Some of the most important threads of modern thought passed through Vienna, not necessarily through the university but also through the coffee shops and private seminars. The best known were the circles of Schoenberg (progressive music) and the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. Others included a Freud group and seminars convened by Ludwig von Mises, Karl Menger (son of the great economist) and Richard Mises (brother of Ludwig).
The first of his three major books was The Theory of Money and Credit (1912) which applied the concept of marginal utility to money and also set forth the first version of the Austrian theory of the trade cycle. In 1913 he was appointed as a Professor at the university, not a paid post but one that entitled him to give lectures if he could attract an audience. Due to Menger’s inactivity during the 25 years before he died in 1921 and Boehm-Bawerk’s early death in 1914 it was left to Mises to consolidate the Austrian program, not by teaching undergraduate students but through his writing and his seminar where the leading lights included Hayek, Haberler, Machlup, Morgenstern in economics as well as Alfred Schutz and Felix Kaufman in sociology and philosophy.
These ideas on demarcation and induction formed slowly as Popper conducted endless discussions and debates with members of the inner Vienna Circle (Viktor Kraft and Herbert Feigl) and others on the periphery, such as Heinrich Gomperez. It was Herbert Feigl, after a nightlong session, who proposed that Popper should write a book. Hacohen provides a dramatic account of the writing, revision and publication of Logik der Forschung in 1934, one of a series of monographs produced by the Vienna Circle (it appeared in English in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery). All manner of problems intruded, political tensions were on the rise, the inner Circle members were divided on the acceptability of the book, Popper’s first effort had to be cut almost in half, the editor procrastinated for months before reading the manuscript, Popper was madly impatient to get into print and rubbed everyone up the wrong way, there were paper shortages, other books to be considered for publication in the series.
The Open Society and its Enemies is a monumental defence of democratic principles and a demolition of many pervasive ideas that render our traditions of rationality and tolerance dangerously fragile under the pressure of social and political crises. Chief among these is the utopian impulse to recreate society in the image of someone’s dreams. There is some debate as to whether Popper’s dramatic view of science as a succession of revolutions is consistent with the relative conservatism of his political philosophy. In fact there is no conflict because both garments are cut from the same cloth of critical rationalism, the spirit of criticism, respect for arguments, for the truth and for the rights of individual people.
There is an Australian connection with the English translation of Socialism. The official translator was an economist named Jacques Kahane. Walking in a London park Kahane encountered the Australian journalist, bohemian and editor Brian Penton (1904-1951). He was in England, acting as business manager for Jack Lindsay’s Franfolico Press. Penton and Kahane became close friends, indeed he was an occasional house guest with Penton and his wife, and they both dedicated their first books to him. In the case of Penton this was the almost unreadable Landtakers (on line with the Gutenburg Project of Australia. According to Penton’s biographer they collaborated in the translation and this encounter with the cutting edge of anti-socialist thought served Penton well when he challenged the pillars of the “Australian Settlement” (White Australia, tariffs and central wage fixing) in the 1940s.
“The immense pressure to find fresh material for research and criticism has meant that the field has been ransacked to its very dregs and many writers better left forgotten have been dug up and become the subject of serious critical studies.” So we have studies of the lesser known poems of the lesser known female poets of the Xth century.
The Australian poet, academic and critic A D Hope published “Literature versus the Universities” after a 1958 tour of Canada, Great Britain and the United States. He reported that the standards of scholarship and criticism were high but “I found myself getting more and more uneasy, until uneasiness in the end grew into a kind of nightmare”. Hope’s story began in the 19th century when the study of English literature began to displace the classics from the centre of university studies in the humanities. At the beginning of the 20th century English studies beyond the first degree were pursued by poorly paid and dedicated scholars who mostly carried on their studies for their own sake.
He made much of the idea of problem solving in the craft of the poet, grappling with the linked problems of organizing intellectual, emotional and technical aspects of the work into a coherent form. The work that the poet has to put into solving these problems should make him a more effective thinker and actor in the world; similarly the effort required to understand what the poet has done should help the attentive reader in much the same way. This is why he speaks of the best poetry as “a moral success in the face of certain experiences” and he contends that the degree of greatness in the work depends on the difficulty of the experience that had to be faced, assuming that technical perfection was achieved at the same time. He suggests that the great tragic poets such as Shakespeare, Hardy and Racine convey the impression of a victory over life itself ”so much is implicated in the themes”.
“Universities now have a high prestige and offer high rates of pay and good chances for advancement. English, from a new and not very utilitarian subject has become a high-pressure industry.” That means the doctorate is absolutely required for appointment and Hope had some difficulty in explaining how in Australia he could be a professor and head of department without being Dr Hope. Hence the pressure to publish or perish among graduate students and teachers as well. In the space of a generation research and scholarship shifted from a focus on the books to provide more knowledge, to provide good texts, to establish the canon of a writer’s works, and to clear up misunderstandings by historical criticism. “Now the purpose of nine-tenths of the research and criticism that goes on is to help the researcher to qualify in the great rat-race”.
As noted, Winters combined the careers of poet, critic, teacher and scholar despite resistance which he blamed on the ‘romantic’ view of creation. Under the influence of this doctrine, the critic came to be regarded as an inferior being, rather like a teacher who really should be doing something else if only he had the ability to do so. With this low regard for critics and commentators went the idea that the poet is set apart from the common herd, divorced from the mundane problems of the world and devoted to a special kind of communication that is only accessible to equally enlightened folk. Winters would have none of that. For him, creative literature and poetry are extensions of ordinary language, perhaps distinguished by a high level of skill and precision in achieving certain effects, but not set apart on the other side of a great divide. He also detested pure theory, divorced from the practical task of crafting words into poetry.
At the risk of arousing mirth in progressive circles, Winters declared himself an absolutist, that is, a person who believes in the existence of absolute truths and values. He did not suggest that he personally had access to these things, or that his own judgments were necessarily correct. However it is the duty of every man and of every society to try as far as may be to approximate to them. He suggested that our system of justice, our universities, and the practice of literary criticism itself presupposes the existence of various absolutes, despite all the arguments that are raised against this notion.