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Edgar Zilsel was the youngest child of a lawyer, Jacob Zilsel and his wife, Ina Kollmer, and had two older sisters, Wallie and Irma. He attended high school at the Franz-Joseph-Gymnasium between 1902 and 1910 and then attended the University of Vienna where he studied philosophy, physics, and mathematics. He served in the military between August 1 and December 15, 1914 and received his PhD in 1915 while under the supervision of Heinrich Gomperz. His dissertation was entitled "A Philosophical Investigation of the Law of Large Numbers and related Laws". After working as a mathematician at an insurance company for a few months, he found a position as a teacher on February 16, 1917. He passed his teacher's examination on November 18, 1918 in mathematics, physics, and natural history.
Although linked to the Vienna Circle, Zilsel wrote criticizing the views of Circle members. As a Jewish Marxist he was unable to pursue an academic career in Austria. He participated actively in working people's education, teaching philosophy and physics at the Vienna People's University. From 1934 he taught mathematics and physics at a secondary school (Mittelschule) in Vienna.
As a philosopher, he combined Marxist views with the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. He regularly published articles in academic as well as socialist journals. An extended version of his PhD thesis was published as a book (The Application Problem: a Philosophical Investigation of the Law of Large Numbers and its Induction). Two other books, The Religion of Genius: A Critical Study of the Modern Ideal of Personality and The Development of the Concept of Genius: a Contribution to the Conceptual History of Antiquity and Early Capitalism were published in 1918 and 1926 respectively.
Zilsel managed to escape from Austria after the Anschluss, first to England and in 1939 to the United States where he received a Rockefeller Fellowship enabling him to devote time to research. He published many papers during these years of exile, including Sociological Roots of Modern Science. In 1943, he was invited by Lynn White to teach physics at Mills College in California, but shortly thereafter committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills.
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Zilsel proposed the Zilsel Thesis as an explanation for the rise of Western science. Zilsel claimed that the rise of capitalism led to the interaction of craftspeople with scholars. This interaction in turn led to the beginnings of early modern science. The craftspeople had been for the most part illiterate and looked down upon by the educated classes. The scholars were ignorant of practical craft activity. The intellectual theorizing of the crafts and the absorption of craft knowledge into the investigation of nature led to the development of experimental science.
Another theory of Zilsel was that the rise of the notion of laws of nature in early modern science was a product of the generalization of the juridical concept of law to natural phenomena. Just as the king lays down the legal laws for the nation, God lays down the laws of nature for the universe.
Zilsel's ideas were used by the historian of Chinese science, Joseph Needham to account for the lack of experimental science in traditional China despite the Chinese being in advance of the West in both technology and in many areas of natural history observation.
- Elisabeth Nemeth. Logical Empiricism and the History and Sociology of Science in Alan W. Richardson and Thomas Uebel (eds.). The Cambridge Companion to Logical Empiricism. Cambridge University Press. p. 293; ISBN 0-521-79628-8. Google Books; retrieved on April 19, 2011.
- Raven, Diederick and Wolfgang Krohn. "Edgar Zilsel: His Life and Work (1891-1944)", The Social Origins of Modern Science, ed. Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn and Robert S. Cohen (Dordrecht: Kuwer Academic Publishers, 2000), pp. xix-lix.
- The Vienna Circle manifesto lists 8 of his publications in a bibliography of closely related authors.
- Johann Dvorak, Edgar Zilsel, Wissenschaft und Volksbildung. In: Erwachsenenbildung in Österreich. Fachzeitschrift für Mitarbeiter in der Erwachsenenbildung, 45. Jg., 1994, H. 3, S. 7-14.
- J. Dvorak, Edgar Zilsel und die Einheit der Erkenntnis (Vienna: Löcker Verlag, 1981).
- Pamela O. Long, Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400-1600 (Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2011), 11-15.
- Edgar Zilsel, The Social Origins of Modern Science. eds. Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn, and Robert S. Cohen (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000); ISBN 0-7923-6457-0.
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- Biography (with photo), adulteducation.at; accessed August 26, 2016.(in German)