folgen kann.“ - „Mein erster Vortrag 51/4- 61/4 […] Ich lese anfangs sehr langsam, sehe dazwischen die Leute an; nur an der Tafel spreche ich kurze Zeit frei. Ich bemühe mich, deutlich zu auszusprechen; aber es war wohl zu langsam.“ (PAUK RC 025-75-12)

64 Cf. e.g. Wolters (2013).

65„Ich habe nicht die Absicht, aus der Geschichte der Physik deduktiv zu schließen, was die Biologie tun 'soll'. Denn ich bin nicht der Meinung, daß es letzten Endes nur eine einzige Wissenschaft, die Physik, gibt, auf die alle übrigen zurückgehen." (Lewin (1930/31), 423)

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