Friedrich Waismann

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Friedrich Waismann (21 March 1896 – 4 November 1959) was an Austrian mathematician, physicist, and philosopher. He is best known for being a member of the Vienna Circle and one of the key theorists in logical positivism. He was of Jewish descent, his father being Russian, his mother German. He studied mathematics and physics at the University of Vienna and became an assistant to Moritz Schlick, a collaboration that guided the trajectory of Waismann's subsequent intellectual work and career.

Waismann developed the concept of linguistic open texture, which describes the failure of natural languages to determine future usage, particularly the ability of predicates to permit the construction of borderline cases.

Schlick, professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna, was shot on the steps of the university by Johann Nelböck, one of his former students, on 22 June 1936.

Schlick was among the first to explore the philosophical implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity, and also had a personal relationship with the scientist, having played with him in a chamber group after meeting him in Germany. The fact that eight of the 14 members of the Wiener Kreis school of philosophy (the group he helped found in 1924) were Jews, along with its general liberal ideology and modern, anti-speculative philosophy, secured its place in the category of the “Jewish”. In addition, his visible support of Jewish doctoral students such as Herbert Feigl, who was not able to gain a position as Privatdozent in Vienna after gaining his doctorate in 1928 due to antisemitism, and Waismann, whose position as librarian was terminated in January 1936 for the same reason, also fostered the belief that Schlick, too, was Jewish. By the time he was appointed Chair of Philosophy at the University of Vienna in 1922, the use of antisemitism as a way to express opposition to the philosophical ideals of those like Schlick was already in vogue. A group of his academic opponents unsuccessfully attempted to block his university appointment. 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. After the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938 the assassin was released on license after serving 2 years of a 10 year sentence.

When Waismann moved to Oxford, he became a key participant in J.L. Austin's series of “Saturday Morning” discussion sessions, which involved detailed discussions of a number of philosophical topics and works, including Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Frege's Grundlagen, Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, and Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures. In the summer of 1930 Wittgenstein and Waismann collaborated on a project based on a principal of the form 'The sense of a proposition is the way it is verified'. A rewritten version of the proposed book appeared as "The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy" in 1965.

A.W.B. Simpson, fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, Oxford from 1955-1973, wrote:

I well recall the day of Waismann's funeral. Hart, who had considerable respect for him, attended, and arrived late at the Hart group, wrapped in his gown, which was soaked in heavy rain. Waismann was a Jew...and the philosophers, after silently consigning Waismann to his grave, were about to leave when Ryle lept onto a nearby tabular gravestone and delivered an extempore Periclean oration. The proceedings, attended only by philosphers, all in soggy flapping academic dress, resembled a gathering of immense crows clustered around a carrion, and excited the bewildered attention of some passing locals. But this was Oxford, and the burial took place close to the site of Osney Abbey, near the railway station, where the trains in those days always paused as a token of respect as they entered the city of dreaming spires. So was buried the Oxford philosopher who had enjoyed or perhaps suffered the longest connection with Wittgenstein.

A.W.B. SimpsonReflections on 'The Concept of Law'

GIlbert Ryle was one of Waismann's chief supporters at Oxford, and in his Grabrede, later printed, spoke of Waismann's love of truth:

We are here to say "goodbye" to Friedrich Waismann. He was our colleague and friend. But above all we learned from him. We think through him and he thinks through us. He was exiled from his own homeland; he lost his wife; he lost his son. He was buoyed up by no personal hopes, he was drawn on by no personal ambitions. But he kept his courage and he continued to search. He cut himself loose from the comfortable half-truths in which our minds love to repose. He cut himself loose from those harsher half-truths to which our minds swing in the impatience of mere revolt. For Waismann a half-truth, whether conservative or revolutionary, was a distorting mirror. Vision begins when distortions repel and no longer attract the eye. I quote his own words - 'A philosophy is there to be lived out. What goes into the word dies: what goes into the work lives.' Freidrich Waismann is dead; his work is alive.

G. RyleOxford Memories of Freidrich Waismann in Friedrich Waismann - Causality and Logical Positivism


Early life and early interest in philosophy[edit]

Born in Vienna, Waismann was educated in mathematics and physics at the University of Vienna. In 1922, he began to study philosophy under the tutelage of Moritz Schlick, the founder of the Vienna Circle. He emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1938. He was a reader in philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge from 1937 to 1939, and lecturer in philosophy of mathematics at the University of Oxford from 1939 until his death.

Relationship with Wittgenstein[edit]

Intermittently, from 1927 until 1936, Waismann had extensive conversations with Ludwig Wittgenstein about topics in philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of language. These conversations, recorded by Waismann, were published in Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (1979, ed. B.F. McGuinness). Other members of the Circle (including Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, and Herbert Feigl) also spoke with Wittgenstein, but not to Waismann's extent.

At one point in 1934, Wittgenstein and Waismann considered collaborating on a book, but these plans fell through after their philosophical differences became apparent.

Waismann later accused Wittgenstein of obscurantism because of what he considered to be his betrayal of the project of logical positivism and empirically-based explanation.[2] Ultimately the texts for the project, written or just transcribed by Waismann, have been published by Gordon Baker in 2003.[3]

Linguistic philosophy and logical positivism[edit]

In Introduction to Mathematical Thinking: The Formation of Concepts in Modern Mathematics (1936), Waismann argued that mathematical truths are true by convention rather than being necessarily (or verifiably) true. His collected lectures, The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy (1965), and How I See Philosophy (1968, ed. R. Harré), a collection of papers, were published posthumously.

Porosity and verifiability[edit]

Waismann's concept of open texture, or porosity, has been very influential in legal philosophy through the writings of H.L.A Hart (See Hart's The Concept of Law about Rule Skepticism and Waismann's article "Verifiability".)


  1. ^
  2. ^ Shanker, S., & Shanker, V. A. (1986), Ludwig Wittgenstein: critical assessments. London: Croom Helm,50-51.
  3. ^ The Voices of Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Waismann, Transcribed, edited and with an introduction by Gordon Baker, London:Routledge, 2003. On page xvii the editor asserts that "Like Ludwig Wittgenstein und der Wiener Kreis, this book is the publication of an important part of Waismann’s Nachlass, and authorship is therefore appropriately ascribed to Waismann."

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